Cap Metro: This Is Just the Beginning

Rail service to begin March 22

March 22, to be exact. (We hope.)
March 22, to be exact. (We hope.) (photo by Lee Nichols)

This time, they insist, it’s really gonna happen. To prove it, they rolled in a car full of passengers.

Of course, the real test will come on March 22. That, Capital Metro officials announced this afternoon, is when the transit agency will finally launch its MetroRail Red Line, the long anticipated and much delayed Leander-to-Austin commuter rail.

No, seriously, Cap Met officials said, this time we mean it. Previously announced launch dates got delayed when the Federal Railroad Administration told them things weren’t ready, but “this morning, we heard a lot of good news from the FRA” said Cap Met’s interim CEO and president Doug Allen. “We’ve had the [FRA] in town all week, and this morning they called us said that everything looked great and we’re good to go.”

So on March 22, you can finally board, and for the first week, it will be free [ED. NOTE: This post originally incorrectly stated that the first two weeks would be free]. While you try to figure the system out, Cap Met will have staffers and volunteers at stations to help.

“It’s really a dawn of a new era, a new beginning for the Austin era and for Capital Metro with the delivery of this MetroRail service,” said Allen. “We couldn’t be prouder of it.”

However, “We’re not going to tear a rotator cuff patting ourselves in the back," said Austin Mayor Pro Tem and Cap Met Board Chair Mike Martinez, chastened by the previous delays and extremely poor public image Capital Metro currently suffers. "We’re going to get back to work tomorrow. … Then we’re going to start working on the next phase of transportation for Austin, because this isn’t it. This is one component of creating a true, world-class multimodal system in a world-class city.”

But there are plenty who will question whether the Red Line itself will be world class – or worth the money. The main complaint is that it will deliver folks to the southeast quadrant of downtown, in front of the Convention Center – well away from the major employment centers of the Capitol complex and the University of Texas. (If you work in those areas, you’ll have to transfer to a shuttle bus at the MLK station – an inconvenience that, depending on where you’re starting from, may make the plain old city bus a better option.)

Was it worth the more than (much more, some allege) $100 million?

Allen and Martinez both (unsurprisingly) said yes.

“It’s a very cost-effective project,” Allen said. “The cost of the project was a little over $4 million a mile. There’s not another new, modern rail system with this kind of technology that’s anywhere near that price tag. It’s a start. … We can easily quadruple the capacity in a few years.”

“I agree with Doug 100 percent,” said Martinez. “It’s worth every penny, with the caveat that we take that next step and continue with this project. It won’t be worth it if this is all we do, because it will only impact a small portion of our community.

"Transportation is about comprehensive transportation, getting folks from point A to point B through different modes, not just commuter rail. There’s urban rail, there’s bus, there’s [bus] rapid transit, so it’s worth it as long as we keep working on providing more service in the future to add connectivity to the system that we’re opening.”

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