Fact Sheet for Capital Metro commuter rail
This page attempts to provide facts and analysis of Capital Metro's
commuter rail line from as objective an angle as possible.
Commuter rail is generally defined as "heavy" rail operating on
existing or new dedicated rail corridors. The vehicles typically
operate on diesel fuel and run on much less frequent headways than do
light rail systems or buses. Due to separate right-of-way, this mode
has the best chance of being faster than the private automobile on a
given route, as long as the stations on both ends of the trip are close
to the ultimate residential source and office destination.
Capital Metro's proposal
Phase one of Capital Metro's commuter rail proposal runs trains on the
Austin&NW railroad line it owns, following roughly from Leander
through far north Austin, and then crossing the US 183 expressway just
east of Burnet Road. It then slices southeasterly through north-central
Austin, to Lamar Blvd, where it continues southeasterly directly
adjoining Airport Boulevard. The line crosses underneath I-35 at
Hancock Center, and continues south-southeasterly to roughly 4th
Street, at which time Capital Metro will route trains back in a
westerly direction, crossing I-35 east of the Convention Center.
Some of the long-range maps indicate a further connection westerly to
Seaholm Power Plant (on the southwest edge of downtown) but no
infrastructure exists, or is currently planned, to make this a reality.
Some double-tracking will be necessary - Capital Metro does not plan to
initially double-track the whole route, focusing instead on additional
sidings, most of which will probably be at stations. (Thus, the only
places a northbound train could pass a southbound train would be at
Phase two of Capital Metro's plan includes using the Union Pacific
right-of-way which runs roughly in the Mopac Expressway corridor from
Round Rock to the Seaholm Power Plant. Only phase one is discussed
here, as there are substantial external obstacles to accomplishing
phase two; however, many of the statements below would also apply to
the Union Pacific route.
The vehicle choice for the line has, to my knowledge, not been made.
The "RegioSprinter", which was used for a demonstration many years ago,
is supposedly one of the candidates. The train will almost surely be
diesel-powered (not powered by overhead electrical wires). Passenger
comfort in the vehicles are likely to be far superior to that in
current or proposed buses.
Frequency of Service
The service is envisioned to run about once every half-hour during rush
hours, less often during the middle of the day, and not at all at night
(when freight traffic will resume).
Stations / Stops
A full set of stations/stops has not been publicized. However, it is
clear that the line will board at at least the Leander Park&Ride
and the Northwest Park&Ride (near RM 620 and US 183). Many stations
(including any within the north-central Austin part of the route) are
not likely to include parking, since the land around the rail line is
already fully developed.
Access for Residents
Access to stations in far northwest Austin is likely to be quite good.
Capital Metro has not expressed any desire or willingness to try to
limit access to stations or parking at stations to people who live
within the Capital Metro service area. Thus, a Cedar Park resident
(whose town voted itself out of Capital Metro a few years ago) does not
pay any Capital Metro taxes, and yet, will be able to drive down the
road a conveniently short distance, park their car and board this train.
On the other hand, access to stations in central Austin (where most of
Capital Metro's funds originate) is likely to be quite poor. There will
probably not be any stations between the north US 183 crossing and the
Lamar Blvd. crossing, and any stations east of that are not likely to
include parking. The rail line does not go close enough to dense urban
residential areas to permit more than a handful of people to walk to
stations, even if any are built in this region. Access via bus to these
stations may be possible, but will be unattractive due to inherent
problems in mode transfers.
Access to stations on the east side of I-35 could be acceptable, if
Capital Metro builds a station in its fairly large right-of-way.
Access to Destinations
The terminus of this route at 4th Street just west of I-35 is in an
underdeveloped part of downtown. The only major buildings within a
short walk are the convention center and its hotel. In order to reach
the core of office development downtown, which is roughly centered on
Congress Avenue, passengers need to take a fairly long walk. Capital
Metro's intended solution for distribution downtown is a shuttle bus.
It is unclear whether they intend this shuttle bus to also distribute
train passengers to the Capitol Complex or the University of Texas,
both of which are far outside of walking distance from the current
terminus of this route, or even the Seaholm terminus.
The shuttle service envisioned by Capital Metro will not operate in
dedicated right-of-way (i.e. it will operate in regular traffic lanes
on downtown streets shared with cars and other buses). It is likely
such service will resemble the current Dillo routes, which circulate
throughout downtown on various loops. These vehicles already suffer
poor performance resulting from downtown traffic congestion caused by
motorists. It is quite likely that any time savings gained by taking
the commuter rail line will be lost in this mode transfer. Transit
systems around the country have universally experienced large drop-offs
in ridership whenever a transfer is required to reach the passenger's
ultimate destination. The Tri-Rail
system in South Florida has not attracted significant numbers of
"choice" commuters precisely because it relies so heavily on a shuttle
bus system to distribute rail passengers to actual end destinations.
Many rail lines throughout the country claim (and most actually
provide) significant incentive for redevelopment along their corridor -
usually meaning denser development more oriented towards pedestrian
use. This line is unlikely to generate any redevelopment, since the
only corridor it travels along which can be feasibly redeveloped is the
Airport Boulevard section from Lamar Blvd. to I-35, which is
significantly far from downtown and is incredibly unattractive.
This line does cross through the "Robinson Ranch" property in far north
Austin, and some have posited that it is likely to attract
higher-quality urban development to that area. However, the lack of
access for residential customers of this route in anywhere but the
Leander/Cedar Park area, and the infrequent headways on this route
combine to make it unlikely that true transit-oriented development
could thrive on this tract.
This rail line's impact on luring (or retaining) employers downtown is
likely to be minimal, since it is not within walking distance of the
major office nodes downtown. Additionally, the area which is within
walking distance of the line terminus is largely developed with uses
that are not likely to be converted to office - the far east end of the
6th St. entertainment district and the convention center. There is some
possibility of redevelopment immediately along I-35 in this area, as
well as on the tract once proposed for Vignette corporate headquarters.
However, the likelihood of a company investing in a relocation (or
expansion) to be near this line is diminished by the fact that this
corridor will never have extremely frequent headways and by the
ridership hurdles discussed earlier in this document.
The impact of this rail service on high-density residential development
downtown is also likely to be minimal. It is possible that a few more
people may want to live downtown and take this commuter rail line to a
job at a suburban destination like IBM. However, the entire Capital
Metro long-range plan does nothing to improve access to any of the
other urban core attractors, and thus, does not make it any more likely
that a downtown resident could practically live without a car.