Scott Ball / Rivard Report
The Alamo Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (AAMPO) met on Monday to discuss transportation issues, such as the Lone Star Rail District (LSRD), which received special attention due to a recent conflict between the LSRD, the Capitol Area Metropolitan Planning Organization (CAMPO), and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT).
The LSRD was recently handed a setback when CAMPO voted to remove the project from its long-term transportation plan and requested that TxDOT stop funding its environmental impact study (EIS). Sid Covington, chairman of the LSRD, sent a letter to TxDOT and the Texas Division of the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) claiming that CAMPO and TxDOT are potentially in violation of the Federal Environmental Protection Act in attempting to halt the process.
“(CAMPO) under the direction of its chairman is attempting to artificially determine the outcome of that environmental review process through political means – a clear violation of NEPA,” Covington said in the letter to the FHWA.
At the AAMPO meeting, Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (Pct. 3) said that the infighting taking place between the governmental agencies neither benefits anybody nor provides solutions to the area’s transportation problems.
“(Lone Star Rail) has another $5.7 million in order to complete (an EIS) I think any rational person already knows the answer to,” Wolff said, alluding to the LSRD project having minimal negative impact on the environment. “What I’m hearing Lone Star Rail doing is telling CAMPO that they can’t defund them. It’s a good way to lose friends and influence enemies.”
Wolff added that the back-and-forth between agencies has the potential to slow down the process of working out a governance model that is right for continuing the LSRD project.
On Aug. 23, the Bexar County Commissioner’s Court passed a resolution in support of transferring the planning duties of the LSRD to AAMPO and CAMPO while keeping the EIS in place to be worked on until completion.
Don Dixon, a member of the public, spoke against public funding of the LSRD project during the Citizens to be Heard portion of the meeting.
“I don’t think any more money should be put into this project, local, state, or federal,” Dixon said. “We need to expand I-35. You can’t have a rail in the middle of a freeway.”
No action was taken on the matter during the meeting, but officials will continue to follow the situation as it develops.
After the meeting, Wolff told the Rivard Report that the LSRD project has been difficult to move from the planning phase, so he wants AAMPO and CAMPO to take over the planning stage of the project.
“Obviously we’ve struggled a lot in regards to rail in the Austin-San Antonio corridor,” Wolff said. “Fifteen to twenty years ago, our hope was to fulfill that dream. That hasn’t happened. A lot of money’s been spent, a lot of talking’s been done, but there’s no real movement.”
Wolff added that both cities should look through existing plans to evaluate which parts of I-35’s EIS are applicable to LSRD. He also said that one of the major barriers to continuing the project is the lack of cooperation from Union Pacific.
“We’ve learned that Union Pacific has no interest or desire to share or sell any right-of-way,” Wolff explained. “They’ve told us flat out that the area is their fastest growing freight rail system in the nation so they don’t want to give up any of those dollars.”
The next step, Wolff said, would be for both Austin and San Antonio’s MPOs to go through the defunding process while assuming planning responsibilities for the LSRD, and incorporate the rail project into the existing I-35 expansion plans.
But that doesn’t mean the project would even be completed, Wolff said.
“Just in our MPO alone, our 25-year plan has about $20 billion in projects in it,” he explained. “These are not ‘nice-to-haves,’ these are ‘have-to-haves.’ Over that same period of time, based on current revenue streams, we’ll only collect about $7 billion.”
While the project doesn’t have a good chance of being funded, Wolff said, the possibility of incorporating it into existing highway expansion plans cannot be ignored.
In a Monday phone interview following the meeting, LSRD Deputy Executive Director Joe Black told the Rivard Report that, despite the probability of the project decreasing, the conversation about alternative transportation methods keeps its chances alive.
“There’s not enough money or space for concrete to address the needs of the region,” Black said. “So we’re still hopeful. We’re looking at transitioning the project to another entity – maybe to a coalition of cities.”
Black added that reopening talks with Union Pacific may help solve some of the issues facing the rail project.
“Our original project is the best project, but it doesn’t fit with the Union Pacific business environment,” he said.
But for now, the project is in limbo.
“The probability of the project being completed with the current defunding process is about 30-70,” Black said. “But if we can transfer ownership to another public entity, the chances go up.”
Top Image: Bexar County Commissioner Kevin Wolff (P2). Photo by Scott Ball.