A complex web of transit, road, bridge, utility and public space projects — work that will reshape several blocks of downtown and double the rush-hour capacity of MetroRail — could start as early as August.
The Austin City Council on Thursday will consider two measures, one setting aside $500,000 to close two blocks of East Fourth Street and convert one-way East Fifth Street to a two-way road, and another committing $3 million toward a $6 million revamp of storm sewers in downtown’s southeast quadrant.
The council also will consider the approval of an agreement with Capital Metro on various elements of the overall project, which was triggered by Capital Metro’s intention to replace its 7-year-old “temporary” downtown MetroRail station with a much larger facility. That 39-page document says construction of the new station is scheduled to begin in August and be completed sometime in 2019.
Capital Metro is in the final stages of design for the new station, which would have two platforms (rather than the current one) and three tracks at the platforms, as opposed to the current single track. The new station would be between Neches and Red River streets, tucked between the Hilton Austin Hotel and the Austin Convention Center.
A new plaza would be created where the station now sits on East Fourth between Neches and Trinity streets. That space, aside from being what the city hopes would be a pleasant gathering spot alongside the existing Brush Square pocket park, would ease crowding on and near the station platforms, Capital Metro hopes. The project also includes other related work, including rebuilding an East Fourth Street bridge over Waller Creek.
The relocated station and plaza would use all of what was East Fourth for two blocks — one westbound lane is currently available to cars — cutting off a back door into downtown that becomes particularly handy when East Sixth Street is closed for festivals or weekend revelry. Because of that, the city and Capital Metro propose to make East Fifth two-way between Brazos Street and Interstate 35’s southbound frontage road.
The city, in a recent traffic impact analysis, said making East Fifth two-way in that six-block stretch — and closing those two blocks of East Fourth — will improve traffic dramatically during East Sixth Street’s many closures. That analysis said that when such closures happen, motorists trying to take East Fourth as alternative tend to back up on the I-35 frontage road, blocking drivers on East Fifth. That stack-up on East Fifth then blocks traffic on the north-south streets, particularly Red River, and creates gridlock in that area.
The analysis, however, did say the change could add one to two minutes to eastbound commuters’ trips during afternoon drive time.
While many of MetroRail’s north and south runs each day have few passengers, trains are usually standing-room-only on weekdays for several morning southbound trains and several northbound trips in the afternoon commuting period. Because of a lack of trains, adequate bypass tracks (the Capital Metro line has a single track for most of its 32-mile run to Leander) and the small downtown station, MetroRail must have 30 minutes between each train run.
But using a $50 million Texas Department of Transportation grant and other funds, Capital Metro has bought four more train cars that were delivered recently and are undergoing testing (it has had just six since the rail service began in 2010), added passing tracks and will expand the downtown station. That will allow trains to run at 15-minute intervals at peak commuting periods, doubling capacity. The changes also will help at other sporadic times of heavy demand, principally during the South by Southwest and Pecan Street festivals.