CAMPO to reassess Lone Star Rail routes after Union Pacific drops out

Union Pacific announced in a letter to the Lone Star Rail District on Feb. 9 that the freight company no longer supported the district's proposed commuter rail line from Georgetown to San Antonio.

Union Pacific announced in a letter to the Lone Star Rail District on Feb. 9 that the freight company no longer supported the district's proposed commuter rail line from Georgetown to San Antonio.

Elected officials who sit on the policy board for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization are scrutinizing progress made on developing a commuter rail line between San Antonio and Georgetown now that a vital player has dropped out of the project.

Union Pacific Railroad’s line through Central Texas along the I-35 corridor had been the frontrunner for Lone Star Rail District’s route alignment.

On Feb. 9, UP sent LSRD a letter announcing it was ending a memorandum of understanding between the two parties.

“Over the course of the past six-plus years of meetings, discussions and studies, it has become apparent that the desired track alignments and infrastructure requirements necessary to support the efficient and reliable comingling of freight and commuter passenger rail are unattainable,” wrote Jerry Wilmoth, UP’s general manager of network infrastructure.

UP Media Director Jeff DeGraff told Community Impact Newspaper that UP will now focus on projects aimed at expanding capacity on its current line because freight traffic within the Austin-San Antonio corridor has increased 60 percent in the past 10 years, and combining freight and passenger rail traffic was of concern to the company.

On March 21, CAMPO board members peppered LSRD and Texas Department of Transportation officials with questions about how to move forward on the project. The board approved reassessing the project and looking at other viable alternatives to bring back for discussion at its June 6 meeting.

“I want a completely fresh perspective and look on this again in the interest of developing a process and program that’s going to make us most successful,” said Will Conley, CAMPO board chair and Hays County Commissioner. “… We need to see what’s the best path forward.”

LSRD started the environmental process in October 2014 and began analyzing seven route alignments, including the UP line, in early 2016. LSRD Rail Director Joe Black said that because UP has a history of changing its mind on projects—it backed out of a San Antonio-Austin commuter rail line in the late 1990s—they should keep any UP options in the analysis.

“If UP doesn’t come back then they drop out of the process and they’re not reasonable alternatives anymore,” he said.

CAMPO board members also expressed concern about how LSRD has spent $26 million in state and federal funds.

“I’m concerned that we’re looking at a boondoggle,” said Cynthia Long, CAMPO board member and Williamson County Commissioner. “We have spent a lot of public money on a lot of public studies and have nothing to show for it. ... My concern is the lack of accountability and transparency of the entire project.”

In 2011, CAMPO allocated $20 million from what is called Surface Transportation Program-Metropolitan Mobility, or STP-MM funds. LSRD has spent about $11.9 million of those funds, which cannot be spent on staff salaries but may be spent on consultants, Black said.

Most of the $26 million, he said, has been spent on consultants because LSRD only has two full-time employees.

Several board members, including Conley, wanted to freeze spending on the project until the June 6 meeting.

“We’re just not going to spend another $10 million to come to conclusion that we all know at this point in time would be fatally flawed of the Union Pacific option,” he said.

However, Black said to reassess the project as indicated by the CAMPO board’s vote would require using the consultants.

“The issue I have with the freeze is that it would be very difficult for us to have good information to bring to the discussion without the support of our consultants,” he said.

The motion to freeze spending failed on a vote of 9-10 with Terry McCoy, Austin district engineer for TxDOT, abstaining.
By Amy Denney
Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and then senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition and covering transportation. She is now managing editor for the nine publications in the Central Texas area.


MOST RECENT

The school at the end of Sawyer Ranch Road is currently under construction. (Courtesy Dripping Springs ISD)
Dripping Springs ISD's newest school to be called Cypress Springs Elementary, helmed by Principal Kellie Raymond

Cypress Springs Elementary School is named for a group of springs near the district.

Austin ISD reported its highest number of COVID-19 cases the week of Jan. 4, but that number has decreased for two consecutive weeks, according to the district. (Courtesy Austin ISD)
Austin ISD sees 70% drop in on-campus students over past 2 weeks after district asks families to stay home

The district saw a 11,839-student decline in on-campus learning as AISD families opted for online learning from Jan. 12-22.

City officials are facing growing pressure to address the growing visibility of homelessness in Austin. (Olivia Aldridge/Community Impact Newspaper)
Sanctioned homeless camp proposal gains attention from Austin leaders as pressure mounts

Mayor Steve Adler said the urgent need for shelter space and housing could overrule initial objections to sanctioned homeless encampments.

See how COVID-19 continues to impact Travis County. (Community Impact Newspaper staff)
Despite drop in hospital admissions, Travis County adds 4,039 new COVID-19 cases over past 7 days

Overall, Travis County has reported 65,507 confirmed COVID-19 cases.

Last Stand Brewing Co. owner Jim Sampson pours a beer at the business's new South Austin brewery.  (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
After grueling year, South Austin beer industry sees new breweries, opportunities for growth

Local brewers speak to the challenges of opening during the pandemic, adjusting to new state rules and beer to-go sales.

Construction at Q2 Stadium is on schedule to be completed by late March or early April. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin FC will play at newly named Q2 Stadium starting this summer

Austin FC announced the naming partnership with Austin-based tech company Q2 Holdings Inc. at a ribbon-cutting ceremony Jan. 25.

The Contemporary Austin will host a virtual artist talk Feb. 3 with photographers Torbjørn Rødland and Philip-Lorca diCorcia. COURTESY SARAH SCHULTZ/CONTEMPORARY ATX
Austin Film Society presents drive-in Sundance Film Festival screenings, The Contemporary Austin hosts a virtual artist talk and more events in Austin

Austin Film Society is a satellite screen partner for the Sundance Film Festival, which normally takes place at a ski resort in Utah, but is screening films digitally and through partners around the country this year.

Hays County opened its COVID-19 vaccine portal Jan. 22. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Vaccine portal opens in Hays County; read Austin business news and more Central Texas info

Read the latest business and community news from Central Texas.

Gov. Greg Abbott said he will announce statewide plans to address homelessness that include camping bans. (Brian Rash/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin weekly roundup: Governor plans statewide camping ban, COVID-19 numbers flatten and more

Questions remain about the legality of the camping ban, which a local group is also hoping to get on the May 2021 ballot.

The Austin Community College District's 28,000-square-foot culinary arts wing is now open at ACC Highland. (Courtesy Austin Community College)
Second phase of ACC Highland campus opens in Central Austin

The campus is home to the Austin Community College District's Culinary Arts Department.