Capital Metro is in the midst of making millions of dollars worth of upgrades to Austin’s commuter rail line that will allow the transit agency to increase frequency and capacity.
The area transit agency added new trains in January to the MetroRail line to provide relief to crowded rush hour trips, but recent construction to add a second set of tracks called siding that will allow trains to pass in opposite directions has caused delays of up to an hour.
Commuter frustration over the delays, which are expected to continue through the end of 2018, led the agency’s new President and CEO, Randy Clarke, who started work March 7, to respond.
“These projects are an investment in the future of Capital Metro’s rail line and will pay off with doubled frequency and capacity,” he said. “Having said that, we owe it to our customers to communicate any delays and modified schedules in a more proactive manner.”
Capital Metro launched a schedule in January aiming to double capacity on its three highest-use morning and afternoon trips. Because its platforms are not long enough, the transit agency could not link two trains together. Instead, a second train followed the first one five minutes later. Due to the recent delays, Capital Metro rolled out a new schedule March 19.
Need for more frequency
Capital Metro launched the Red Line on March 22, 2010, on 32 miles of existing freight railroad tracks initially as a commuter line offering trips during peak morning and afternoon hours.
Since then ridership has increased, and so has the need for more rail trips.
When work on the siding is finished in December and the new permanent downtown rail station opens in 2021, the agency would like to expand service and run trains every 15 minutes.
“That is the thinking around here: We ultimately want a seven-day-a-week service to cover all stations and provide as much service as we can possibly deliver,” said Roberto Gonzalez, Capital Metro’s director of service planning.
Many residents have asked about further expanding service to run later on weekdays, Saturday mornings and on Sundays. Although the new trains can help with capacity during peak hours, expanding service hours would require more spending to fund more engineers to operate more service, Gonzalez said.
Increasing frequency from currently every 34-60 minutes to every 15 minutes requires improvements that are underway.
“The thing that caps our frequency on the Red Line is the fact that we only have two places where the trains can pass one other,” said Sam Sargent, interim program manager at Capital Metro. “Geometrically, mathematically, there is not a way right now to go more frequently than 34 minutes.”
In December, Capital Metro began work to add siding at the Lakeline, Howard and Crestview stations as well as at the Austin Junction in East Austin near Sixth Street and Pedernales Street.
Once the work is done, Capital Metro can revisit its MetroRail schedule to see how to tweak it, Gonzalez said.
“We have some draft schedules, but we’re still working on those because a number of other projects are also underway on the system,” he said. “Overall the goal is to become more frequent and offer more bidirectional service.”
Looking ahead to future service
In January, Capital Metro also rerouted its Express buses to use the new MoPac express lanes that opened in October. The transit agency added more trips on routes 985 and 987, which serve the Lakeline and Leander stations.
Sargent said the number of express bus trips from Leander Station have increased since January from 21 to 62 trips daily, or an increase of about 200 percent.
“Essentially, there is almost a [tripling] of the number of trips over the course of the day from before for folks up in Leander on Metro Express [bus routes],” Sargent said.
So far the increase in service has helped at least one area commuter. Georgetown resident Norma Norman said she drives into Leander to ride the MetroRail or Express buses downtown about three times per week. Since the service changes in January, she said she has been getting into work about five or 10 minutes earlier.
Norman said she sometimes rides the train in the morning to the Downtown Austin Station. Rather than take a commuter bus back to the downtown rail stop in the afternoon, she can hop on the 985 bus route back to Leander.
“I would take [the bus] in the morning, but I love the rail,” she said. "I get the best of both worlds."
Norman said she hopes to see more expansion to Capital Metro’s services and more trains in the future, as did Leander Mayor Pro Tem Jeff Seiler. He said he would like to see weekend service in Leander.
“I also think [Capital Metro] should be providing service to Leander when we have big events,” he said. “It’d be great for Austin residents to get on the train and travel to Leander for the Old Town Street Festival or Liberty Fest. The train shouldn’t just be for Leander to get to Austin, but for Austin to get to Leander.”
Leander City Manager Kent Cagle said the city is expecting to see future services from Capital Metro, such as a circulator bus route within Leander and the launch of Saturday service, which currently ends its weekend trips at Lakeline Station, sometime in 2019 or 2020.
The transit agency also owns two parcels of land around the train station in Leander. A parcel to the north is planned to become a future maintenance facility for Capital Metro.
“[The facility] will bring several hundred jobs to Leander, and it also guarantees that every single train will start and end its day in Leander,” Cagle said.
Capital Metro also owns about 50 acres around the train station, which the transit agency plans to develop into a mixed-use center with commercial, residential and retail options. Cagle said the project could be done similar to the Plaza Saltillo Station in Austin, where Capital Metro partnered on the development with Endeavor Real Estate Group.
“We’d hope for some type of partnership that they would have, public-private partnership with a private developer, [Capital] Metro and perhaps the city of Leander as well,” he said.
City leaders and residents in Leander are not the only ones keeping an eye on possible future services. When Cedar Park City Council Member Heather Jefts was elected in May, she ran on a platform of reopening negotiations with the transit agency. She said Capital Metro’s recent increased services enhances her desire to reach out.
“I’ve been hoping [Cedar Park] would consider [Capital Metro] for a while, and I think now it’s just gotten to the tipping point,” she said. “There’s just so much traffic on our roads, and with by-in [traffic] from our neighbors, it seems counterintuitive for the city to stay isolated.”
At the end of January, Cedar Park put out a request for qualifications to find a consultant to compile a city transit study. Diana Vargas, a senior redevelopment project manager with the city, said the consultant will look at existing and future demand on the city's transportation systems.
“All options, including rail, will be considered,” she said.
Jefts said the transit plan will evaluate what other area cities have done to combat traffic issues, such as Round Rock and Georgetown, which now have Capital Metro bus routes operating in both cities.
“Cedar Park is in a unique position now where we get to see what has worked for other cities,” she said.
The city has also considered transit options in its future Bell Boulevard redevelopment. Cedar Park is in the process of realigning about 1 mile of US 183 near Buttercup Creek Boulevard, which will open up space for a mixed-use “destination” district.
During a council workshop in February, City Council members discussed the feasibility of having a rail stop near the Bell development. Jefts said the development would be her location of choice for a rail stop.
A permanent downtown station
Capital Metro’s largest short-term MetroRail upgrade is building a permanent downtown Austin station on Fourth Street between the Austin Convention Center and the Hilton Austin hotel. The agency plans to finish design on the project in April, and construction could begin in 2019 and wrap up in late 2021.
In proposed designs unveiled Feb. 19, renderings show the new station, will include two platforms and three tracks with enough space to accommodate five trains, each of which has two cars. The existing station has only one track and one platform.
The new station also will move one block east directly between the Hilton and the convention center. Traffic in front of the Hilton on Neches Street will end in a cul-de-sac, and Fourth will become part of a public plaza that could host community events.
Once the new station is finished, it will allow Capital Metro to also expand its special events service, such as for the South by Southwest conference and festival, Project Manager Markus Guerrero said.
“That station also allows us to look at things in the future beyond the Red Line,” he said.