In order to save commuter rail connecting Austin to San Antonio, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization had to destroy it.
That essentially is what the CAMPO board did on Monday when it voted 17-1 to initiate the end of the Lone Star Rail District’s rail line by removing it from CAMPO’s 25-year transportation plan. Two CAMPO members abstained.
“I made the decision to take Lone Star Rail out of the 2040 Long Range Plan to advance rail in the Interstate 35 corridor, not to kill it,” said Travis County Judge Sarah Eckhardt in a statement this week, explaining her about-face on the issue.
No doubt some on the 20-member CAMPO board of elected officials from Central Texas cities and counties are solidly against rail, such as Travis County Commissioner Gerald Daugherty, who has defined mobility solutions almost entirely in terms of building more roads.
But others, such as Eckhardt and CAMPO board chairman, Hays County Commissioner Will Conley, know the region’s mobility crisis is not fixable with asphalt alone. They, know, too, that passenger rail won’t by itself eliminate congestion in the Interstate 35 corridor. Rail must be considered as one leg of a regional transportation stool, which includes large-scale road projects, such as the one state Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, is advancing to overhaul Interstate 35 and the proposal by Austin Mayor Steve Adler to overhaul the city’s main roadways. Public transit, especially buses that can travel on express lanes up and down I-35 and MoPac also are part of that approach.
“Our continued economic prosperity in Austin, San Antonio and all the communities in our region, depends on mobility,” Eckhardt said. “CAMPO projections prove we simply cannot move all of our people and goods without a combination of roads and rail in the IH35 corridor.”
She is right. Between 2010 and 2014, Central Texas has been home to six of the state’s fastest-growing cities. Those cities, Georgetown, New Braunfels, San Marcos, Cedar Park, Pflugerville and Austin, are part of the Austin-Round Rock metropolitan area, which in 2015 surpassed 2 million residents, according to the Census Bureau.
Add to that the greater San Antonio area’s 2.3 million people and the limitations of I-35 are clear to anyone paying attention. Thankfully, some are.
”I don’t believe one mode of transportation is going to resolve our problem,” Conley told me, saying that he is open to public transit solutions, including rail — but has lost confidence in Lone Star — a sentiment shared by the board.
Consider that CAMPO’s decision regarding Lone Star — three votes short of unanimous — was bipartisan, with Republican elected officials, such as Conley, who has chaired the board for five years, joining with Democrats, such as Eckhardt. The Lone Star district still will exist, as only its creator, the Legislature, can eliminate it. But after public hearings, CAMPO can and will end Lone Star’s rail project.
The no-confidence vote in Lone Star had as much to do with political accountability as fiscal responsibility, some said.
In 13 years, the rail district has spent $30 million on developing rail with little in the way of physical progress to show for it. That money, which has largely gone to studies, salaries and other professional services, came from federal and state grants, as well as various city and county governments. During much of that time, some CAMPO board members have complained of throwing good money after bad.
Lone Star might have survived pointed attacks from anti-rail board members, who skillfully, but unfairly, used Lone Star’s woes as a way of undermining not just Lone Star’s rail initiative, but all rail projects.
But Lone Star lost its lifeline – and champions — after Union Pacific in February ended negotiations over the possible use of its rail line. Those tracks, which run through the heart of Austin, had long been Lone Star’s preferred route. The idea was for Lone Star to pay to build Union Pacific a new rail line well east of Interstate 35 and that most of the freight traffic would move there, freeing up space on the prime urban corridor for passenger service.
It made sense, connecting cities such as Georgetown and Austin with San Marcos and San Antonio, running through their downtowns. That kind of connectivity offered greater employment, housing, educational and entertainment opportunities for the region.
Lone Star didn’t help itself by continuing to insist that it could resuscitate that plan. Even its influential supporters, such as Watson, who successfully kept the rail district’s state funding alive last year, recoiled at Lone Star’s inability to grasp the political ramifications of plowing forward with no route, right-of-way or financing, all at a time when cooperation with key state transportation officials has greatly improved.
Lone Star’s calamities, Conley said, threatened to “kill CAMPO’s political capital on any form of public transit.”
For passenger rail supporters, saving it meant severing it from Lone Star.
“Like many of my colleagues on the CAMPO board, I have lost faith in the ability of Lone Star Rail as an organization to spear-head this mission,” Eckhardt said. “I am committed to working with the Texas Department of Transportation and our partners in the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization to complete the Environmental Impact Statement (for rail) and engage Union Pacific in partnership to effectively and efficiently move people and goods through the IH35 corridor.”
If a majority of CAMPO members are serious about creating mobility solutions that are right for the region, they should not drag their feet on rail.