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Friday, March 18, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard
Potential train wreck ahead for Lone Star Rail
It could be the end of the line for the Lone Star Rail District. On Monday, the moribund commuter rail project could see its funding from the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization frozen by that agency’s Transportation Policy Board.
According to the board’s agenda, CAMPO staff is recommending that the agency essentially call a timeout on spending more money on LSTAR. The move comes just a month after Union Pacific ended its agreement with the rail district to explore using segments of the company’s rail line to provide passenger service from Georgetown down to San Antonio.
Backup material linked to the agenda indicates that a follow-up meeting between LSTAR officials and top Union Pacific officers at the company’s headquarters in Omaha did not change any minds. Subsequent discussions between LSTAR, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration produced three options for the regional rail effort.
The first would be to simply close up shop and explore other mobility options between the Austin and San Antonio metro areas. The second would have LSTAR carry on by exploring alternate ways to acquire rail right-of-way. Finally, LSTAR could also continue to commit to its efforts in the Union Pacific corridor, although the FHA “cautioned that it would be difficult to advance this option given UP’s firm position,” according to the backup.
In 2011, CAMPO gave the green light to $20 million to fund LSTAR’s environmental impact study, a crucial step in determining fundamental information about its route. To date, LSTAR, which was created in 2003, has spent just under $12 million of that money, according to the backup document. LSTAR has also spent another $11 million in state and federal money.
CAMPO Board Chair Will Conley told the Austin Monitor on Thursday evening that conditions are ripe for a closer look at LSTAR’s situation. “We haven’t evaluated the process in a long time,” he said.
While Conley declined to remove the option of taking LSTAR off the table, he said the money spent so far by the rail district without a rail line hasn’t been exactly for naught.
“A tremendous amount of information has been gathered up and down the region as a result of the funds and work that the LSTAR board has participated in,” Conley said. “There’s a tremendous amount of data that has come from those studies and evaluations.”
The Monitor left a voicemail for LSTAR Deputy Executive Director Joe Black seeking comment on this story. As of Thursday evening, he had not returned the call.
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