EXCLUSIVE: Costs rising, timeline slipping for new MetroRail station


Highlights

The new station, originally estimated to cost $22 million, is now $39.4 million and slated to open in 2021.

Cap Metro officials say negotiations with the city, and its utility demands, added much of the time and cost.

A TxDOT grant will cover $22 million of the station cost, and the city will kick in $3 million for utilities.

The new downtown MetroRail station will take two years longer to complete than Capital Metro said just a few months ago, and cost about 80 percent more than the original $22 million estimate.

That $39.4 million cost to move and expand the “temporary” station, which has sat at Fourth and Neches streets since the commuter rail line opened in March 2010, now includes several underground utility projects that drove up the cost considerably. Austin will pay $3 million of that cost.

But Capital Metro officials also pointed to changes they chose to make during the design, including crossing gates at Sabine, stylized metal canopies at the new station and the cost of building a temporary train station east of Red River Street during construction.

The overall project would shift the rail station a block east on Fourth Street, between Neches and Red River streets, and provide three stretches of track to accommodate five MetroRail trains at a time. That would allow Capital Metro to board and move more people during rush hour and festivals, when the 200-person cars are standing-room-only.

The existing rail station site would become a pedestrian plaza, and the two blocks of Fourth between Trinity and Red River streets would be closed to cars. A couple of months ago city officials converted a portion of Fifth Street to two-way traffic to help with that shift.

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The Lance Armstrong Bikeway would remain along Fourth. But during construction, now expected to run from 2019 to 2021, the cycling path would temporarily jog up to East Fifth Street on Trinity and return to Fourth via Sabine. That would temporarily displace three blocks of parking on East Fifth and cost the city about $250,000 in lost parking revenue over the course of construction, Capital Metro officials said.

Apart from the city’s $3 million contribution toward project costs, funding includes $22 million from a Texas Department of Transportation grant awarded to Capital Metro in 2014. The higher-than-expected price tag now means that Capital Metro will dip into its local tax and fare revenue to cover the remaining $14.4 million.

The price includes $4.1 million for Downtown Gateway Partners, an engineering consultant, to do the project’s final design. That figure, too, has grown from the original $2.5 million approved by the Capital Metro board in 2016.

As for the later completion date of the new station, Capital Metro officials in an interview this week pointed to several factors. That included a 17-month negotiation — 10 months longer than they expected — on an agreement with the city that included requirements for a major storm drain installation. And getting required city permits, project manager Marcus Guerrero said, could take as long as another year.

The agency expects to begin seeking construction bids in early 2019.

As recently as July 2016, Capital Metro officials were still predicting that the new station would be in place and operating by fall 2018. By last May, that had slipped to 2019.

MetroRail, which runs 32 miles between downtown to Leander on what is mostly a single track, has just under 3,000 boardings each weekday. Officials say that ridership has been artificially constrained by the lack of train cars — MetroRail for much of its life has had just six — a paucity of sections with two tracks to allow northbound and southbound trains to pass one another, and the cramped downtown station.

A $50 million TxDOT grant — with $28 million allocated for added train cars and the money for the new station — was intended to allow Capital Metro to increase the trains’ rush hour frequency from every 34 minutes to every 15 minutes.

The current MetroRail runs during the morning and evening commute periods are packed, though many other runs through the middle of the day have very light ridership.

The agency also landed other federal grants and set aside its own money to add passing track in several places between downtown and Leander, work that Capital Metro spokeswoman Mariette Hummel said is about to begin.

Four added cars, however, are now on hand and near the end of testing, officials said. So in January, Hummel said, the agency will begin running two cars in tandem — not attached, but closely spaced — at rush hour. That will essentially double capacity, though not frequency, she said.

The more ideal situation, with trains running every quarter of an hour, will have to wait for the passing track and new downtown station.

Under the current design, which Guerrero characterized as 60 percent toward its final form, the station would have two ground-level platforms, one on the north side of Fourth that would double as a sidewalk and another between the middle track and the southern track.

Because of the length of those platform areas, two trains could be in place on both the north and middle tracks, and one on the south track, allowing Capital Metro in high-demand times to board up to 1,000 passengers in a short time.

MetroRail customers, and others who frequent that southeast quadrant of downtown, will face considerable disruption for a couple of years. During construction of the new station and public plaza, a new temporary MetroRail station will be installed between Red River and Sabine streets. Capital Metro is also replacing Fourth Street bridges over Waller Creek and adding a second track from near Sabine to east of Interstate 35.

The utility work — including replacing a 30-inch storm sewer with a 60-inch version — will extend north and south of Fourth.



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