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Lone Star Rail kicks off environmental study

Friday, January 23, 2015 by Gene Davis

A decade-old project to build a passenger rail line between the San Antonio and Austin areas picked up steam Wednesday with a public meeting of the Lone Star Rail Project.

The meeting served as the kickoff to the project’s environmental impact study, which Lone Star Rail Director Joe Black called a “major, major point in the project.”

“What we are really here to do is to show people what we have done up to this point and show them what we think are the needs that will be addressed by the project,” Black said.

The meeting featured an informational video, a timeline of the project and other related facts, as well as a large map showing the proposed route. The meeting also had computers and iPads where attendees could submit comments and suggestions on the proposed route.

During the first hour, the number of Lone Star Rail representatives heavily outweighed the number of attendees. The representatives stood throughout the room to address any questions posed by attendees.

Austin resident Martin Hitchcock was among the first attendee at the meeting. He said he was particularly interested in the project because a proposed station would be near his house in North Austin.

“I think that would be very convenient for me,” he said.

Although the Texas Legislature created what became the Lone Star Rail District in 2003, Black said the project kept a fairly low profile until recently on purpose.

“Because it is such a long-term project, we tend to not run out and issue a news release every time something good happens,” Black said. “These large projects take a long time, unfortunately, because there are a lot of things you have to do.”

The project picked up momentum and headlines at the end of 2014 when Austin City Council members approved amendments to an interlocal agreement with the rail district to help fund the project. The agreement would direct 50 percent of any increase in property values around the rail stations to the district. San Marcos committed to a similar funding agreement in December 2013.

Black said the Lone Star Rail District is now working to secure funding agreements with other cities and counties along the proposed rail line. The local funds would help pay for the operational costs of the rail line and help leverage capital funds to complete the project, he said.

Black expects results from the environmental impact study in three years. He said that ideally, at least part of the rail line — likely the portion that serves Austin — could be operational in five years.

“This is a great elevator speech project — people get it right away,” he said. “When people look at the map, they say, ‘Oh, I understand.’ It takes little explanation on our part to get people up to speed.”

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