Cap Metro draws nearer to $85 million MetroRail expansion

Big changes for the downtown MetroRail station and East Fourth Street drew an important step closer Monday when the Capital Metro board approved a $2.5 million contract for the final design of a much larger depot for the commuter line.

The revamped and relocated station — its two platforms and three tracks will be between Neches and Red River streets, a block east of where the current station sits — is a key piece of an $85.3 million MetroRail upgrade that Capital Metro officials say will allow them to offer service every 15 minutes during rush hour. The trains currently are limited to running every 30 minutes or so because the 32-mile line is primarily a single track with few places where northbound and southbound trains can pass each other.

But the rail improvements will come at a cost for motorists. East Fourth Street, which has a continuous westbound lane from Interstate 35 to Trinity Street (and continues on to the west), would be closed to cars between Red River and Trinity. The plan requires approval of not only the Capital Metro board, but also the Austin City Council. The council probably will vote on an agreement with Capital Metro in September, officials said.

Under the preliminary design that emerged over the past two years, East Fourth between Neches and Trinity will become a “transit plaza” with sidewalks and trees. The Lance Armstrong Bikeway will continue to run through the site, under I-35 and into East Austin.

By having two platforms, both much longer than the current one, Capital Metro could have up to six train cars sitting in the station at once, allowing huge capacity during special events such as South by Southwest, when MetroRail sees far greater than normal usage.

More to the expansion

Aside from the $22 million in station changes, the project includes $28 million to buy four more train cars from Stadler Bussnang, the Swiss manufacturer of the six original MetroRail vehicles used since the service went live in March 2010. The money for the station and train cars came from a $50 million Texas Department of Transportation grant.

Capital Metro is spending another $35.3 million upgrading track along the line — this has occurred already, said Ken Cartwright, the agency’s vice president of capital projects — plus rebuilding some bridges and installing a second track for passing at the Lakeline, Howard and Crestview stations. The line has passing track at its north end at Leander and at the Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard station.

Capital Metro will use an $11.3 million federal grant and $24 million of local sales tax revenue for this part of the project.

The improvement costs, coincidentally, would nearly double the $90 million that Capital Metro originally estimated in 2004 that it would take to overhaul an old freight line for MetroRail and buy the first six train cars. The original project, which took more than five years to complete, eventually exceeded that estimate by at least $15 million.

Ridership bump expected

If all goes as planned, officials said, construction on East Fourth should begin next spring and the downtown station should be ready by the fall of 2018, allowing the more frequent service.

MetroRail ridership on weekdays has more or less stalled out at about 2,700 boardings a day for the past couple of years because of the 35-minute headways. During morning and evening rush hours, several of the trains are at or near standing room only — about 200 passengers (although midday and evening trains, and those going the reverse commuting direction, are often nearly empty).

Capital Metro officials believe that with more capacity during those two hours in the morning and two hours in the evening, MetroRail ridership should see a considerable increase.

“This is the most efficient pipeline in and out of downtown,” Capital Metro board Chairman Wade Cooper said Monday, before the board’s 6-0 vote. “We’re right in the middle of what’s going on, and a lot of people have a stake in it. This was a very narrow fairway to hit, and we had to get it right for everyone involved.”

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