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CAMPO kills Lone Star Rail, commits to finding alternative

Tuesday, October 18, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The kill-shot came abruptly and mercifully for the Lone Star Rail District (also known as LSTAR) on Monday night.

After months of procedural dickering, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s Transportation Policy Board spent less than 10 minutes discussing the matter before voting to remove from its long-range planning document the proposed passenger rail service that would have connected the Austin and San Antonio metro areas.

While the 18-0-1 vote (Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea abstained) represented the effective deathblow for LSTAR, CAMPO’s Executive Director Ashby Johnson briefed the board on efforts underway to explore a replacement project.

According to a memo prepared by CAMPO staff, the Texas Department of Transportation would lead that study with assistance from CAMPO and its San Antonio counterpart, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization.

Without specifying any particular alternative modes, the memo simply states, “The study emphasis would be on solutions that go beyond adding single-occupancy vehicle capacity. At a minimum, the study would include the IH-35 corridor but encompass the broader corridor and have a medium- to long-term planning horizon.”

Shea pressed Johnson to fill in any possible details he could. “I don’t understand what realistic alternatives we’re looking at, other than what strikes me as the only high-capacity alternative for I-35, which is more toll lanes with buses and vanpools in it,” she said.

Johnson said managed toll lanes could be one option on the table.

He added that another potential “stopgap” would be to work with Amtrak to increase the frequency of its current inter-city service. According to its current schedule, Amtrak runs one train per day each way between Austin and San Antonio. What is typically a 90-minute drive in congestion-free conditions takes more than two hours via the train, which operates on Union Pacific’s freight rail line.

Union Pacific’s decision in February to walk away from its negotiations to let LSTAR use that same right-of-way was the catalyst that set into motion the district’s ultimate demise. However, Johnson told his board that the federally funded Amtrak has better leverage.

“The relationship is very different between UP and Amtrak,” he explained. “Amtrak has protections that Lone Star does not.”

Johnson also suggested that another potential alternative is the high-speed rail concept that TxDOT is already exploring. The Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study has been underway since 2013 and is expected to wrap up by the end of this year.

The project could end up connecting Oklahoma City to as far south as the Texas-Mexico border. Planners are also studying whether to deploy high-speed bullet trains that could reach speeds beyond 200 miles per hour on the corridor. A service of that scale would likely bypass many of the smaller communities that would have been served by LSTAR.

Johnson told the board that CAMPO would help fund the search for an LSTAR replacement project using the remainder of funds it had committed to the district’s ongoing environmental study. Of the $20 million originally earmarked for that, $9 million is left over.

Johnson said the planning effort would use data collected during LSTAR’s years of studying its own proposal. He indicated that the time frame for the study would be 18 months.

After Monday night’s meeting, CAMPO released a press release quoting Mayor Steve Adler as saying, “It is clear that we need viable mass transit between San Antonio and Austin. The way we’re continuing forward seems to be a more direct path than continuing with Lone Star.”

Both the mayor and Council Member Sheri Gallo were absent for the vote to remove LSTAR from the long-range plan. Adler showed up to the meeting moments after that decision was made.

Photo by B.A. made available through a Creative Commons license.

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