In-Depth: Are trains the best solution for downtown Austin?

metrorail

AUSTIN (KXAN) — In the next 25 years, Austin metro area’s population is expected to nearly double to four million people, which means even more drivers on the roads. Interstate 35 is already among the top two most congested roadways in the state. And drivers will tell you Mopac isn’t much better.

Many more will also say we’re long overdue for a new mass transit option. Namely, light rail. The Guadalupe/N. Lamar corridor has come up time and time again as a desired location for such a system. A typical commute during rush hour will take you 35 to make the 5.3-mile stretch.

Historically, light rail has been a divisive topic in Austin. Rather than focus on opinions, KXAN wanted to zero in on what it would actually take for that option to become a reality in Austin, so we went straight to one the men behind our existing rail system.

Tucked away from traffic, around the bend from bumper-to-bumper, you’ll find MetroRail’s Crestview Station, off North Lamar. There’s a striking calm that’s better known as a typical afternoon on the commuter line which runs from Leander to downtown Austin. It’s there I met Lyndon Henry, a man with big visions, sitting at what was supposed to be just the start of something big.

“Kind of an interim solution,” Henry explained, looking at the MetroRail track. The transportation planning consultant and longtime rail proponent put together the plan he says got light rail into the city’s planning process. His proposal came out back in 1973. It’s a proposal, at its core, Henry and others believe still has promise.

“This Guadalupe/Lamar corridor over and over and over again has been shown to be the most viable corridor,” he said. An updated proposal didn’t make it on this year’s ballot, to run a 5.3 mile starter line from Republic Square downtown to Crestview Station off N. Lamar. The light rail projects that did go to voters in 2000 and 2014, failed in the bond elections.

“It didn’t really go from places people traveled,” Henry said of the 2014 proposal to run a 9.5 mile rail from Austin Community College’s Highland campus to Grove Blvd. off E. Riverside Dr.

Other Texas cities seeing success

In the time Austin has contemplated light rail, other Texas cities have gotten on board. Henry’s plan was released in 1973. In 1996, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) opened 11.2 miles of its now 90-mile light rail system, the longest system in the country. At the time, Dallas only had 120,000 more people than Austin does today. Daily passenger numbers exceeded expectations, averaging more than 18,000 passengers compared to the projected 15,000.

“It’s the best thing ever happened to Dallas County, I’m telling you, I’ve been here 50 years and it’s the best thing that ever happened,” DART rider Robert Williams told KXAN. “It is easy!”

Easy, a word you’ll be hard-pressed to hear in Austin. Mara Mays misses the days of her old job, when she could ride the MetroRail to work. Now, her commute is an hour and a half each way.

“No stress. I didn’t have to worry about how I was going to get to work each morning,” Mays said.

But it’s the gap in between morning and evening commutes, where ridership is standing room only, that has Austinite Blake Mendez doubting rail as a solid city investment.

“In the afternoon, all the time, often when I’ve ridden I’m the only one on the train. So it kind of makes me wonder about the efficacy of the dollars at work,” Mendez said. “We can do better.”

“MetroRail is a successful example of a commuter rail line, and that’s what it was intended to be.” Cap Metro’s Communications Manager Francine Pares told KXAN,  “It is not a light rail system that travels along major surface street corridors, and it shouldn’t be judged against such transit modes.”

Council Member Greg Casar agrees the modes are different and says there is only so much MetroRail can accomplish, which is why he advocated for light rail to be included in this year’s bond election. Fellow council members felt the turnaround time was too quick to get the plan properly vetted.

“I think the City of Austin does have to step up and figure out how to get a less commuter and more urban-focused rail line on the ground,” Casar said. “The existing rail system was really designed more as a commuter rail. While it certainly serves some Austinites, I envision a mass transportation system that goes from our most densely populated areas to our workplaces so that everyday people inside the City of Austin no longer just have one choice for getting back and forth from work. And that’s driving alone in a car.”

Henry says it’s been the same talk for the past 40 years.

“There’s just been a lot of utter confusion and diddling and indecision on the part of city leadership, one leadership after the other,” Henry said.

In August, when voting on bond language to include on the November ballot, several council members expressed their desire to get serious, “get back in the rail business” and get something passed. Council also approved the creation of a bond task force with light rail as a major focus. The transportation mode could end up back on the ballot as soon as next year.

“An investment in mass transit is expensive on the front end, but it will be much costlier for us later on down the road if we don’t address our significant transportation problems just like our affordability problems,” Casar said.

Capital Metro tells KXAN when looking to the future of light rail in Austin, it too is looking back at past rail concepts.

“We’re going back through the archives through the past 30 years of all the different studies, evaluations, ideas, concepts, etc. that have come out about public transportation,” Cap Metro’s Vice President of Planning and Development, Todd Hemingson said. “Checking them, checking the assumptions behind them, are they realistic? Do people really understand the tradeoffs?”

Hemingson says making light rail a reality all comes down to two critical elements: public support and funding.

But, with Capital Metro’s involvement comes criticism for the way it’s handled taxpayer dollars in the past. Especially when voters were told the MetroRail was going to cost $60 million and the project ended up costing nearly $140 million.

When asked how Cap Metro will prevent the vast underestimating of a project cost again, Hemingson said, “There’s a tendency to want to announce a cost estimate that sounds good but may not be practical. Or reasonable. And I think that what we’ve learned as well is we’re being more realistic when we say how much something’s going to cost and then be more confident we can actually deliver it at that cost.”

Hemingson explained Cap Metro has put a lot of work into improving internal processes and looking at how much money systems of similar natures cost, as well as following good project management, engineering and cost estimating protocols.

Expanding MetroRail capacity

Cap Metro is currently preparing to expand the MetroRail, adding four more rail cars, expanding the downtown station and increasing service times from every 30 minutes in rush hour to every 15 minutes. The service improvements are expected to be complete by the end of 2018.

“It was an important first step. And we need to improve upon it,” Hemingson said of the existing line. “There’s people out there that would like to ride but they know the train is full when they want to ride so they aren’t using it. But we think when we offer more frequent service, longer hours, and even additional weekend service, we’ll see ridership start to rebound and grow even more.”

Cap Metro will also add more than 500 parking spaces to its Park & Rides next year, to meet the growing demand for MetroRail.

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