Two decades in the making: Will the dreadful SA-Austin I-35 commute be alleviated with a new rail line? Right now, it's not looking that way.
After more than a decade of planning, efforts by the Lone Star Rail District to build a commuter train between San Antonio and Austin just keep dying. And this week, the chatter is that central Texas rail is dead. Again.
The Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, or CAMPO, a Central Texas transportation planning body, on Monday voted to remove the Lone Star Rail District commuter train proposal from its long-range plan, which could freeze millions of dollars in funding for an environmental impact study needed to move the project forward. After a series of public meetings, CAMPO will make a final decision in October, the Austin Business Journal reports.
Joe Black, rail director for the district, says he suspended work on that environmental study Tuesday morning and will discuss the development with the district's partners on the project, the Texas Department of Transportation and the Federal Highway Administration. Black also says rail district staff need to meet with their board of directors for new directives in the wake of the planning organization's decision to effectively cut the rail project out of its plan.
This hasn't been a great year for the rail district, which was dealt a major blow in February when Union Pacific announced that it would not let a commuter train operate on its freight tracks between San Antonio and Austin. Up to that point, all of the organization's commuter rail plans relied on that stretch of Union Pacific track.
However, Black said at the time that the Lone Star Rail District would explore alternative routes and continue the environmental impact study. Those alternatives all involve the I-35 corridor and include the SH130 corridor, an abandoned rail alignment east of Austin, a new right-of-way parallel to Union Pacific's tracks or a hybrid of those options. As for the environmental study, it was expected to be complete by 2018.
But CAMPO isn't the only organization that's ready to pull funding from the Lone Star Rail District. Also on Monday night, the Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization recommended denying any future funding for the project's planning process, the San Antonio Express-News reported
Black, however, says he doesn't think this is the end for the project. He is, however, clearly discouraged by recent developments. "I think it's a worthy project, one the region truly needs," Black told us. "I'm not worried about the rail district or even my own job." Black insists there's reason to keep the project alive because he thinks there's a possibility for renegotiating with Union Pacific. "I'm hoping that cooler heads prevail over the next few weeks," he said.