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San Marcos support for LSTAR could be too little, too late

Thursday, July 7, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

As the Lone Star Rail District approaches what could be the end of the line, one important city along its still-theoretical route is hoping to keep it on track.

San Marcos City Council voted on Tuesday night to approve a resolution offering its support for the flagging passenger-rail effort. The item scored unanimous support on the city’s dais.

In a press release issued by Hahn Public on behalf of Lone Star Rail, also known as LSTAR, At the Council meeting, San Marcos Council Member John Thomaides said, “It’s going to take all of us, our county colleagues, state legislature and the federal government for us to realize this necessity. There is not a better alternative — another couple of lanes on I-35 isn’t going to help. We need the federal (environmental impact statement) or nothing’s going to get done; and keeping it in the long range plan is critical.”

San Marcos’ support is a notable, if mostly symbolic, change of fortunes for LSTAR. Earlier this year, Union Pacific (UP) walked away from its deal to explore running LSTAR’s proposed passenger trains from Georgetown to San Antonio on existing freight track. That route had long been the presumed option for the district and was the focus of years of planning. Without it, LSTAR has few viable options.

Since UP’s decision, Will Conley, chair of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board, has made moves to set up a vote in August that will likely determine LSTAR’s ultimate fate.

When asked on Wednesday about the San Marcos Council’s resolution, Conley told the Austin Monitor, “There are many jurisdictions up and down the corridor.” He also pointed out that Hays County Commissioners Court, of which Conley is also a member, voted unanimously in March to walk away from LSTAR.

After Tuesday’s vote at San Marcos City Hall, Council Member Scott Gregson lobbed a message clearly aimed at Conley and his fellow commissioners. “I hope other elected representatives with constituencies inside this city take the unanimity of this Council into consideration of their positions,” Gregson said.

“Good people can disagree,” Conley told the Monitor on Wednesday before explaining his efforts to effectively pull the plug on LSTAR. “I think what we’re doing is responsible and in the long run sets up the people that we represent for a more successful region with more mobility, safety and economic development than the current path we’re going down.”

CAMPO’s board is set to vote on Aug. 8 on whether to remove LSTAR from its long-range plans. If San Antonio’s Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) also decides to excise LSTAR from its schedule of projects, LSTAR will likely be scuttled by the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA). Despite its roads-oriented name, the FHWA is the lead agency in LSTAR’s passenger-rail planning.

Conley has asserted several times since March that his intention is not to permanently shut the door on any hopes for rail service along the Interstate 35 corridor. During last month’s CAMPO meeting, he suggested that CAMPO and AAMPO could work together with the Texas Department of Transportation to begin a new rail planning process.

“I look forward to the discussion we’re having in August and see(ing) whether we can move forward from there,” Conley said on Wednesday.

This story has been altered after publication to reflect the fact that Thomaides’ remarks were made in a Council meeting.

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