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by Angela Cotey, Associate Editor
Officials at the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority refer to the agency's 32-mile Austin-to-Leander, Texas, rail system as a commuter-rail demonstration project.
For Capital Metro — which, up until a year ago, had only operated bus service — the project has demonstrated many things: how to obtain voter approval to build a new rail system, build that system with a limited budget and tight schedule, choose the rolling stock that best suits the system's and passengers' needs, and adjust schedules to maximize ridership potential.
Along the way, Capital Metro officials also learned a few lessons. Fast-tracking project elements to stay on budget and schedule can make for some major headaches. It's not easy to meet ridership and transit-oriented development expectations (TOD), especially in the midst of a deep recession. And, above all, adapting quickly when plans don't progress as expected is key.
In the coming months and years, Capital Metro officials will have a chance to apply what they've learned as they seek to expand service in Austin and surrounding communities, and determine how they can connect the commuter-rail system to other planned rail lines.
For now, agency execs are expanding their commuter-rail knowledge and experience by the day, as Capital MetroRail enters its second year of operation. The system, which opened in March 2010, had been part of the Capital Metro plan since the agency was formed in 1985. Shortly after Capital Metro was created, the agency purchased a 162-mile freight corridor stretching from Giddings to Llano, with the intent of eventually operating passenger-rail service on it.
In 2000, Capital Metro proposed a 52-mile light-rail system that would operate along the existing freight line, then deviate from the corridor and operate into the core of downtown Austin. Voters narrowly defeated the ballot measure and in 2004, the agency proposed a scaled-back version of its previous plan: a 32-mile, nine-station commuter-rail line running from Austin northwest to Leander. Voters signed off on the proposal, and Capital Metro officials got to work building the agency's first rail line.
They also got ambitious, adding elements to the initial rail plan: a bridge to cross where the commuter-rail line would intersect with a Union Pacific Railroad line (initially planned for a future phase); a permanent rail maintenance facility, rather than a temporary one; better grade crossing protection to allow for more quiet zones; and a centralized train control, rather than track warrant control, system.
In addition, Capital Metro officials opted to purchase diesel multiple units (DMUs) rather than lease commuter-rail locomotives and rail cars. The DMUs, which Capital Metro purchased from Switzerland's Stadler Rail AG, provide a quieter, smoother ride than traditional rolling stock, agency officials say.
Despite the new project components, Capital Metro maintained a budget of $140 million — only slightly higher than initially planned.
"The concept was upgraded, but the price and schedule were not," says Capital Metro Executive Vice President and Chief Development Officer Doug Allen, adding that instead, agency officials "cut corners" on various project elements in an effort to complete the rail system on time and within budget.
"They bought components for the communication and signal system before the design was fully complete," says Allen, who joined Capital Metro in April 2008. "A lot of the typical, upfront system integration work just wasn't done."
As the March 2009 opening day approached, it became clear the rail system wouldn't be ready. Officials postponed the opening and began making modifications to the C&S system software.
In December 2009, the agency terminated its operations and maintenance contract with Veolia Transportation, due in large part to new insurance requirements the contractor had included in the contract, says Capital Metro spokesperson Adam Shaivitz. The agency signed a new contract with Herzog Transportation Services, which helped resolve the outstanding system integration and operation issues prior to the rail system's opening, says Allen.
Capital Metro had to address regulatory issues, as well. The DMUs the agency purchased would be operating on a rail line that also accommodates freight traffic from the Austin Western Railroad, and the vehicles didn't meet the Federal Railroad Administration's crashworthiness standards. So, Capital Metro had to work with the FRA to obtain a waiver to operate passenger- and freight-rail trains during separate windows.
Despite the challenges, Capital Metro's commuter-rail operation has been virtually problem-free during its first year. On-time performance is 98 percent and passengers are happy with the service, says Capital Metro President and Chief Executive Officer Linda Watson.
But Capital Metro has faced other obstacles. Ridership during the first nine months totaled about half of the initial estimates, averaging 850 passengers per day vs. the 1,700 riders Capital Metro projected. The fewer riders was due in part to some changes the agency made in its service and operations program after the initial estimates were made.
