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Council approves additional hours for MetroRail

Friday, March 2, 2012 by Josh Rosenblatt

Council approved an interlocal agreement with Capital Metro yesterday to fund additional MetroRail service on Friday evenings and on Saturdays. Starting March 23, the Red Line will run hourly between 6pm and midnight and on Saturdays, every 30 minutes from 4pm to midnight. There is currently no service on Saturdays.

According to Cap Metro, MetroRail ridership has tripled since service began two years ago. The line is currently averaging 35,000 trips per month with standing-room-only service during morning and evening rush hours. In a press release sent out after the Council vote yesterday, Cap Metro President and CEO Linda Watson said that the request for evening and weekend Red Line service is among the most common feedback the transportation authority gets from the community.

“This agreement with the city allows us to deliver what the community has asked,” said Watson. “MetroRail is a tremendous community asset, and by providing evening weekend service, a greater number of people will be able to use the system.”

 

Under the terms of the agreement, the city will contribute approximately $5.7 million over 34 months to pay for the additional service within city limits.

That money will actually come from funds being paid to the city by Cap Metro under the Quarter Cent Program. That program states that the transit agency will direct a quarter-cent of its one-cent sales tax collection to the city for transportation projects, such as road- or sidewalk-building. Cap Metro still owes the city tens of millions in accrued quarter-cents from the early 2000s. This is money the transit agency originally had been setting aside for the failed light-rail back in the late 1990s.

Austin Transportation Department Director Rob Spillar explained the exchange to In Fact Daily after yesterday’s vote. 

“Under this agreement, Cap Metro pays us and we turn around and buy service, as if this were another project like sidewalks or road repairs or bus pads,” said Spillar. “They’re still paying the full amount of the quarter-cent debt. But we’re turning around and saying one of the projects we’re going to fund is the addition of service. It doesn’t reduce the debt. It sounds like taking money from one pocket and putting it into another and that’s essentially what it is. They’re still obligated to pay us the full $45 million, but we’re turning around and paying them to fund a project called ‘additional service.’”

Spillar said that the nature of the transit authority’s agreements with both Austin and other regional cities dictated the particulars of the service extensions. On Friday, the later trains will run all the way to the end of the line, in Leander. On Saturdays, however, service will begin and end at the Lakeline station, the last station in the city of Austin.

“Since the quarter-cent money is owed to Austin, the city should only spend that money within the city,” Spillar said. “But on Friday, Cap Metro is using other regional funds to extend service out to Leander, and they were afraid people would come in from Leander but then get stuck at Lakeline at night. So they decided to extend rail service hours throughout the whole system.”

The agreement passed easily, on a vote of 6-1. Only Council Member Kathie Tovo voted against, arguing that the extended hours don’t reflect the intent of the city to create what she called a “culture of ridership” throughout the city, especially for families with children and seniors.

“It seems like to me there was an opportunity to expand that audience by selecting earlier hours on Saturday and also capitalize on events, which tend to happen in the daytime,” said Tovo. She asked Spillar if staff had looked at ridership numbers before coming up with their suggestions for additional hours. Spillar said they had not, that rather their recommendation was based on the “best opinion of the planners and the operators of the service.”

After the vote, Tovo told In Fact Daily that she was torn between her support of urban rail and her desire to see more groups in the city use it.

“I didn’t feel that the hours being considered were really going to meet the capacity needs that the staff had identified,” said Tovo. “Because on the weekends, we need more capacity during events and this won’t address that. It’s aimed at the late-night audience. I probably would have felt different if it had been aimed at daytime hours on the weekend that I think would have both expanded the possibility of public transportation for a new audience — families with children and seniors who probably won’t come downtown from 4 o’clock on. It would have catered to a broader cross-section of the community and would have promoted some of our other goals.”

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