The drive on Interstate 35 between San Antonio and Austin always has been fraught with frustration. When lanes are added, construction turns into bottlenecks. By the time new ones are finished, thousands more vehicles are on the road as the population soars. By 2050, demographers project there will be 2 million more cars in the region.
For as long as I can remember, folks have been trumpeting exciting news about projects certain to ease the gridlock, only to have them turn into the dreaded POTS (bureaucratic-speak for Plans on the Shelf). Back in 1989, former Lt. Gov. Ben Barnes’ high-speed Texas train project raised more than $70 million — and then went off the rails. In ’97, the Legislature created the Lone Star Rail District to ease Austin-to-SA traffic. Nearly twenty years, $25 million and a million dashed hopes later, LSRD went belly up, too.
Meanwhile, traffic keeps getting more clogged.
Recent reports of a new federal transportation plan, aiming to greatly expand America’s railroads, has given some travelers optimism. However, even an enhanced Amtrak San Antonio-Austin schedule would make little difference. The trains don’t go any faster than the traffic – usually a little slower, sometimes a lot slower.
Kevin Wolff, a former San Antonio councilman, Bexar County commissioner and past Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization chairman, downplays Amtrak’s role in relieving intercity congestion.
“It’s nice if you want to take a leisurely train trip,” Wolff said. “But, Amtrak runs on mostly Union Pacific track, and UP doesn’t care about passengers. They care about freight.”
Wolff once told me: “You can’t build enough roads to keep up with congestion.” However, building roads is a lot cheaper than building rails.
Even so, Texas Central, an international railway consortium based in Dallas, has announced plans to start construction this year on a high-speed rail line connecting Houston and Dallas at speeds of up to 200 mph. If the plan succeeds – a big if – it could revive a San Antonio-to-Austin line.
Bexar County Judge Nelson Wolff, Kevin’s dad, is skeptical.
“It would take God’s intervention for us to have high-speed rail,” he once said.
Managed traffic lanes may be a better answer. As AAMPO chair, Kevin Wolff said he helped ensure options to allow future leaders to designate new I-35 lanes as “managed” exclusively for mass transit or freight – maybe even the autonomous trucks and cars of the not-so-distant future. Current plans are to add two new lanes in each direction on I-35 between Austin and San Antonio, with some of the work already underway.
Commuter-bus traffic in designated high-occupancy-vehicle lanes could be one solution. Former Mayor Henry Cisneros also touted the idea when he worked on the ConnectSA initiative for VIA Metropolitan Transit.
Currently, three private bus lines make the trip almost hourly. Dedicated mass-transit lanes for multiple-passenger transit or freight-carrying vehicles could be a positive step toward easing I-35 congestion.
For commuters, there may be a light at the end of the tunnel. But, it probably isn’t a train. What do you think?