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Red Line improvements add capacity, access for critical Project Connect transit option

Thursday, August 10, 2023 by Chad Swiatecki

The light rail line that’s planned to run through downtown Austin is the portion of Project Connect that’s drawn the most attention in recent years. But folks like Matt Geske, who regularly ride the Red Line commuter train that goes from Leander to the Austin Convention Center, are happy to give the long-running transit line some praise.

As a Leander resident, Geske, the vice president of public affairs for the Downtown Austin Alliance, said the reliability of a consistent one-hour ride to his downtown job is an easy choice over making the trip in his car.

“If I drove in at peak time, I could get here in 45 minutes, or it could be an hour and a half, but on the train, it’s a guaranteed hour, and I don’t have to worry about being in a wreck or people distracted driving,” he said, noting that recent enhancements like adding double rail portions at critical points have helped increase efficiency and avoid schedule disruptions.

“It’s important for people – employees, workers and even artists and others that live further out from the downtown core – to have another option for them to get here,” Geske said. “The enhancements like the double-tracking they’ve been doing up near the Leander and Lakeline (stations) and then further into town are only going to increase the efficiency of that line.”

Along with the double-tracking to add more capacity, Project Connect is building new stations for the Red Line, including the forthcoming McKalla Station near the Q2 Stadium soccer facility that was a primary bargaining point in the city’s negotiations with Austin FC ownership to get the land for the stadium.

Project Connect leaders expect the station will be something of a showpiece for newer riders of the Red Line because of the volume of passengers for soccer games and other events. And the ability to use the stadium site as a park-and-ride location during all other times will increase the ease of accessing the line.

Dottie Watkins, CEO of Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority, said the enhancements to the lines have added badly needed flexibility to areas that were previously constrained by only being able to serve one train at a time. And she said the McKalla Station will make it easier to access the Domain, too.

Other notable work underway includes the improvements planned for the Plaza Saltillo Station that – thanks to an $18 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation – will be upgraded to serve two tracks and provide additional flexibility.

“Currently, Plaza Saltillo is a single-track station. … With this grant, we will be able to add a second platform and double track through the station, as well as a lot of pedestrian and other mobility improvements,” Watkins said. “That will make the Plaza Saltillo Station work the way it needs to and also prepare that station area to be ready to operate the Green Line. Right now, we can’t do much in terms of increasing frequency on the Red Line or adding the Green Line with that single kind of single-track piece of the funnel right next to downtown.”

Looking more than a decade ahead toward the creation of the Green Line that will extend east into Manor, Watkins said planners are doing initial light work on the route that is expected to serve a portion of the city growing quickly because of the presence of major employers such as Tesla.

“It just makes sense that would be the next commuter rail line that we would build, and it’s been waiting for development to justify it a little bit,” she said. “That development is coming with both the investments happening in Colony Park, as well as out toward Manor.”

City Council Member Leslie Pool, whose district includes the McKalla Station portion of the Red Line, said the ongoing investments in the transit line will be needed to serve an important focal point of business and culture in Austin.

“It’s been a labor of love over many years to get to this point with the improvements to the Red Line, and as both the Austin City Council representative for District 7 and as a board member for Capital Metro, it’s very gratifying to reach this point,” she told the Austin Monitor via email. “Great commuter service is necessary for the 10th largest city in the U.S. to meet our climate goals and beat the traffic. For District 7, it means the vision of the North Burnet Gateway as Austin’s ‘second downtown’ can be realized as a live, work, and play regional destination with investments in the new stations at Uptown ATX and near Q2 Stadium.”

Photo by Greg Houston, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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