Lone Star Rail District pushing forward on rail project

The Lone Star Rail District held a meeting April 15 to discuss the district's progress and future plans on a project to bring commuter rail service to cities between the Austin and San Antonio areas.

The Lone Star Rail District held a meeting April 15 to discuss the district's progress and future plans on a project to bring commuter rail service to cities between the Austin and San Antonio areas.

The Lone Star Rail District, which is aiming to bring commuter rail service to cities along I-35 between Georgetown and San Antonio, announced April 15 that it plans to continue working on the commuter rail project it began exploring in 1997 when the Texas Legislature created the organization.

In February freight carrier Union Pacific Corp. announced it was terminating an agreement allowing the district to study its rail line for potential future use as the rail line that would carry commuter traffic through the corridor. UP freight traffic would have been transferred to a new line that would have been built east of I-35.

The LSRD presented four alternatives at the April 15 meeting that would not require the participation of UP. Those options include two options that would build the rail along I-35, one that would build it along SH 130 and one that would build it parallel to the existing UP line. LSRD officials said they will continue to include the UP line as a possible alignment for the purposes of the environmental impact study, or EIS, in the event UP rejoins the project.

The district expects the results of the EIS to be made available by 2018, which San Marcos City Council Member John Thomaides, who also sits on the LSRD executive committee, said will be a big step toward opening discussions about state and federal funding for the project.

“You can’t do anything without the components of the EIS,” Thomaides said. “It’s absolutely [important to the conversations about federal funding]. Is it the only thing? Of course not. It’s the governor’s office. It’s the legislature. People and the business community have to demand accountability for transportation options. That’s a tall order, but it will happen.”

[g-carousel gid="146303" height="200" per_time="3"]

Hays County Commissioner Will Conley said he and his colleagues on the Hays County Commissioners Court, who voted to suspend the county’s FY 2016-17 membership in the LSRD, remain committed to multimodal transportation options, including commuter rail.

Conley, who also represents the county in the LSRD, said he is disturbed by what he called the LSRD’s unwillingness to consider the possibility that other organizations might be better able to accomplish the commuter rail project’s goals, including improved mobility, safety and environmental protection.

“I believe it is in the [best interest of] the people we represent to have this discussion, to have an open [discussion], and if we are not the best institution to carry this agenda forward then we should be the first ones to hand it over to someone that is,” he said at the meeting.

The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, of which Conley acts as chairman, plans to work with the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, Federal Highway Authority and Federal Transportation Administration to consider regional mobility solutions up and down the I-35 corridor.

Lone Star Rail District Director Joe Black said he suspects the discussion, initiated by CAMPO, is the planning organization's way of ensuring the money they have invested in the project thus far has been well-spent.

The discussion could result in TxDOT freezing federal funding for the project, a move Black said would be "unprecedented."

Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea compared the project to planting a tree, saying it takes time to grow the project.

“I do think this region needs an alternative to I-35,” Shea said. “We are literally spending billions of dollars just on a short segment of I-35 in Austin. We have to have an alternative. This is a potentially messy process, but look at TxDOT projects. How long do they take? And how much do they cost? How messy are they?”

Design of the project is expected to last from 2018-20, and construction would begin in 2020, according to a presentation shown at the meeting. The project would be operational by 2023 under that timeline.

The LSRD board approved a motion with a 12-1 vote to continue forward on the current path through the completion of the environmental impact statement. Conley was the sole dissenting vote.