Tuesday, March 22, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

Lone Star Rail dodges “kill-shot” at CAMPO

The Lone Star Rail District survived what could have been a potentially fatal vote at the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board meeting on Monday night.

A marathon discussion over LSTAR’s fate began when CAMPO Board Chair Will Conley offered a two-part resolution that would have asked the Texas Department of Transportation to freeze CAMPO’s portion of funding to the rail district while also authorizing CAMPO’s executive committee to meet with other involved agencies to discuss the rail district’s future. Those agencies included TxDOT, the Federal Highway Administration and CAMPO’s San Antonio counterpart, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, or AAMPO.

The move came in the wake of Union Pacific’s abrupt withdrawal last month from a partnership with LSTAR to explore using the company’s existing freight line to run passenger trains from Georgetown to San Antonio while moving regional freight service to an as-yet nonexistent rail line east of Austin.

LSTAR has also long faced criticism for spending millions of dollars with little to show for it. Currently, the district is in the midst of a federally required environmental impact study to examine the Union Pacific corridor as well as various other alternatives.

During Monday’s meeting, Conley told the board that CAMPO committed $20 million to pay for that study. Meanwhile, he said that AAMPO pledged $20 million of its own to pay for the design phase of the project, which has not yet been reached.

So far, CAMPO has spent more than $11 million while AAMPO has not spent a dime.

When Cedar Park Mayor Matt Powell asked whether AAMPO could be asked during the proposed meetings to rearrange that funding agreement in order to take the burden off of CAMPO, Conley replied, “You better believe it.”

After hours of discussion with LSTAR, TxDOT and federal officials, the battery on the camera that was recording the session died, prompting Conley to gavel out a 10-minute recess. Upon reconvening, Burnet County Judge James Oakley motioned to approve just the second part of the resolution, the huddle with other agencies. That was seconded by Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt and unanimously approved by the board.

However, Williamson County Commissioner Cynthia Long followed that up with a motion to pass the funding freeze part of the resolution, which sparked another lengthy discussion. One of the biggest sticking points was what would happen to LSTAR’s consultants if the money was shut off.

LSTAR Deputy Executive Director Joe Black explained that his agency has only two full-time employees and therefore relies heavily on consultants. He said that as a matter of ethics, he couldn’t ask the consultants to carry on their work for free. Black told the board that LSTAR has paid its current consultant $3 million.

After Eckhardt framed the move to freeze the funds as a “kill-shot” that would prove fatal to LSTAR, the board voted 10-9 to reject Long’s motion.

Afterward, Black told the Austin Monitor that he welcomes the board’s final decision to powwow with the other agencies.

“I want a wider conversation about the importance of this project and possible ways we can move forward,” said Black. “I think more good minds on this subject can only help it along.”

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Key Players & Topics In This Article

CAMPO: The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is the regional planning organization for Bastrop, Burnet, Caldwell, Hays, Travis, and Williamson Counties. Its membership is drawn from the elected officials of those municipalities, as well as various cities that fall within the region, including the City of Austin. CAMPO's focus is on regional transportation issues.

Lone Star Rail: A planned regional passenger train from San Marcos to Austin.

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