Logical Error

Cap Metro's rail and budget travails

The train has hit another speed bump.

We can't precisely say MetroRail has been "delayed" again – since Capital Metro no longer has an official start date for its new commuter train – but the transit agency's executives reported Monday that they've uncovered yet another obstacle to getting the Red Line started. (It was originally scheduled to begin operations almost a year ago.)

At Monday's Cap Metro board of directors meeting, chief development officer Doug Allen reported that testing done by the Federal Railroad Administration last week revealed an error with the "vital logic" in the system that separates the freight and commuter operations that will be sharing the Leander-to-Downtown track. (The tracks will carry freight overnight and in mid-afternoon and passengers in mornings and late afternoons.) Allen said the testing intentionally simulated a human error – switching the signaling system from freight to passenger mode at an improper time – and the system should have defaulted back into the safer freight mode. It did not. (Because a freight train needs a greater distance to stop than a passenger train, the signals start slowing down a train sooner in freight mode.) Board members were frustrated at news of yet another problem. "It sounded like last month we were more or less headed into the home stretch, and it sounds like this month, there seems to be quite significantly more amount of bases to cover before we can head to the home stretch," said board member and Austin Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez. "We just don't know yet how long it will take" to work through the problem, replied Allen.

The discussion occupied only a moment in a meeting that was mostly devoted to the agency's FY 2010 budget and the suspension of the Downtown 'Dillo service. Citing declining ridership, Cap Metro staff proposed eliminating the 'Dillos – the mock trolley cars intended to help pedestrians circulate through Down­town – as a cost-cutting measure. Despite pleas by some members of the public, the board voted in favor of suspension, while acknowledging that reviving a Down­town circulator in some form will ultimately be needed to help the MetroRail passengers.

Things were less bleak on the budget front than they were a week ago. The prior Monday, chief financial officer Randy Hume told a board committee that declining sales tax revenues, increasing fuel costs, and a need to rebuild Cap Metro's depleted cash reserves would likely make service cuts necessary and that fare increases previously scheduled for August 2010 would need to be bumped up to January 2010.

This week, however, Hume announced that his staff discovered that $2.6 million in federal stimulus money previously allocated to Red Line improvements could be legally reallocated to overall operations, thus making the acceleration of the fare increases unnecessary. Service reductions would still be required in the proposed FY 2010 budget, but Hume said the routes trimmed would be among the least-used in the system.

Board member and Leander Mayor John Cowman was unsatisfied. "It makes me feel like I'm a Wall Street banker giving myself a bonus," Cowman complained. "What happens next year at this time? ... We're going to have to do something with our fares. This is a one-time fix." Hume – echoing an earlier comment by Martinez – reminded Cowman that a fare increase was already scheduled to take effect in August and predicted that increase would fill the gap.

The proposed FY 2010 budget will be posted online Friday, Sept. 4, at www.capmetro.org for public review, and a public hearing on it is scheduled for Sept. 21 at Cap Metro's headquarters at 2910 E. Fifth. Final adoption of the budget is scheduled for Sept. 28.

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