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Lone Star Rail on life support after CAMPO vote

Perhaps the Lone Star Rail District never had a shot.

And, based on comments from Union Pacific on Tuesday, the day after a local planning board all but scuttled the 13-year-old Lone Star Rail, the prospects for a last-ditch effort by Austin Mayor Steve Adler to bring Union Pacific back to the table appear shaky as well.

Without the use of Union Pacific’s existing rail line for its Round Rock to San Antonio corridor, a passenger rail line in that stretch has no immediately obvious route.

“From the very beginning of the process, UP has stated to the folks at Lone Star, and anyone else we talked to, that our priority is serving our existing customers and any other future customers,” Union Pacific spokesman Jeff DeGraff told the American-Statesman. “We explained that we needed unfettered access to our customers.”

That means, DeGraff said, that building an alternative freight line to the east of the Interstate 35 corridor wouldn’t have removed all Union Pacific freight traffic from the existing line that Lone Star had hoped to use for its passenger rail line. Beyond that, the railroad will never agree to relegate all of its freight trains to overnight runs, DeGraff said, so there isn’t a path to free up the track’s daylight hours for Lone Star’s trains.

“An operating window is not something that would serve our needs because we need the flexibility to serve our customers,” he said. “That is something we’ve been communicating to (Lone Star) for the entire 10 years of this project.”

Will Conley, a Hays County commissioner who chairs the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization board, was the moving force behind the CAMPO board’s resolution Monday night yanking its support for Lone Star, which he called “a dysfunctional organization that has run rogue.”

Lone Star, created under a 1997 state law, has spent more than $30 million since its 2003 formation studying how to build a 117-mile passenger line on Union Pacific’s line, which runs through the heart of Round Rock, Austin, San Marcos, New Braunfels and San Antonio.

The sticking point, even before Lone Star existed, was that Union Pacific has customers up and down that line, including several rock quarries. Depending on the relative heat of the economy, the Nebraska-based rail giant runs two dozen to three dozen freight trains on the line each day.

“We are going to look for real solutions up and down (the Interstate 35) corridor and stop living in a fantasy land,” Conley said. “The issue of Lone Star Rail has been resolved.”

Joe Black, Lone Star’s deputy executive director, said Tuesday in an interview that, yes, Union Pacific from the beginning of talks had rejected the idea of limiting the hours its freight trains could run. But the district had been talking with Union Pacific about adding siding tracks at several spots, allowing freight and passenger trains to pass each other and coexist.

Then, in February, Union Pacific sent Lone Star a letter closing the door on negotiations. Officials with the rail district were caught flat-footed.

“It just didn’t make any intuitive sense to anyone at the rail district,” Black said, given how negotiations were going. “The more we looked at their situation, what we sort of tumbled to was that Texas was going to be the key to their future business strategy, especially international traffic from Mexico. My sense is they want to hold on to everything they have.”

Monday’s 17-1 vote by CAMPO to remove the project from the area’s long-range transportation plan was the ultimate consequence of that February letter. In a statement, Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt, a CAMPO board member, said she still supported a passenger rail line in that corridor, but she had “lost faith in the ability of Lone Star Rail as an organization to spearhead this mission.”

San Marcos Mayor Daniel Guerrero cast the only vote against the motion. Travis County Commissioner Brigid Shea and Texas Department of Transportation engineer Terry McCoy abstained.

The CAMPO board’s resolution also asked TxDOT to order Lone Star to stop funding an $8 million environmental study of passenger rail in the corridor, and to work with CAMPO instead on any possible rail project there in the future.

Under its rules, the CAMPO board can’t take a final vote on amending its long-range plan until its Oct. 10 meeting. With that in mind, Adler asked that any final action by TxDOT not commence until after Oct. 9 to allow time to reach out to Union Pacific. The board’s final vote allowed that wiggle room.

Adler hinted that federal officials could be brought into the discussion as well. He offered no details on what pressure a federal intervention might bring to bear.

Black said that, in the wake of Monday’s vote, he notified Lone Star’s consultants Tuesday morning to stop work on the environmental study. But Black said that even if Lone Star ceases to exist as an agency and his job goes away, he hopes that somehow the environmental study will be held open rather than closed with an official “no build” recommendation for rail in the I-35 corridor.

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