Kyle takes step toward passenger rail

On May 6 the city of Kyle became the third city to reach an agreement with the Lone Star Rail District, the agency charged with creating a commuter rail line with stops planned in Austin, Kyle and San Marcos, among other cities. But it has yet to meet the rail district's financing terms.



The district, which is planning a commuter rail line from Georgetown to San Antonio, has proposed building a station in the Plum Creek development near the Austin Community College Hays campus at FM 1626 and FM 2770.



Mayor Lucy Johnson said that while the decision to join the district is a difficult one for all the cities involved, the preliminary agreement—albeit with several details needing to be worked out—sends a signal to LSRD that Kyle is ready to move forward with passenger rail.



"I don't think it's possible to plan for Kyle's future, particularly as we continue to grow in population, without securing alternate sources of transportation, particularly to Austin and San Antonio," Johnson said. "I think this was a very big step by the city council tonight in the right direction."



The district has requested the city of Kyle fund its share of the commuter rail system through a combination of the newly generated sales and property tax within a special zone around the rail station. The city would also make annual in-kind donations to fund the project, district officials said.



The council unanimously approved the 36-year contract without establishing the special rail station zone that is the linchpin of the funding agreement. For good measure, the funding level—which can rise as high as 50 percent of all new sales and property tax revenue generated in the zone—was set at zero percent, meaning the city is not currently providing any funding to the district through sales or property taxes.



City staff received direction from the council to continue negotiations with the district, and the contract is amendable until Jan. 1, 2015. The district is giving the city until Dec. 31 to create the transportation infrastructure zone. If the zone is not created by that date, the funding agreement will be voided.



Among the loose ends in the contract is how large the zone will be. Whether the zone will span a half-mile or quarter-mile radius of the station is still up for debate.



The city must also determine over the next months the funding level at which it is willing to participate. Johnson said a funding level of 1 percent, which had been in the contract prior to an amendment setting the level at zero, would have been an inadequate participation level, according to the district's requirements.



The cities of Austin and San Marcus approved preliminary funding agreements with LSRD in December. Austin's agreement allows the rail district to collect increases in property taxes in its transportation infrastructure zones.



San Marcos's entails the collection of sales tax increases. The participation level in place for San Marcos is 1 percent, but it has until July to increase that.



Kyle residents who spoke during citizen comments appeared split on the issue.



Many, especially those in the business community, expressed excitement over the passenger rail proposal and what it could bring to the city in terms of convenience and economic development.



Of the four citizen-composed committees to review the contract, Kyle's Transportation and Mobility Committee was the sole body not to recommend approving the agreement.



Gayle Meister, who chairs the committee, advised the council to table the item until the public has had time to understand the implications the decades-long deal would have.



"Please do not let Lone Star Rail cram this contract down your throats," Meister said. "They still have several cities to negotiate with. We do have time. Just because it's an emergency on their part does not constitute an emergency on our part."



Lila Knight, who also gave public comment, echoed Meister's sentiment about holding more public meetings before the funding agreement is reached.



"This proposal is just too large, and its ramifications will be with us for decades, for many, many councils to come," Knight said. "You need to take time to listen to your constituents. You represent us."



Others voiced concern that this opportunity could slip out of the city's grasp.



"This rail system has the ability to give the citizens of Kyle the lifestyle they want and deserve," said Caitlyn Pesl, membership director with the Kyle Area Chamber of Commerce. "Lone Star Rail can do that for our town. It provides an opportunity for growth that would have never been seen in that area that is currently zoned for industrial use. We're just asking for an agreement tonight [so that Kyle is not] bypassed. I do not want to be bypassed."

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