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TxDOT helps Capital Metro expand its rail line

With some of the worst traffic congestion in the country, the Austin area needs all the help it can get in providing mobility options to commuters. Some help on that front came from the Texas Department of Transportation, which last week awarded Capital Metro $50 million to help expand its commuter rail line.

The action by TxDOT raised more than a few eyebrows because it seemed a rather unorthodox gesture by an agency that primarily has concerned itself with financing highway work. If the action signals a shift in TxDOT’s approach to transportation, however, that is a good thing. Given the state’s population growth in the past few decades — and in particular growth in and around metropolitan centers — no one mode of transportation is capable of moving people around efficiently or resolving escalating traffic congestion. Austin, as well as other big cities, needs options.

The timing of the TxDOT grant also is important, adding credibility to a transit agency whose management nearly drove its finances into red ink just a few years ago under different leadership, earning a scathing review from state auditors. It also comes after the agency received an $11.3 million federal grant for improvements to MetroRail.

It’s worth noting that Austin’s state Sen. Kirk Watson, a Democrat, was influential in helping Capital Metro obtain the grant from the transportation department. With the money, Watson said, Capital Metro will be able to basically “double capacity.” He is correct. And Capital Metro President and CEO Linda Watson explained how that would happen, though it would take up to three years to accomplish that goal.

Of the total $50 million, $28 million will finance the purchase of four more trains. Adding four trains to MetroRail’s current fleet of six trains would allow its Red Line to accommodate up to 2,400 more passenger trips daily, Linda Watson told us.

That means MetroRail would be able to finally increase its frequency during peak periods so trains could run every 15 minutes — instead of every 34 minutes, as it currently does. Extra trains on the Red Line would permit weekday service to be extended beyond 6:30 p.m., she said. That addresses two big criticisms of the rail line: People have complained about waiting a half hour between trains, particularly during peak hours when trains fill up; there also is demand during weekdays for trains that leave later than 6:30 p.m. to accommodate a workforce with flexible hours.

Capital Metro’s Red Line provides round-trip service Mondays through Fridays from Austin to Leander. On Saturdays there is limited service during afternoon and evening hours up to midnight from the downtown station and no service on Sundays.

The remaining $22 million would be used to construct a permanent and enhanced MetroRail station downtown. If you’ve ever been in or around the downtown station during special events, such as South by Southwest or Formula One, you’ve seen why there is a need for a larger and better facility. It’s chaos.

The current downtown station on East Fourth Street has one track and platform and room for one car lane in the block between Trinity and Neches streets. It doesn’t take much for the platform to fill up and the crowds to overflow the platform, sidewalks and streets. Then there are the aesthetics of a bare-bones station, which detracts from the appearance of a visitor corridor that includes the Austin Convention Center and several hotels and restaurants. The station will get a facelift, Linda Watson said, transforming it to a multimodal terminal that connects with local bus service as well as future urban rail — if Austin voters approve it and the federal government agrees to share in its cost. The design is expected to include up to three tracks and two platforms, she said. Local partners are expected to help make up any additional costs for the design, which could total $30 million to $35 million, Capital Metro officials said.

“This is a great place-making opportunity,” Linda Watson told us. “If you think about a transit plaza and have some other amenities around, people can enjoy the space if they are waiting on a train, taking a lunch break or just enjoying an urban area. We have so many great ideas and smart people in this community.”

To that point, the agency already is in talks and meetings with stakeholders, including the Downtown Austin Alliance, several city departments, convention center and Hilton hotel officials. One idea that has come up is a proposed pedestrian walkway in the corridor.

The grant from TxDOT is a vote of confidence in Capital Metro’s current leadership team and reconstituted board, led by Austin City Council Member Mike Martinez. Such confidence was in short supply several years ago, when Capital Metro was the subject of a state audit and subsequent legislative fixes because of budget problems and mismanagement. The agency’s fund balance, which had been nearly depleted, has bounced back to about $89 million, officials said. In another show of confidence, the city of Austin has designated Capital Metro as the agency to run its proposed urban rail system.

The changes are a few years away, but they are welcome as part of a menu of options the region needs to address transportation challenges.

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