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CAMPO meeting spells terminal trouble ahead for Lone Star Rail

Monday, October 17, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

The long-suffering effort to install passenger rail service between Austin and San Antonio could effectively be put to rest on Monday evening.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board of directors will likely vote to remove the Lone Star Rail District from its long-range plan, known as CAMPO 2040.

The vote promises to be the climax of LSTAR’s slow-motion implosion, which began in February when Union Pacific decided it would not allow the district to use existing freight rail line between the two cities.

Union Pacific’s right-of-way had been central to LSTAR’s planning process from the very beginning, more than a decade ago.

CAMPO’s board voted in August to initiate the public engagement process that must precede the ultimate decision to yank funding from the rail project. Of the 42 comments on proposed amendments to CAMPO 2040, 14 expressed support for LSTAR’s continued existence, while two urged the board members to sink the effort.

Meanwhile, CAMPO’s Technical Advisory Committee also recommended to the board that it keep the project in the long-range plan until an alternative project is identified.

On Monday, CAMPO staff will update the board on the progress of an attempt to find that alternative. That endeavor has been underway since August, when CAMPO staff began discussions with counterparts at San Antonio’s Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization and the Texas Department of Transportation.

According to a memo from CAMPO Executive Director Ashby Johnson, the remainder of the $20 million that CAMPO had earmarked for LSTAR’s ongoing environmental impact study will be used to fund the search for an alternative project. Johnson said there is $9 million left from that original outlay.

Johnson added that the search could begin by the end of the year and is expected to last 18 months.

On Friday, Rachel Clampffer, LSTAR’s director of planning, forwarded to the Austin Monitor a letter from Lone Star board Chair Sid Covington that blasted CAMPO’s interest in pursuing other projects. Covington accused CAMPO board Chair Will Conley of being committed to road-building at the expense of alternative forms of transit.

“Sure, the Lone Star Rail project has taken longer than anyone would have liked. And yes, Union Pacific’s withdrawal poses a challenge,” Covington said. “But wise public officials know that great cities do great things, and no great thing was ever achieved without overcoming challenges.”

This story has been corrected to make clear that the quotes from the letter from Sid Covington reflect Covington’s words, not those of Rachel Clampffer.

Photo by Marcus Winter made available through a Creative Commons license.

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