Austin: Capital Metro Rapid Transit, Urban Rail, Bus

MetroRapid 101: What’s a Bendy Bus?
By Richard Whittaker, Fri., Jan. 24, 2014

So what’s the deal with those weird accordion buses? That’s a MetroRapid bus, part of the new bus rapid transit (BRT) system. Capital Metro won a $38 million federal grant in 2012, and some of that has gone to buy 22 of these 60-foot buses. They’re able to carry more passengers than the regular 40-foot buses: 101, rather than 78.

Why do they have that funny bendy straw bit in the middle? So they can turn corners more easily.

Where will they be going? There’s a new route – the 801 North Lamar/South Congress – running from Tech Ridge, down Lamar/Guadalupe to Downtown, then over the river, along Riverside to Congress, and then down Congress to Southpark Meadows. The plan is that, with fewer stops and more seats, they’ll be faster than the regular bus service.

How often will they run? Weekdays, every 12 to 20 minutes, rising to every 10 minutes during rush hour. Over the weekend that’ll go down to every 20 to 30 minutes. The really good news is that Cap Metro is finally starting to extend its hours a little bit: The 801 will run weekdays from 5am–1am, Saturdays 6am-12mid, Sundays 7am-11pm.

Will all the old routes still be there? No. The 801 replaces the 1L North Lamar/South Congress (via Lamar) and the 101 North Lamar/South Congress Limited. The 1M North Lamar/South Congress (via Metric) remains, but will be renumbered as the 1 South Congress/Metric.

Won’t they still just get stuck in Austin’s traffic? They’re buses, not helicopters. However, they will be able to communicate with the traffic lights at intersections, getting them to stay green for a few seconds longer to allow them to pass. There will also be designated bus lanes Downtown.

How much is it? Because it’s effectively an express service, MetroRapid will fall in Cap Metro’s new “premium” category, along with all of the limited and flyer routes, such as the 100 MetroAirport Flyer and the 135 Dell Limited. A single ticket will be $1.50; $3 for a 24-hour pass; $13.50 for a seven-day pass; and $49.50 for a full 31 days.

Why so expensive? Considering that a day pass is $3 in Houston and $5 in Dallas, it’s actually pretty competitive. Still, it’s more expensive than the regular buses – they’re only a buck: This is a commuter service, which is why there will be wi-fi. Travelers will also be able to use mobile ticketing, instead of lining up at the grocery store to buy monthly passes.

Sounds fancy: It’s supposed to. The 1L is one of the most used routes in Cap Metro’s system, but it’s often overcrowded and dirty. The reduced number of stops and higher prices, plus all the extras, is Cap Metro’s way of attracting more business commuters.

Is this why I’m seeing these new fancy stops around town? Those aren’t “stops”: In official BRT lingo, they’re “stations.” They’ll have real-time bus tracking and display screens, which Cap Metro promises will mean arrival times updated every 90 seconds.

But aren’t there fewer of those stations than there are the old stops? That’s one of the big points of controversy. In the urban core, there’s a stop every two to three blocks; the MetroRapid stations can be up to a mile apart.

So what does that mean for urban-core users? Currently, there’s either a 1L or a 1M every 13 minutes during the daytime. The 1 will still use regular stops, but will only run only once every 26 to 60 minutes, while the 801 uses only the new stations.

Will any other routes be affected? Yes. Down­town, three routes will be moved. The 7 Duval/Dove Springs and 20 Manor/Riverside will move from Con­gress to Guadalupe/Lavaca. The 17 Cesar Chavez, which currently loops around Brazos and Con­gress between Cesar Chavez and 11th, will go up Red River, along Eighth, down Guadalupe and San Antonio, and across Cesar Chavez.

I used to take the 1L to work, but I don’t want to take the 801: How will I get to Tech Ridge? There’ll be a new circulator route, the 275 North Lamar, running from North Lamar Transit Center to Howard Lane.

Will there be more MetroRapid? Yes. Cap Metro plans to introduce the 803 Burnet/South Lamar late this summer. This will replace another very popular route, the 3. However, unlike the 801, which will still have the 1 to provide regular service, the 803 will completely replace the current route. Also, they won’t be using the bendy buses: They’ll be the regular 40-foot length, not the flexible 60-footers, just with all the mod cons.


Review of Project Connect
by Randal O’Toole, Senior Fellow, Cato Institute May 28, 2014

Executive Summary

Project Connect—a planning consortium sponsored by the City of Austin, Capital Metro, the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, and Lone Star Rail—proposes to build a 9.5-mile, high-capacity transit line in Austin from East Riverside & Grove to Austin Community College’s Highland campus. Transit vehicles would follow a dedicated guideway—either rails or an exclusive busway—with trains or buses stopping about every one-half mile. Although buses are being considered as an alternative, it is clear that Project Connect planners already favor rail, as a presentation by Project Connect concludes, “Urban Rail is the appropriate mode to meet system needs.”[1]

There are several problems with this proposal. First, the proposed rail line is not truly high-capacity transit; though Project Connect has failed to admit it, buses can actually move more people than light rail. While light rail can move about 9,000 people per hour—most of them standing—double-decker buses on city streets can potentially move 18,000 people per hour—most of them comfortably seated.

