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Council OKs changes to Lone Star Rail agreement

Friday, December 12, 2014 by Michael Kanin

Austin City Council members Thursday approved a set of amendments to an interlocal agreement with the Lone Star Rail District. The action clears the way for rail district officials to count the city — and funding derived from special taxing districts around eight potential Austin stops — among its support as it moves forward with the project.

According to Lone Star Director Joe Black, that support, combined with other municipalities, will allow the organization to seek other funding that could allow for the completion of the project.

“This was very important,” Black told the Monitor. “One of the things about the local funding is that we have to secure local funding sources for the operations and maintenance of the system before we can go after those capital funds.”

“Basically, the federal government — or any potential capital funder — is not going to hand over potentially hundreds of millions of dollars if you can’t show that you can maintain what they’ve built,” Black added.

Among other items, changes in the deal raise the amount of tax revenue dedicated to Lone Star Rail through various tax increment districts around its stations to 50 percent of the increase in property values.

Council action came on the last voting day for the current body. It also came after staff laid out concerns that a gap in state law means that an attempt to offset revenue lost via the new tax districts  — staff put the figure between $1 million and $1.3 million — couldn’t quite happen.

Lone Star Rail officials will push for the change at either this legislative session or the next.

Black told the Monitor that the project is expecting results from an Environmental Impact Study by 2017. That timeline, he added, is firm. Those results would open the door to a design build process, an effort that is not as clear timewise.

Black noted that the earliest trains might operate would be 2020. He added that, though there will be express service between Austin and San Antonio as part of the service, Lone Star Rail believes the most popular uses could be more local.

“I think the bigger market is for the local service,” said Black. “Right now, based on our calculations, a ride on the train from San Marcos to downtown Austin, for example, would be 30 minutes, and it would be the same from Georgetown. We think that’s the more important market … It’s more important, I think, really, from a commuter perspective.”

He said there could be as many as eight stops in the Austin area.

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