Wear: MetroRail station late and costlier? Yes and no. Maybe

10:47 a.m. Friday, Nov. 10, 2017 Local
The current MetroRail station in downtown Austin will be moved and expanded by Capital Metro over the next four years at what Capital Metro now estimates is a cost of $39.4 million. But that figures includes several utility replacements for the city of Austin and the nearby Hilton hotel. RICARDO B. BRAZZIELL / AMERICAN-STATESMAN

Maybe I got it wrong. Maybe I didn’t.

Either way, I wanted to walk you through what I wrote recently about the cost of Capital Metro’s new downtown rail station and the tangled history of those numbers.

My Nov. 1 news story focused on the added time and (seemingly) the added cost that the transit agency will need to build its new downtown MetroRail station. The gist of the story, based on interviews and a PowerPoint presentation from Capital Metro, was that it will take two more years than previously assumed to build the three-track, two-platform station a block to the east of the current one (which has a single track and one platform).

And, the article said, the $39.4 million cost estimate now is almost 80 percent above the $22 million that Capital Metro earlier had assigned to the project.

But a few days later my supervisor got an email from a reader raising questions about the station’s supposedly soaring price tag.

The reader pointed to a Capital Metro news release from June 27, 2014, the day after the Texas Transportation Commission agreed to give the transit agency a $50 million grant: $28 million for added MetroRail train cars, and $22 million for the station. The fifth paragraph of that release said this: “The new station configuration is estimated to cost between $30 million and $35 million, part of which will come from local partners.”

Well.

It’s worth knowing (and I put this in the Nov. 1 article) that the latest $39.4 million cost estimate includes $6 million for Capital Metro and its contractor to replace a city of Austin 30-inch-wide storm drain buried deep below East Fourth and Red River streets. The new version would be 60-inches wide and thus able to better serve the increasingly intense development in that quadrant of downtown. The city agreed this year to kick in $3 million, half the cost of the storm drain.

Why only half? That figure was the fruit of a negotiation between the two governments over several issues around the station upgrade, including easements, making more of East Fifth Street two-way, and the closure of parts of East Fourth and Nueces streets for the new station. Give a little, take a little. And it is not unusual, by the way, for the city to ask for utility changes in conjunction with other transportation projects (such as the MoPac and U.S. 183 toll projects). Better to tear up a street or highway just one time, right?

Anyway, once you take out the storm drain piece, the station project would cost at most $33 million. And, including the storm drain and taking into account the city’s contribution, Capital Metro’s total outlay would be $36.4 million.

So that $30 million to $35 million in the 2014 news release seems pretty accurate, making my story at least partially off base, as the reader suggested. The completion date is still much further into the future than the agency had previously announced.

So I called Mariette Hummel, Capital Metro’s primary spokeswoman. Why hadn’t they asked for a correction? I asked her.

The short answer is that they believed that the previous cost estimate had in fact been $22 million, aligned with the Texas Department of Transportation grant and with my understanding. Hummel, who wasn’t with Capital Metro in June 2014, was surprised to hear about the larger figures in the news release. She did some checking.

Long story short (too late!), the agency for much of the past three years had been operating under the idea that $22 million was the target figure, as in my article. The earlier, higher back-of-the-envelope estimate appeared to have been abandoned at some point.

Then, with the added utility work (the project will also include some other work related to the adjacent Hilton Hotel’s utilities) and other design changes, including installing a plaza where the current station sits and stylish metal “parasol” canopies at the new station, that figure had grown to the $39.4 million. Hummel, to her credit, still wasn’t asking for a correction.

But here it is anyway. Or, at least, a clarification.

The main thing is, Capital Metro, using $22 million from TxDOT, $14.4 million of its own (primarily sales tax) money and $3 million from the city of Austin, will be building a station that will be able to accommodate five trains at a time, rather than the current two. This will allow it to double frequency of train service, and the whole thing will be much fancier than what is there now. Ridership likely will go up — how much, how soon, we don’t know — and the urban landscape around Brush Square will be much nicer.

And it won’t be done until at least 2021.

Make of that what you will.

On an entirely unrelated subject …

I got another email last week, this one from a local law firm, informing me that “Potholes are a menace in Austin.” In fact, the Cagle law firm reported, more than 9,800 had been reported to Austin’s Public Works Department since 2014.

A reported 9,800! This summons an image of a transportation hellscape that, frankly, I just haven’t encountered while driving around Austin.

But, the firm’s website goes on to point out, Austin Public Works in a 2016 report said that 99 percent of those pavement pockmarks reported that year were fixed within 72 hours. So, OK, more of an aw-heckscape. The law firm site includes a handy interactive map showing the locations of about 7,400 of these street blemishes. The map’s puckish, if ungrammatical, key: “What am I looking at? Potholes!”

Technically, for almost all of them, ex-potholes.

But, along this line, about two weeks ago on a rushed trip up Windsor Road west of Lamar Boulevard, I personally experienced a suspension- and brain-rattling stretch of badly rippled pavement. Not really a pothole, but rather severe pavement settling and buckling on a steep incline. I went back later, at a more leisurely pace, and sure enough, this was a truly bad 100 feet or so. The Cagle map appears to include the section that I drove over.

We can only hope that Public Works will get to it soon.

Which made me want to ask you: What are the worst stretches of pavement in Central Texas you’ve driven over in recent weeks? Email them to me at bwear@statesman.com with, at least, a few sentences about how bad it was. I’ll make it my business to drive them myself, or at least a good sampling of them, and come back with a follow-up look at this in a few weeks.

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