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

Managing Editor, Austin metro

Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and later senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition as well as covering transportation in the Austin metro. She is now managing editor for the 10 publications in the Central Texas area from Georgetown to New Braunfels.



MOST RECENT

Austin, Travis County and Austin ISD officials gathered Sept. 24 to discuss local resilience planning. (Ben Thompson/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin, Travis County, AISD look to build collaboration on community disaster hubs

The governments and school district are looking to grow a network of facilities that can provide resources to residents amid weather emergencies.

Screen shot of Desmar Walkes speaking at a press conference
Austin Public Health eyes possible shift to Stage 4 guidelines

Local health leaders said they want to see the current downward trend of COVID-19 hospitalizations persist before making any changes.

Kyle City Council voted 6-1 and approved the new citywide trail master plan that will utilize 2020 bond election funds for trails that will help connect Austin to San Antonio. (Courtesy Pexels)
CI Nation roundup: Perfect Game coming to Cedar Park; Kyle City Council approves trail master plan to connect Austin to San Antonio and more top stories

Take a look at the top five trending stories across all of Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas as of Sept. 24.

Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said Sept. 23 though the district has been awarded emergency funding, it has only had access to a fraction of it. (Maggie Quinlan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin ISD superintendent lays out barriers to receiving emergency funding

Superintendent Stephanie Elizalde said while it seems that the district has received "millions and millions," it has been able to use a fraction of granted emergency funds.

Austin is one of five cities worldwide included in the company's new integration. (Benton Graham/Community Impact)
Electric scooter company Bird will now show available Capital Metro bikes in its app

Riding a scooter this weekend? Keep an eye out for Bird’s new integration with Capital Metro’s bikeshare.

Kevin Foster, an Austin ISD board trustee, alerted the board Sept. 23 to his concern about a police response at LBJ Early College High School last week. (Maggie Quinlan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Austin ISD trustee questions police response after hoax 911 call

After a large police response to a falsely reported school shooting last week, one member of the Austin ISD board of trustees is concerned about police scaring students.

The Dripping Springs City Council voted to approve the budget and the ad valorem tax rate Sept. 21. (Maggie Quinlan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Dripping Springs' FY 2021-22 budget increases about $1 million over last year

With about an 8% increase in property tax revenue and more in sales tax revenue, Dripping Springs increased its fiscal year 2021-22 budget by about $1 million over last year's.

Darin Dement, owner of Hillside Liquor, works in front of a poster of Austin's 1980s skyline. (Maggie Quinlan/Community Impact Newspaper)
Rapid development closes the gap between south, South Congress corridor and downtown

The 2-mile stretch of South Congress Avenue from William Cannon Drive to Slaughter Lane has changed dramatically in the last decade, with development accelerating since 2019.

Several parents of New Caney ISD students spoke at the district's Sept. 20 board meetings about recent allegations that a student brought a firearm to Porter High School's Sept. 18 homecoming dance. NCISD Superintendent Matt Calvert stressed that no gunshots were fired at the event, and that the district is investigating the allegations. (Wesley Gardner/Community Impact Newspaper)
CI Nation roundup: Round Rock ISD trustees considered for censuring; New Caney ISD addresses allegations of student with gun at campus event and more top stories

Take a look at the top five trending stories across all of Community Impact Newspaper’s coverage areas as of Sept. 23.

Flights between Austin-Bergstrom International Airport and London-Heathrow will resume Oct. 13 for the first time in 17 months. (Courtesy Austin-Bergstrom International Airport)
British Airways to resume service from Austin to London in October

The flights will run three days per week and include COVID-19 safety measures for passengers.