For example, the authority originally planned to run service at 30-minute frequencies, with all trains running from end to end. Now, service frequency is a bit more spread out — ranging from 35 minutes to 45 minutes during peak periods — and some trips terminate a few stops before the end of the line.
The recession impacted ridership figures, too, Allen believes. And the economy certainly hindered TOD near the new rail stations. All nine MetroRail stations have the potential for TOD, but only one has been partially developed.
At Crestview Station, about six miles north of downtown, a developer has created Midtown Commons, which features more than 300 residential units. The residential development is 100 percent leased, but the developer still is working to attract more commercial
Watson and Allen believe TOD will begin picking up at other stations in the near future.
"I just talked to one developer who ... indicated a lot of investors were interested in investing in Austin because the state government and university are here," says Watson. "The fact that people are talking about it and we're getting inquiries is a good sign that things are at least thawing out in the transit-oriented development arena."
There are signs that MetroRail ridership might be taking a turn for the better, as well. In January, the agency — which operates rail service Monday through Friday, from 5:30 a.m. to 7:30 p.m. — launched mid-day service. Since then, ridership has steadily grown to about 1,500 passengers per day.
"We had been told from other agencies that just having the safety net of mid-day service in case of emergencies gave people more of a comfort level with riding," says Watson. "And, our mid-day service matches up well with class schedules at the University of Texas."
Capital Metro is exploring further service expansion, too. The agency operated Friday evening service throughout March, running trains until 11:30 p.m. On the first Friday of evening service, daily ridership jumped to 2,500. The second Friday, ridership soared to 3,200.
In addition, the agency is testing weekend service. On a Saturday in mid-March, ridership totaled 3,600, says Shaivitz, adding that agency officials will evaluate ridership figures on the special service days as they begin developing next year's budget.
As agency officials plan to expand existing service, they're also seeking options to add new rail service. Capital Metro's existing rail system was built on tracks that were initially used solely for freight traffic, so the line bypasses many of Austin's major employment and population centers, including the University of Texas and state capitol area. Now, Capital Metro officials are seeking ways to extend service into other areas.
"We met our initial goals of making sure [the system] was reliable and safe and had a high comfort level; now, we're looking to make incremental improvements to expand it further," says Allen.
Among the options: adding service from Austin north to Round Rock and Georgetown, which are two of the region's fastest-growing cities. Capital Metro also is considering a plan to add rail service east of Austin.
"We're trying to plan for the future, looking at where the jobs and population centers will be," says Allen.
In order to maximize the agency's commuter-rail potential, Capital Metro officials say they'll need to work with other local agencies to integrate the MetroRail system with other planned transit-rail systems in the Austin region.
Central Texas is one of the fastest-growing areas in the country, and traffic congestion continues to mount as automobiles and NAFTA-generated truck traffic flood the highways. That's why the Lone Star Rail District is proposing a 117-mile intercity passenger rail line between San Antonio, Austin and Georgetown.
The project calls for building a freight-rail bypass line for UP, then using the Class I's existing line for passenger trains. The district is in the environmental process for the passenger-rail portion of the project and just began an alternatives analysis for the freight portion. The line could be complete within five to 10 years, says Joseph Black, manager of rail operations for the district.
Meanwhile, the city of Austin last month kicked off the environmental process for an urban rail system that would serve downtown Austin's three employment centers: the state capitol complex, University of Texas and central business district.
The city's proposed streetcar/light-rail system would be the "glue that ties all the rail systems together," says Robert Spillar, the city's transportation director. The city plans to seek voter approval to fund the urban rail system in November 2012. If voters sign off on the measure, the system's first phase could be up and running by 2017.
For more information on the Lone Star Rail District and Austin's rail plan, visit www.progressiverailroading.com.
The city of Austin, Capital Metro and Lone Star Rail District are working to address how they can share the cost to operate and maintain the systems, coordinate fare systems and operations, and determine synergies between the various rail lines so they can all function as one network. By working together, the parties believe they can create a more cohesive, successful transit network.
"Any of our systems could be fairly successful on their own, but when you combine them into a network, it's more than one plus one plus one equals three — there's a multiplying effect," says Black.
For Capital Metro, the next rail-expansion phase will do more than demonstrate commuter rail can work in Austin — it will enable the agency to use lessons learned to expand service offerings and create a rail system that will thrive in a rapidly growing region.