Can It Be? MetroRail Prepares to Launch.

Cap Metro once again announces a start date for the MetroRail

MetroRail: On the way
MetroRail: On the way (Photo by Jana Birchum)

This time, they insist, it's really gonna happen. To prove it, Capital Metro rolled in a car full of employees and board members for a test ride last week. Of course, the real test will come on March 22. That, Cap Metro officials announced, 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 Metro officials said, this time we mean it. Previously announced launch dates were delayed when the Federal Railroad Administration told Cap Metro things weren't ready, but "this morning [March 5], we heard a lot of good news from the FRA," said Cap Metro's interim CEO and President Doug Allen. "We've had the [FRA] in town all week, and this morning they called us and said that everything looked great and we're good to go."

So on March 22 (the day after SXSW ends), you can finally board – and for the first week, it will be free. While you try to figure the system out, stations will have staffers and volunteers to help. "It's really a dawn of a new era, a new beginning for the Austin area and for Capital Metro with the delivery of this MetroRail service," said Allen. "We couldn't be prouder of it."

However, said Austin Mayor Pro Tem and Cap Metro Board Chair Mike Martinez, "We're not going to tear a rotator cuff patting ourselves on the back." Chastened by the previous delays and extremely poor public image Capital Metro currently suffers, Martin­ez said: "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 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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