Capital Metro was awarded an $11.3 million federal grant Sept. 5 that will allow the agency to make improvements and increase speed on its commuter MetroRail line.
The money comes from the fifth round of the Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery grant program. This is the first time Capital Metro has received a TIGER grant, and it is one of 52 grants in 37 states that received a total of $474 million in this round.
“TIGER grants are very competitive, and it’s a great sign for Capital Metro to be awarded one. …” said Jeremy Martin, senior vice president for government relations and regional infrastructure at the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “We need as many dollars as we can get to improve our multimodal transportation network.”
Capital Metro will be responsible for a $15.9 million local match, but freight carrier Watco Companies, which uses the rail line, has verbally committed to helping the agency fund part of that match, said Melvin Clark, Capital Metro’s vice president of rail operations. He said how much Capital Metro ultimately will pay has not yet been figured.
The result of the TIGER grant will help three critical needs, Capital Metro President and CEO Linda Watson said. The agency will be able to increase train speeds, provide a 30-minute train frequency and allow for freight trains to double the capacity they can carry.
Clark said the specifics improvements include increasing the elevation on curves to allow for faster speeds, enhancing the warning system at crossings and double tracking—also known as siding in the industry—at the Lakeline, Howard and Highland stations. Trains will be able to run across crossings at speeds of 50–60 mph instead of 40–45 mph, he said. The improvements will reduce commute times by 5–10 minutes.
Siding is a second line of tracks, and on the MetroRail line, the siding will go on the opposite side of the station so that the platform will be in the center. Clark said the agency already has double tracking at Parmer Lane near the Lakeline station, in Leander and at the Kramer and MLK stations.
The grant also will fund several bridge replacements and rail realignment for the freight customers that use the rail line.
Capital Metro originally requested $20 million from the TIGER grant program, and spokeswoman Francine Pares said the agency is now determining what projects will be included in its $11.9 million allowance.
U.S. Secretary of Transportation Anthony Foxx, who visited Austin on Sept. 5 to award the agency the grant, said the purpose of the TIGER grants is to get large multimodal projects that do not have funding off the ground. He said as a result, other communities have also been thinking innovatively to improve transportation systems.
“No one wants to get used to traffic jams and to long wait times and to the challenges that come when you have the kind of explosive population growth of a place like Austin,” Foxx said. “What’s critical is communities having the ability for a resident to choose a car, or to choose commuter rail or to choose to walk, or to choose a bicycle. That’s the kind of choices you’re making possible.”
Part of why Capital Metro requested the grant was because the agency had prioritized spending money on replacing equipment that is beyond its useful life rather than increasing capacity on the Red Line, Watson said.
“As this project became available, we were more than eager to increase capacity,” she said.
In the past three years, MetroRail ridership has increased by 225 percent, often resulting in standing-room-only during peak hours, Watson said. Ridership also spikes during events such as South by Southwest, when the agency extends and adds on service hours.
“People are using transit as an option to get to the many festivals, concerts and special events that we [host] here in Central Texas,” she said. “Ridership on the South by Southwest service that we provide has grown by 65 percent in just the last two years. This November, we’re going to see some similar trends when all the Formula 1 race fans come back to town.”
Economic development has also been booming along the rail line, Watson said, and has been a contributing factor to $95 million of development at the nine stations with another $280 million in various stages of development.
“Secretary Foxx’s announcement today couldn’t come at a better time for us,” she said.