Second, the line is projected to cost $1.38 billion, but planners have failed to demonstrate the need for an expensive, dedicated guideway system of either bus or rail. In fact, the peak-hour demand projected for the line is well below the capacity of either system considered. Austinites make more than six million person trips per day, of which the light-rail line would carry less than a third of a percent. Yet constructing the light-rail line would consume 5 percent of the region’s transportation budget for the next 25 years, and operations and maintenance would increase the cost still further. By comparison, the MoPac Express Lanes now under construction cost one-seventh as much as the light rail yet are expected to significantly reduce congestion and move four times as many people per day.

Finally, project planners have greatly overestimated the benefits of the proposed line. Far from relieving congestion, light rail will make it worse as it will have priority at traffic signals, disrupting the flow of traffic for everyone else. Far from providing people with speedy travel, its speeds will average no more than 22 miles per hour and, more likely, less than 18 miles per hour. Far from providing clean transportation, light rail will require fossil fuels to generate the electricity it needs; power plants for Dallas’ light-rail system use more energy and emit more carbon dioxide per passenger mile than the average sport-utility vehicle. Far from promoting economic development, light rail is liable to slow it down as the taxes required to support it will discourage businesses from moving to Austin.

For much less than the cost of a single fixed-guideway transit line serving a few travelers, Austin can both improve bus service and relieve traffic congestion for all travelers. Traffic signal coordination, staggered bus stops in high-demand areas, increased bus frequencies, double-decker buses on high-demand routes, and the construction of more HOT lanes will smooth traffic flows and provide better transportation for everyone in the Austin area.

Comment: Total length 9.5 miles and 16 stops as shown in article Project Connect: Three Rail Plans Mulled for CCAG. Distance of stops ranges from 0.2 miles and 1.1 miles with an average of 0.6 miles between stops. At cost of $1.38B it is $145M per mile with annual operation cost of $22M and initial ridership of 5.8M; annual operating cost per ridership give $3.79 per rider (need to defined “ridership”).
Assume a 3 minute headway for both rail and buses due to system constraints and traffic signal cycle lengths; then capacity of one way system is 20 vehicles per direction. Houston light rail has a passenger capacity of 240, 70 seated and 170 standing (Wikipedia METRORail). Per CTTRANSIT a 60-foot articulated bus has a capacity of 120 passengers, 60 seating and 60 standing. Thus hourly passenger capacity for two-way system having 20 vehicle each direction per hour – 9,600 for light rail and 4,800 for articulated bus.




9 October 2013 How Portland’s light rail trains and buses share a transit mall
Austin Capital Metro MetroRapid Vehicles: MetroRapid fleet will include twenty-two 60-foot articulated buses, with capacity for 101 people, and eighteen 40-foot buses, accommodating 78 riders.
April 2010 Austin’s Capital MetroRail Returns Rail Transit to Central Texas (DMU)
Here’s a summary of key features of the MetroRail Red Line:
• Line length: 32 miles (52 km), predominantly single-tracked with passing sidings
• Tracks shared with freight rail operations via temporal separation
• Signal system: Centralized traffic control (CTC)
• Stations: 9 (single-car highfloor platforms)
• Rolling stock: 6 diesel-multiple-unit (DMU) railcars
• Capital investment cost: Approximately $120 million
• Unit cost: Less than $4 million per mile ($2.5 million/km)
• Ridership: Averaging about 1,000 rider-trips a day
• Operating profile: Weekdays only, AM-PM peak periods only
The rolling stock ultimately chosen for MetroRail has been a Swiss-made Stadler GTW-2. Some of its major specifications are listed below.
• Length 134 ft. (40.8 m)
• Width 9 ft. 8 in. (2.6 m)
• Floor height 23 in. (585 mm)
• Double-articulated
• Diesel engines (center unit)
• Traction motors (center truck), outer trucks non-powered
• Maximum speed capability: 75 mph (120 km/hr)
• Service speed 60 mph (97 km/hr)
• Seating capacity: 96 seats, 12 jumpseats, bike racks
• Passenger capacity: 230 total seated + standing passengers
Houston METRORail Rolling Stock Siemens S70 (Wikipedia)
FTA Capital Investment Program: Introduction New Starts, New Starts, Major Capital Investments (New Starts & Small Starts) (5309(b)(1)), New Starts Fact Sheet: Match, The statutory match for New Starts funding is 80 percent Federal, 20 percent local.
February 20, 2014 Federal government approves $670-million grant and $160-million loan for Regional Connector: The total budget of the project is $1.37 billion. The 1.9-mile underground light rail line in downtown L.A. that will tie together the existing Blue Line, Expo Line and Gold Line with tracks between 7th/Metro Center and Little Tokyo.

