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.