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Lone Star Rail pulls into CAMPO meeting tonight

Monday, June 6, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is once again putting the Lone Star Rail District, or LSTAR, under the microscope on Monday evening.

CAMPO’s Transportation Policy Board is set to discuss recent moves that have been made to get the dream of passenger rail service between Georgetown and San Antonio back on track.

The board is not set to take any action, and LSTAR officials won’t give any formal briefing. However, LSTAR Deputy Executive Director Joe Black told the Austin Monitor, “We’ll be there if anybody wants to ask a question. I’ll be more than happy to come up and sit in the hot seat and get grilled.”

Earlier this year, Union Pacific walked away from its partnership with LSTAR to examine the feasibility of running passenger trains on the company’s existing freight line. That decision came in the middle of LSTAR’s ongoing environmental impact study of service along the corridor and left the rail district without any rail.

In a May 17 letter to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Deputy Executive Director Marc Williams, CAMPO Chairman Will Conley noted that LSTAR has been examining alternatives to the UP line but that those alternatives may not be compatible with the long-range plans of CAMPO or its sister organization in San Antonio, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO).

If it’s determined that that is indeed the case, Conley said it would effectively conclude LSTAR’s environmental study, a potentially fatal blow to the district.

“Should this occur, I would like to explore TxDOT and the MPO’s working together to lead a regional planning study that provides an update and strategic assessment of current studies and projects and examines multimodal projects for this corridor,” Conley wrote.

On Thursday, Black told the Monitor that he felt that his agency had been excluded from higher-level discussions about its fate in recent weeks.

“I don’t think we’ve seen overt hostility or anything like that, but if there are discussions going on, it’s a little disconcerting to me that we wouldn’t be involved at some level,” Black said.

He pointed out a line in Conley’s letter that claimed that top CAMPO and AAMPO officials heard a briefing from LSTAR in April.

“Well, no, not really,” Black explained. “We weren’t officially invited to that meeting. We showed up, of course, in case there were questions.” He said he was able to answer some questions but added, “If we were to give a briefing, it would’ve been a lot more extensive than what we did get to say.”

Conley did not respond to the Monitor’s effort to reach out to him on Friday.

As for his suggestion that both CAMPO and AAMPO might take over leadership of an environmental study for passenger rail service, Black said that would be “unprecedented” for both organizations.

“It can be done; it’s just that these agencies have not done it. I don’t know what their expertise would be,” he said. “It would almost be like having to start from zero again. I’m sure they could reuse a lot of the data we’ve developed over the years.”

Black said his team had speculated among themselves about which entities would be most qualified to take over the project. He said their own conclusions led them back to themselves.

“We could certainly use better political alignment behind the project and more ownership on the part of the jurisdictions that will be getting service,” Black said. “I think that would be a huge help to the project. But in terms of being able to just turn it over to someone else, I just … I don’t know.”

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