Lone Star Rail District has been conducting an environmental impact statement, or EIS, for a $2.4 billion commuter rail line on the existing Union Pacific Corp. freight rail line and transferring freight rail to the I-35 corridor. However, UP terminated its agreement with LSRD in February.
In March, CAMPO policy board members—who are also elected officials from the six-county Central Texas region—scrutinized LSRD’s progress, how it has spent $26 million in state and federal funds, and the viability of other potential routes. CAMPO has solely funded the EIS and has allocated about $20 million so far toward the project.
CAMPO policy board members have been meeting with state leaders and representatives from the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization since its March meeting to figure out their next steps.
“What I would suggest, and what I will be making a motion on in August, is that we do remove this from our long-range transportation plan and that the state and Federal Highway Administration do conclude the EIS document and that we work with our partners in San Antonio and across this region and our partners at the state of Texas,” said Will Conley, CAMPO policy board chair and Hays County Commissioner. “It would be huge victory for this region if the state got formally involved in looking at alternatives with us as they are doing in other parts of state.”
On May 17, Conley sent Marc Williams, the Texas Department of Transportation’s deputy executive director, a letter asking for clarification on what would happen if CAMPO did not proceed with the EIS. He also questioned if concluding the EIS would result in CAMPO having to repay federal funds used to conduct the EIS.
Conley said Williams' June 3 response left him confident CAMPO would not be required to repay any federal funds and that CAMPO has two courses of action. The agency could either continue with the EIS and study other routes or conclude it if both CAMPO and AAMPO deemed none of the existing route options were viable.
In the letter, Williams wrote: “If the EIS process is to be concluded, FHWA has committed to work with TxDOT and LSRD to adequately document a no build environmental decision, which would not require the repayment of federal funds. TxDOT would be happy to work with the regional MPOs in a planning assessment to address the future transportation needs between Austin and San Antonio.”
Conley said he has not heard any response on AAMPO’s preference moving forward. He also spoke to state leaders about studying other possible rail routes during the EIS.
“I’ve found nobody besides the leadership of Lone Star who believes going through these alternatives and concepts in the formal EIS is the proper way of going about planning alternative modes of transportation in this corridor,” Conley said. “We had our preferred route. We invested millions of dollars in the preferred route, developing a financial plan, looking at stations, ridership and entered into a formal EIS. Unfortunately that was taken away from us.”
Craig Morgan, a Round Rock City Council member and CAMPO board member, said he would not have a problem with spending money to finish the EIS as long as the funding comes from AAMPO, but he does not see that happening.
“I agree with idea of closing out [the EIS] and relooking at it as two groups with the state for other alternatives,” he said.
LSRD Director Joe Black said the EIS process was developed in partnership with the FHWA.
He said an initial study led to considering other transportation modes, such as gondolas, a subway, hyperloop rail or bus-rapid transit on highways. That study concluded passenger rail was the best option, and Black said other routes besides the UP line have been studied as far back as 2014.
Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea, who sits on CAMPO’s policy board, pointed out UP’s history of backing out of projects only to return to them later. She also questioned if concluding the EIS would be the best option.
“If it’s not to be a rail option, I don’t see a lot of other viable multimodal alternatives that we could produce out of a study,” she said. “That would cost some money and take some time.”
Conley tasked CAMPO board members with meeting with TxDOT, AAMPO and LSRD members to get their questions answered before the Aug. 8 policy board meeting to decide on LSRD’s fate.