» Diesel Multiple Unit vehicles will make trip between downtown and Leander just a few times a day, with the goal of attracting more than 1,000 daily riders.
For a city that is noted for its progressivism, especially as compared to the state that surrounds it, Austin’s transit politics are notoriously backwards. Unlike Houston and especially Dallas, which have pushed forward with light rail systems at a rapid pace over the past few decades, the capital of Texas is getting modern rail service for the first time only today, despite its large and growing population. And with a cost of $105 million and with trains only running at peak times, the Capital MetroRail Red Line is a humble project that will attract few riders.
When voters approved the project in a referendum 2004, it was promoted as a demonstration line, to be implemented cheaply along an existing rail corridor using just six diesel multiple unit vehicles stopping at nine small stations. “Ride, then decide,” proponents suggested: People would be exposed to the advantages of rail service, and then want to invest much more in it.
But the 32-mile project, which saw its first passengers at 5:25 this morning, is two years late and over budget: it’s hard to see the system as a model for future major capital investment in transit in the Austin region. The route between Leander and downtown Austin, passing through northern parts of the city, was supposed to be complete in early 2008, at a cost of $90 million. Instead, its cost eventually escalated to $105 million, not including affiliated parking, bus service, and other amenities. The trains provide slower service than competing buses within the urban core and have incredibly spread-out frequencies, arriving just every 35 minutes during rush hour and not at all other times. The terminal station is separated from the downtown business core and far from the University of Texas.
If this is what people in Austin are expected to experience as efficient rail, it’s hard to envision them pushing for more beneficial forms of transit, like frequent light rail operating in the city’s denser zones.
That is, if they experience it at all: Capital Metro expects 1,700 to 2,000 daily riders for the line in a city of 750,000. The MetroRapid bus rapid transit system the city hopes to open by 2012 (and which recently received promises of a federal funding commitment), for instance, will provide service to a far larger swath of the city, more frequently and faster.
Even if the line does become exceedingly popular — a very remote possibility — the corridor can only handle 3,800 daily boardings, maximum. That’s because only 11% of the line has two tracks, so the number of trains able to run back and forth is quite limited. Cost-cut stations are too short for trains made up of more than one car. Readying the Red Line for a capacity upgrade would cost hundreds of millions of dollars Capital Metro does not have.
In the run-up to the project’s opening, the City of Austin had basically given up hope on the advantages of the Capital Metro project. Municipal leaders recently committed to pushing an inner-city light rail or streetcar project that may be put up to another citizen referendum in November next year. That project could cost up to $1 billion, but a route has yet to be confirmed. Despite the significant technological and experiential differences between the proposed light rail and the now-open commuter rail line, though, locals seem unlikely to approve a major funding program if the Red Line project is seen as ineffective, especially for inner-city residents who will continue to rely on the bus for almost all commutes.
Nonetheless, Central Texas has had a troubled experience with rail implementation over the years, so the opening of anything at all should probably be seen as a coup in itself. Capital Metro has been around since January 1985, when voters approved plans for a $500 million light rail system after a decade of on-and-off discussions about whether to implement such a project. Various studies performed in the 1990s concluded in a 52-mile, $1.9 billion project proposed to the electorate in 2000 in a measure rejected 51-49%. So the Red Line, as limited as it is, was seen as a politically feasible compromise and voters agreed to it in 2004.
At only $90 million, the project was never meant to emulate the success of other cities’ much more expensive light rail systems, and on a per-passenger-mile basis, it would have fallen at the median in cost-effectiveness of similar projects built in the United States over the past 10 years. At only $4 million a mile, the line was relatively cheap to build. Yet cheap does not always mean effective. The Portland Westside Express and the Nashville Music City Star, the most equivalent projects in the country, have both suffered from ridership vastly lower than foreseen in initial estimates.
But the real mistake has been Capital Metro’s complete mismanagement of the project’s implementation. The understaffed agency — with virtually no experience in rail operations — signed a contract with private operator Veolia that turned into a disaster once it became evident that no one knew how to make a freight rail corridor into an operable passenger line. The Federal Railroad Administration delayed the start of services repeatedly because of signal problems and safety violations, and Veolia was replaced with Herzog Transit Services last year.
It’s too late to sound the alarm about this rail line’s problems; on the other hand, it’s been obvious that the line has been ill-fated from the start, victim to an attempt to get rail service at the lowest cost possible, no matter the limitations. Electoral support for future rail expansion in the Austin region will be difficult to assemble if the populace isn’t impressed by what it gets, and the Red Line just won’t provide many benefits to very many people. Starting too small is sometimes problematic: other cities should learn from Austin’s mistakes here.
Image above: Austin Capital MetroRail train, from Capital Metro