Thursday morning was not a good time to be waiting for a Megabus in Austin.
Just after 10 a.m., with the bus to Dallas not yet on scene, six waiting passengers were huddled on the north side of the company’s “terminal,” that being a parking lot at 2002 Whitis Ave. just off the University of Texas campus. The temperature, my iPhone said, was 42 degrees. But with a strong north wind whipping around, it felt much colder. Everyone there (including this reporter) was pretty much freezing.
In less than a month, assuming Megabus officials aren’t being overly optimistic again, that situation will improve. The company’s new Austin stop, a refurbished former gas station at 1500 San Jacinto Blvd., complete with bathrooms and plenty of indoor seating, should be ready by the end of December, spokesman Sean Hughes told me.
The opening will come about 15 months after the Austin City Council gave final permission to Coach USA, Megabus’ New Jersey-based parent company, to lease the property from owner Bob Woody and use it as a bus terminal. And about four months later than the company, in July, had said that it would open.
“Contracting delays,” Hughes explained, sort of, in an emailed answer about the delay.
At any rate, after about 4½ years of service in Austin from curb sides and, by 2014, that humble parking lot on Whitis, the low-cost bus company will now have a sheltered, climate-controlled home for its customers.
Some work remained when I visited the site last week.
The outside, which had been a quirky green-yellow-and-red combo in the building’s last use as a restaurant, now wears a sparkling white coat of paint, with green tile and accents in Megabus blue. A new curb has been laid down along 15th Street (more on that in a minute).
A single painter was working on the building’s interesting, Art Deco interior, which has huge windows covering most of its curved walls and that same pretty green tile setting off the new white and blue paint. There appeared to be a small counter that Megabus employees could use, but no equipment installed at this point. One of the entryways was sealed with plywood, presumably awaiting delivery and installation of a door.
The thousand or so square feet was more or less empty, with a random chair the only furnishing at this point. Hughes said there will be plenty of seating for passengers waiting to board Megabus’ double-decker, 81-seat coaches.
The open question is whether the new location, which lies about a half-mile southeast of the current Megabus stop, will discourage ridership by University of Texas students in particular. West Campus, where so many students live, will go from being a short stroll to a Megabus to at least a 15-minute walk — with luggage.
On the other hand, the new stop, located in the middle of the Capitol complex just three blocks from the statehouse, could draw from the thousands of state employees working nearby. It will be much closer, though still a decent walk, from downtown on the other side of the Capitol. And of course the low-if-varying fares — book early enough and you might pay only a dollar one way, with a $2 booking fee — will remain.
Hughes said Megabus riders here had been asking for an upgrade from standing in a parking lot, and “we are happy to give them what they want.” Certainly the prospect of shelter will be a selling point.
“That’s going to really help on days like this,” said David Vartian, an Austin Community College student waiting Thursday morning to make the four-hour trip to Dallas. Vartian, 20, who had paid $20 for a round-trip ticket, was huddling in an alcove of the Dobie Center to avoid the icy winds.
He said he uses Megabus five or six times a year to visit his parents in Frisco, north of Dallas. The new site will be more inconvenient than the lot on Whitis, he said, but that likely wouldn’t discourage his use of the service.
Megabus might not have had much choice. City officials in 2014 had made it clear they weren’t happy with the parking lot location, devoid as it is of bathrooms and shelter. So the company went looking, and the old filling station emerged as an alternative.
As I wrote in 2015, some unexpected bumps emerged. The station sits right next to the only dwelling for many blocks around that urban bastion of bureaucracy, a 10-unit apartment house. Its owners opposed the project, complaining that early morning and late night buses would disturb the peace of their tenants, and that buses emerging during afternoon rush hour on East 15th Street would further snarl heavy traffic generated by state workers heading home.
The city eventually granted permission for Megabus to make the move, but with conditions. The buses will enter and exit the corner site on San Jacinto, not 15th, and there will be no bus runs 4-6 p.m. on weekdays, before 7 a.m. or later than 11 p.m.
It’s worth noting that Megabus isn’t the only cross-country bus service out of Austin. Greyhound and Trailways still operate out of a depot in North Austin on U.S. 290 and Airport Boulevard, and the luxury option Vonlane offers rides from the Hyatt Regency hotel on Lady Bird Lake.
But if you’re using Megabus in the next few weeks, consider this a heads-up. Depending on when you go, and how soon the company actually gets things in shape on San Jacinto, the bus (finally) might be waiting for you in a different spot.