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LSTAR troubles present another snag for Project Connect

Monday, February 15, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Project Connect, the ambitious vision of a multimodal transportation future in Central Texas, hit a major pothole last week with Union Pacific’s decision to walk away from negotiations with the Lone Star Rail District.

In a letter to the district, also known as LSTAR, Union Pacific canceled its agreements to continue exploring the feasibility of allowing passenger rail service on its existing freight rail line between Georgetown and San Antonio. The unexpected decision abrogated nearly a decade of LSTAR’s planning.

LSTAR is one of three local agencies, along with the city of Austin and the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, that constitutes Project Connect. The collective aim is to provide alternatives to the region’s notoriously awful automobile traffic.

“It’s too early to say if it’s a death knell for Lone Star Rail,” Cap Metro’s Todd Hemingson told the Austin Monitor on Friday. He added, though, that “it does sound bad on the surface.”

However, Hemingson said that Project Connect could carry on without LSTAR. He explained that Cap Metro could deploy buses on I-35 as far south as San Marcos.

“With the proposed express lanes on I-35, we think we can develop bus service that has the same attractions as rail,” Hemingson said.

Meanwhile, LSTAR has dismissed UP’s decision as merely a setback, and it has pledged to move forward with its goal of establishing commuter rail service between the Austin and San Antonio metropolitan areas.

Participating cities will continue to pay the district for its efforts. A spokesperson for the Austin Transportation Department told the Monitor that the city pays $49,500 in annual dues to LSTAR. That, coupled with LSTAR’s assertion that it has several alternative plans on its drawing board, should keep the district a viable concern in the short term, at least on paper.

The trickier part, however, will be convincing a wary public that planners have a grip on any transportation policy that doesn’t include, in the words of Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, ribbons of asphalt.

Hemingson himself noted that the disastrous electoral showing for Project Connect’s light rail proposal in 2014 was a tremendous setback for the collective endeavor. He also cautioned against a grassroots-led effort to put another light rail proposal on the 2016 ballot. Proponents of that plan spoke at Thursday’s Austin City Council meeting before members voted to start a “public conversation and input process” on high-priority transportation projects.

“Those folks, for good or bad, don’t represent the majority,” Hemingson said. “The challenge is getting a consensus. Getting broad public support to move something forward is very challenging. It’s not so much having a good project. It’s having a process that lets people feel ownership and gets them engaged.”

In the meantime, LSTAR says it could meet with Union Pacific officials as early as this week to discuss the company’s decision. Whatever results of that meeting will certainly be discussed at the district’s next board of directors meeting on March 4.

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, who sits on that board, assured the Monitor that the troubling news wouldn’t derail her support of LSTAR or Project Connect’s larger vision.

“I find it incredibly disappointing, but we have to still look for variety of modes of transportation for folks to get around in the corridor,” Shea said.

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