CAMPO to decide fate of Lone Star Rail project in August

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.

In August the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization is scheduled to vote on whether to continue an environmental study of possible commuter rail routes between San Antonio and Georgetown.

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.
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.


Photo of boarded-up Sixth Street bars
With COVID-19 projections 'bleak' through Thanksgiving, Travis County keeps bars closed

Statistical models from the University of Texas show a 92% chance the pandemic is worsening, but the increase in cases and hospitalizations have leveled off in the last few days.

Slab BBQ owner Raf Robinson said the payroll protection program saved his restaurant. (Christopher Neely/Community Impact Newspaper)
'I just need to pay the rent:' Austin small businesses in survival mode are doing everything in their power to outlast the pandemic

From selling inventory to flipping their business models to changing a yoga studio into a coworking space, small business owners are trying to avoid adding their names to the growing list of locally owned Austin institutions that have shut down.

Customers can order Goodstock Angus and Goodstock Black Label beef, including ribeye steaks, strip steaks, filets and ground chuck. (Courtesy Nolan Ryan brands)
Nolan Ryan expands Round Rock-based butcher business and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Austin area.

Burnet Road at West Braker Lane
Corridor projects along South Lamar Boulevard, Burnet Road will break ground by early 2021

Two corridor roadway projects approved in the city of Austin’s 2016 Mobility Bond are moving forward after recently receiving environmental clearances.

Screen shot of a Zoom board meeting
Dripping Springs ISD Superintendent Todd Washburn resigns; Brett Springston is named interim replacement

Less than a year after he was hired, Superintendent Todd Washburn is departing Dripping Springs ISD.

An "I Voted" sticker is left outside the Northwest Recreation Center in Austin, one of 37 early voting polling places open in Travis County. (Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
More than half of all Travis County voters have cast their ballots, exceeding early voting turnout percentage in 2016

More than 448,000 votes have been cast in Travis County. Early voting closes on Oct. 30.

Austin ISD trustees met Oct. 26, discussing in-person learning during the ongoing coronavirus pandemic. (Courtesy Austin ISD)
Twice as many Austin elementary students have returned to campus compared to first day of in-person instruction, district says

Austin ISD will open its campuses to accommodate all students who request in-person instruction beginning Nov. 2.

Capital Metro released new renderings Oct. 26 of its proposed Project Connect expansion, which voters will decide Nov. 3. This rendering shows a Blue Line light rail train at the Austin-Bergstrom International Airport. (Rendering courtesy Capital Metro)
In final week of early voting, here is what Austin residents should know about Project Connect

The proposition appears as a 237-word block of text near the end of the ballot but boils down to a simple question: Are voters for or against a significant expansion of local public transportation, paid for in part with property tax funds?

Photo of the facade of the Dripping Springs ISD administraton building
Dripping Springs ISD to discuss superintendent's potential resignation

An item on the board of trustee's Oct. 26 meeting agenda indicates consideration of a resignation agreement for Superintendent Todd Washburn.

Alex Wu (left) and Kevin Tran stand, social distanced, outside of Bao'd Up in Sunset Valley. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Bao'd Up owners hope to make the traditional Chinese steamed buns a household name in Austin

The local chain has four locations, including one in Sunset Valley. Owner Alex Wu said as the franchise continues to grow, he hopes in a few years he will no longer have to explain what bao is.

Scott Friedeck, owner of The Graphic Guitar Guys, started working with guitars in 2011. (Nicholas Cicale/Community Impact Newspaper)
Dripping Springs small business owner Scott Friedeck got his big break in the music industry from George Strait

Friedeck's business, The Graphic Guitar Guys, creates custom wraps for guitars for artists to sell as merchandise.

East West Manufacturing will retain 30 jobs and create an additional 30 new jobs for a total of 60 full-time jobs in Round Rock over five years, according to an economic incentive agreement signed Oct. 22. (Courtesy Adobe Stock)
Round Rock to add 60 jobs and more Central Texas news

Read the latest business and community news from the Central Texas area.