Streetcar Plans Unveiled

Capital Metro unveiled its streetcar circulator route for Downtown and Mueller at its recent board meeting, but the agency still managed to see that announcement upstaged by a proposal to double current bus fares and a likely impending labor squabble.

Capital Metro unveiled its streetcar circulator route for Down-town and Mueller at its board meeting this week, but the agency managed to see that announcement upstaged by a proposal to double current bus fares and a likely impending labor squabble.

Timing has never been Capital Metro's strength, and Monday afternoon's board meeting was no exception. The circulator route – while a bit of a letdown given that most of the plan had been floating around local groups for months – represented 18 months of critical dialogue between the agency and the community, including the University of Texas. If this $230 million addendum to the commuter rail line is approved, it would provide easy access among UT, Downtown, and the master-planned Mueller community. A researcher at the J.J. Pickle Center could jump on a train, hit the Manor Road rail platform, and use a streetcar to get to the proposed UT Health Science Center or Dell Children's Hospital in Mueller. Mueller residents who wanted to see a Longhorn home game would no longer have to worry about where to park their cars. And anyone working Downtown who wants a quick lunch could hop on a streetcar without the worry of losing a coveted parking spot.

This is not a rapid bus into Downtown, said planner Lucy Galbraith. This is a slow circulator route, with stops every three blocks or so, intended to provide maximum local access. If this streetcar option catches on with potential users, ridership is estimated to be about 3.5 million riders per year by 2017, with an average estimated operating cost of $1.63 per rider – on par with the cost of bus ridership. Capital Metro indicated that it would seek funding from federal sources – as well as financial partnerships with the city, county, state, and developers – before turning to the voters to pick up the cost. The bow on the package is an estimated $362 million in additional development the circulator system could bring to Mueller and the Manor Road corridor. Galbraith says that comes from the balance that people usually split between housing and transportation. The less someone needs to spend on the commute to work or school, the more that person is willing to spend on housing. More money for housing means more investment in housing and retail. Charles Heimsath of Capitol Market Research will present a report on the streetcars' impact on Downtown at Thursday's council meeting.

The big benefits of streetcars, however, were overshadowed on Monday by a discussion of the first fare increases the transit agency has proposed since 1985. Even as Cap Metro considers new spending for additional mass-transit options, it is proposing to double fares, from 50 cents to $1. Actually, the proposal put forth to the board this week was to eventually quadruple the fares to $2, to be more in line with the board's preferred revenue-to-cost ratios, but board members balked at the long-term outlook. Right now, it's still just $1, a proposal likely to get much vetting before a vote.

And no Capital Metro board meeting is quite complete until there's some type of labor dispute in the air. This month, it was how a proposal to outsource the commuter rail operations to an outside vendor is being structured. Council Members Lee Leffingwell and Brewster McCracken were inclined to lean toward the union, requiring contractors to give first dibs on jobs on the anticipated six commuter rail trains. The rest of the board was more inclined to send the proposal out to potential vendors with no encumbrances. Chair Lee Walker noted the concerns that were being presented – that another vendor could mean another class or category of employees – but said it was unlikely such a discussion could be hashed out at a single board meeting.

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Capital Metro, streetcar circulator route, Lucy Galbraith, Charles Heimsath, Capitol Market Research, Lee Walker

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