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Monday, December 14, 2015 by Caleb Pritchard
Cap Metro rolls out downtown MetroRail station plans
Capital Metro has scaled down its ambitions for a permanent MetroRail station in downtown Austin.
The transit agency showed off at a public meeting on Friday its preferred concept for the station, a much more conventional rendering compared to the swooping modernist proposals floated last year.
Also missing is the grand appellation by which the station had been known until now. Formerly referred to as the Gateway Station, the project is now referred to in less theatrical terms.
“It certainly has the potential to become a gateway,” Cap Metro long-range planner Javier Argüello told the Austin Monitor. “But at this point, Capital Metro has made a decision to call it the downtown station improvements. The reason why is not everybody received the name in the same way. The project is being seen in many different perspectives.”
The project is part of a larger upgrade to the MetroRail system that is being funded with a $50 million grant from the Texas Department of Transportation. A Cap Metro press release from 2014 estimated that the total cost of the downtown project would approach $35 million, but Project Manager Marcus Guerrero told the Monitor that that estimate was incorrect.
“Our budget is actually $22 million,” Guerrero said. An agency spokesperson was not available as of press time to speak to the discrepancy.
Update: CapMetro Communications Manager Francine Pares confirmed to the Monitor on Monday that the current budget for the downtown station project is limited to the $22 million TxDOT grant. Pares said $35 million was “an early estimate” when the vision still included a “signature canopy” design that has since been scrapped.
The downtown station improvements would replace the current platform next to the Convention Center at East Fourth and Trinity streets. With a pedestrian plaza and three sets of rails to accommodate anticipated increases in Red Line frequency (and, eventually, the planned Green Line service to Elgin), the station is being designed to shut down car traffic on Fourth Street between Trinity and Red River streets.
Bicyclists who rely on the protected lane next to the station will also have to make adjustments.
“The surface of the new bicycle path will slow them down,” Guerrero said. “And when you look at our renderings, there’s actually crosswalks so that pedestrians will be able to permeate the bicycle path every 100 feet. The city transportation staff has already mentioned that they can put up signs that say, ‘Bicycles yield to pedestrians’ so that pedestrians take priority.”
According to the American Public Transportation Association, the Red Line sees fewer than 3,000 boardings per day. Cap Metro’s 2016 budget accounts for a subsidy of more than $30 per rider. Both of those numbers have given transit advocates no shortage of heartburn over the agency’s plan to upgrade the rail station while leaving untouched the de facto bus plaza at Republic Square Park, where thousands of riders collect daily under a handful of small shelters on the sidewalk.
Argüello blamed the consternation on “misinformation.”
“Running the bus every day in 10- to 15-minute frequencies is very, very expensive,” he told the Monitor. “So it’s just that people don’t understand. When we are looking about capital costs versus the costs of operating the system, this project is not necessarily in comparison with the amount of money that, every day, Capital Metro puts in the service so that everybody has the opportunity to ride the bus.”
Argüello also added that Cap Metro is, based on public feedback, planning upgrades to its premium service MetroRapid stations, including better shelters.
Ultimately, he said, the expansion of the MetroRail service through the downtown station improvements as well as the new train will attract more people to the $3.75-per-ride train. “We are close to 3,000 passengers per day. So by doubling the headways, we’re instantly going to double the trips to 6,000,” said Argüello. “We have that demand.”
He acknowledged that costs would increase but argued that it would be justified. “The cost of public transportation is subsidized. But that’s a bigger argument. We’re also subsidizing the cost of you driving your car, me driving my car,” said Argüello. “Big time.”
The plans for the downtown station improvements are set to be finalized in late 2016. Construction could start as early as 2017.
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