17 May 2014 Project Connect’s wasteful plan — Ultra-pricey urban rail “decoration” in the wrong route Lyndon Henry, a transportation planning consultant, is a technical consultant for the Light Rail Now Project, and a former board member and data analyst for Capital Metro. He also writes an online column for Railway Age magazine.


Red Line Adds Trains, Subtracts Crowding
$50 million TxDOT grant adds trains, improves Downtown station
By Richard Whittaker, 12:30PM, Fri. Jun. 27
New TxDOT grant for the Metro Rail Red Line means Cap Metro can buy four new trains and build a new Convention Center station, reducing crowding on and waiting for the train.
New TxDOT grant for the Metro Rail Red Line means Cap Metro can buy four new trains and build a new Convention Center station, reducing crowding on and waiting for the train.
Photo by John Anderson

While Austin roils with the argument over whether or not to run a new light rail up Red River, the Texas Department of Transportation is granting $50 million to the existing MetroRail Red Line from Downtown Austin to Leander, to reduce crowding during rush hour, extend service hours, and upgrade the Convention Center station.

On June 26, the TxDOT board approved the grant to Cap Metro to cover two pivotal investments on the line:

• $28 million for four new rail cars, allowing increased service capacity and hours.

• $22 million to replace the existing single platform Downtown Station at the Convention Center, converting it into two platforms with three lines. The state grant will cover between two-thirds and just under half of the total cost of the station, estimated to come in at between $35 million and $50 million. (The existing station was only ever intended to be temporary, and the permanent replacement will reduce crowding.)

Train capacity is a simple equation. Take a line. Put stop and warning lights along its length. Now you can put one train between each set of lights. So that means number of lights times number of trains times number of seats on each train, and that’s your total maximum capacity. If you want to increase how many people you can carry, there are only two real options, other than adding more lights: Bigger trains to carry more passengers, or more trains to carry more people.

Now Cap Metro’s problem is that it runs Stadler GTW diesel-electric light regional railcars. Unlike the traditional train, they are a fixed unit, meaning they can’t simply add extra carriages. So their only option is to add more trains. Since the route is a single track, shared by both north- and south-bound trains for much of its duration, this also means adding more passing places along the route, to allow for easier passage. That money comes from a 2013 Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation.

Between line and signal improvements for commuter and freight rail, plus the additional double tracking, the agency estimates commuter time will be cut by between five and 10 minutes. With the addition of the extra trains, plus the reconstructed Downtown station, Cap Metro will also be able to increase the regularity of the service, increasing it from one train every 34 minutes during rush hour to once every 15 minutes, plus a late train running after 7pm.

Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, who has been working with TxDOT chair Ted Houghton on the grant, welcomed the investment. He said, “It’s encouraging that TxDOT is looking for and supporting multimodal strategies to help tackle our congestion challenges. It’s not possible to meet the demands of a thriving economy and fast-growing population by only investing in roads. We need to embrace every available option to provide relief.”

This is undoubtedly a shot in the arm for rail advocates in Austin and for Cap Metro. It’s timely, considering the city is pushing forward with its light rail proposal on the November ballot: After all, the Red Line was written off initially as a white elephant, which would never really see passengers. Now the major current complaints are an old one about who it serves (that it’s really a commuter route for non-Austinites), and the related concern that there is a lack of stops within Austin city limits, (particularly the big gaps between the stations at MLK and Highland, and Crestview and Kramer.)


  1. Cap Metro reduced the number of routes that the more affordable MetroBus served to try and get more income from the MetroRapid. MetroRapid needs to stop more in order to be more accessible, and it shouldn’t cost anymore than the MetroBus.

  2. gonzalo says:

    Thanks for the comment texaschartebus. It is a common error that transit agencies make, reduce service marginalizing people who need the service in an attempt to gain higher ridership and revenue. At the end they get neither.

    For about three months I tried getting around Austin without a car. The city is dis-functional and unfriendly to alternative travel modes. Bus service is poor unless using few key routes and forget about transfers. Most instance bicycling is quicker and less expensive in actual cost and time than Cap Metro buses.

    Generally Cap Metro bus drivers are pleasant and helpful. The last one was a royal ass, helpful but rude and impatient.

  3. angel4soul says:

    “Some people think Capital Metro is the reason why we don’t have great transit, but it’s mostly our fault as citizens. The land use laws we’ve put in place make it impossible for Austin to have great transit.”
    This is way too easy on Capital Metro. The places near the core where we HAVE allowed good land use (through the VMU ordinance) have seen degraded bus service. That’s the primary reason why population growth has not resulted in more ridership

    • gonzalo says:

      Sorry but bus service is not related to land use. Cap Metro’s (or any other transportation services) primary responsibility is to provide transit service.
      If you have not tried it yet, do try living a week getting around Cap Metro service and then let me know how it goes.

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