The Lone Star Rail District died, in the end, with a whimper.
The board of the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, after a discussion lasting perhaps five minutes Monday evening, took a voice vote removing from its long-range transportation plan the proposed commuter rail line from San Antonio to Georgetown. Of the board members present, only Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea stood by the 13-year-old district and officially abstained from voting.
Conceding that passenger rail in the rapidly growing corridor might someday make sense, the board later discussed using some or all of $9 million in leftover money from the project for a study to explore other possible transportation options along that corridor.
What kind of options, Shea asked?
Well, perhaps a managed toll lane for cars on Interstate 35, CAMPO Executive Director Ashby Johnson said, or maybe working with Amtrak to increase its twice-a-day rail service along the corridor on Union Pacific’s freight line. Or perhaps some version of high-speed rail, which the Texas Department of Transportation is studying now from Oklahoma to Laredo. A study, if the CAMPO board authorizes it, would look at those and other options for moving people in the I-35 corridor.
The board could get an opportunity to take that vote as soon as December, Johnson said.
Lone Star’s demise had been a foregone conclusion since the CAMPO board voted 17-1 in August to ask the Texas Department of Transportation to withhold any more funds from the district, which had been overseeing various studies of a possible rail line since 2003 (some occurred before Lone Star’s formation) and spent about $28 million doing so. That August vote brought to a halt an ongoing environmental study of the line.
Supporters of the rail district argued that stopping that study and removing the rail project from CAMPO’s 2040 plan would delay rail in the Austin-San Antonio corridor “for at least another generation,” as district board Chairman Sid Covington said in a statement distributed at the meeting.
But the district — which, under the state law allowing its creation, lacked the significant taxation authority needed for a project costing $2 billion or more — floundered through the years to get beyond good intentions. Political support for it collapsed completely in February when Union Pacific said that it would no longer discuss letting commuter trains run on its existing freight line. That line cuts through the heart of all the cities involved and thus had been almost the sole focus of study for more than 20 years.
Lone Star officials had hoped to broker a deal to use the Union Pacific line for passenger rail, which would have entailed building a new railroad line further east for Union Pacific’s displaced freight trains.
The potential funding for any sort of rail that might flow from a CAMPO and TxDOT-backed study, however, is likewise a mystery at this point. Almost all of TxDOT’s revenue sources — gas taxes, vehicle registration fees, sales taxes and oil and gas taxes — are dedicated under the Texas Constitution to planning, construction and maintenance of highways. So, as was the case with Lone Star, officials would have to find, or be granted by the Legislature, a substantial new revenue source to build what would be a rail line of 100 miles or more.