At a meeting March 22, Hays County Commissioners unanimously voted not to renew the county's membership with the Lone Star Rail District in 2017, which has been planning to bring commuter rail service to the I-35 corridor between San Antonio and Georgetown.
The county pays its membership in a lump sum to the district, so its membership will continue through the end of fiscal year 2016.
Hays County Precinct 3 Commissioner Will Conley said at the March 22 meeting that the project was "going nowhere fast," and the county and other project partners need to step back and reassess how to make commuter rail a reality in Central Texas.
"We have no realistic capital plan on how to move forward with this concept and this idea," Conley said. "We have no realistic, practical [operations and maintenance] plans on how to even maintain this program and this project if we were to move forward—on how to pay for the costs associated with operating such a project."
Union Pacific's recent termination of an agreement that allowed LSRD to study the freight carrier's rail line for potential use as the track for the commuter rail was also a big blow, Conley said.
"We now have no idea where we would even put our idea of commuter rail moving up and down the corridor," he said.
Conley said the state of Texas will need to step up to help bring rail to the I-35 corridor. He said he plans to meet with elected officials and representatives with the Texas Department of Transportation to discuss the issue further.
Conley and Precinct 1 Commissioner Debbie Ingalsbe reiterated that the county supports multiple forms of transportation, but they said the LSRD project leaves many questions.
"As much as I support [LSRD], I think I'm willing to support our suspension of funding at this time," Ingalsbe said. "But I believe that—and I know that—we will continue to have discussions to see how we move forward with this important issue and other modes of transportation."
“I’m concerned that we’re looking at a boondoggle. 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.”
— Cynthia Long, CAMPO board member and Williamson County Commissioner
Elected officials who sit on the policy board for the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization are also scrutinizing progress made on the project.
On March 21, CAMPO board members peppered LSRD and TxDOT 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 Conley, who also serves CAMPO board chair, at the March 21 meeting. “… 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.