When Austin voters agreed to finance a new 32-mile downtown-to-Leander commuter rail line in 2004, Capital Metro claimed the project would open in spring 2008. Vehicle delivery problems, track issues, and non-compliance between commuter and freight trains on the rails delayed the opening until spring 2009, but the FRA intervened, saying the project was not yet ready to open. Yesterday, the city got even more bad news, with the FRA claiming that the “vital logic” of the train signals was out of whack, causing further delay. Austin, to say the least, is having a hard time welcoming rail into the city.
Even so, the city itself is embarking on its own rail project — a tramway between northwest Austin, downtown, and the airport. Capital Metro, mired in its own deficiencies, is not leading the project, as it has enough major difficulties to deal with now. Preliminary engineering on the new line, costing around $6 million, would be complete by spring 2010 if all goes as planned and voters would be asked to approve the project that fall.
The light rail project would be mostly street running, but its $600 million estimated cost seems low, because the city will have to build at least three new bridges along with the line. The corridor would hit all the important stops in the U.S.’ 15th-largest city, with a focus on the University of Texas and the Capitol complex. Recent development along the riverfront would be served by a spur to Seaholm.
Needless to say, the light rail line seems more relevant than the Capital Metro commuter line, which will only run 9.5 six round trips a day and provide service to distant and sprawled-out parts of the region.
But the failures of Capital Metro’s project could put a significant dent in any hope that voters will agree to sponsor yet another rail program in a currently rail-less region. While the city may have all the best intentions in pursuing its own project, it seems unlikely that the electorate will see the matter that way. It would be unsurprising if the project were shot down in its tracks next fall.
American cities, so deprived of good pubic transportation today, do not have much of a margin of error when spending hundreds of millions of dollars investing in new capital programs. Transit agencies that have difficulty constructing their first line are likely to see intense criticism, because most people won’t understand the corridor’s benefits until it is up and running. Even worse, Austin’s project — poorly planned as a starter line — will serve so few commuters that when it opens, even the presence of trains may do little to excite the city’s population about future service.
A proposal for another project, even if it makes plenty of sense, will be dismissed as another boondoggle before it has the chance to gain support for more funding.
If Capital Metro’s line opens to acclaim and high ridership before November 2010, however, voters could be racing to the polls in favor of new service. Considering that the commuter line has a maximum capacity of 1,200 people in each direction per day in a city of 750,000, though, that seems unlikely.
Image above: Austin Light Rail link, from The Statesman