Austin Contemplates Urban Rail, but Skepticism is in the Air

Downtown Austin

» A year after the opening of a commuter rail line to the city’s northern suburbs, Austin dedicates funding to planning a light rail line that focuses on the inner city.

In 2000, Austin came within 2,000 votes of approving a $2 billion, 52-mile light rail system that would have run through the city and its suburbs along east-west and north-south corridors. The first stage, estimates suggested, would attract more than 30,000 daily riders and serve the city’s most prominent destinations, including downtown and the University of Texas.

The failure of that referendum, however, forced those plans to be abandoned. Local transit proponents replaced it with the much less ambitious 32-mile Capital MetroRail, which opened in 2010 for a cost of about $100 million. Like many similar commuter rail lines built over the past few years, MetroRail’s limited frequencies and poor downtown connectivity have limited ridership to less than

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With Modest Expectations, Austin Opens Rail Line After Years of Delays

» 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

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Austin Proceeds with Light Rail Project Even as Commuter Line Stalls

» New problems in the development of rail services between downtown and the northern suburbs delay commuter rail opening by another few months.

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,

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What's Taking Austin So Long?

Capital Metro was originally supposed to start operations in November 2008.

Austin would have been Texas’ third city to offer its citizens light rail service had Capital Metro opened its new MetroRail line as planned last November. But serious safety and operations difficulties have led the FTA and local authorities to repeatedly delay the corridor’s opening, and now the city is afraid to make any estimate about when trains will begin running. In four weeks, the project might enter service, but no one’s sure. Has Austin cost-cut its project to death?

Capital MetroRail is intended to connect downtown Austin to Leander in the northern suburbs along 32 miles of existing freight tracks. Trains are planned to run every thirty minutes during rush hours on weekdays — 10 daily round trips. Unsurprisingly, only about 2,000 people are expected to take advantage of the service everyday. Yet the city envisions the line

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The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark

yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com

  • Le progrès ne vaut que s'il est partagé par tous.

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