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Hays County uncouples from Lone Star Rail

Wednesday, March 23, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

After dodging a potential death blow on Monday night, the Lone Star Rail District took another hit on the chin on Tuesday.

One day after the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization opted not to freeze its funding of LSTAR, the Hays County Commissioners Court voted to ditch the passenger rail planning effort.

The measure on the court’s agenda was sponsored by Commissioner Will Conley, who also happens to be the chair of CAMPO’s Transportation Policy Board, which on Monday night narrowly avoided yanking millions of dollars it had pledged to the troubled rail district. Conley was on the losing side of that vote.

On Tuesday, Conley gave a long exposition on the history of LSTAR leading up to its current predicament. Conley told the court that a state law signed by then-Gov. George W. Bush created the district in 1997 with the aim of running passenger trains from the Austin metro area south to San Antonio using Union Pacific’s existing freight line. Nineteen years later, Conley reminded the court, LSTAR is still only studying the corridor while Union Pacific has backed out of the plan altogether.

“We have spent, to date, roughly $25 to $30 million,” Conley said. “Beyond collecting a lot of good data about our corridor and future traffic and mobility needs, we have not been able to develop the project into anything that is close to resembling a viable project today moving into the future.”

Conley also reiterated the points he made on Monday night, namely that his actions should not be misconstrued as being anti-rail. He adamantly claimed he remains committed to multimodal options on the I-35 corridor.

“In fact, I would argue if you are really passionate about rail, then you have an obligation to step back and reevaluate and to look at a better path forward because right now we are going nowhere quickly and spending millions of dollars in the process,” he said.

When reached for comment on the court’s unanimous vote, LSTAR Deputy Executive Director Joe Black said he was “disappointed” but that it will not spell doom for the district. He added that he still he remains optimistic that discussions approved by the CAMPO board between its executive committee and regional, state and federal stakeholders on the future of LSTAR will be constructive.

If they are, Hays County could potentially return to the fold, Conley told the court on Tuesday. Indeed, his resolution only asked Hays County Judge Bert Cobb to inform LSTAR that the county would not re-up it’s annual $49,500 membership due at the end of the current fiscal year. Conley said that, in the meantime, he will continue to serve in his capacity as a member of the LSTAR board.

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