Jeff Heimsath/KUT News

Capital Metro is planning some big improvements for MetroRail, the city’s only rail transit line. But one of the big-ticket items on that list of improvements – a plan for a permanent downtown station with a price tag of over $30 million – is being criticized by some as unnecessary and ill-suited to the city's transit needs.

MetroRail (also known as the Red Line) got off to a rough start when it launched in 2010, starting several years late and tens of millions of dollars over budget. Still, it's managed to attract more and more riders in the years since, and a typical weekday rush hour these days on the Red Line is standing room only.

But the service is hampered by several factors. 

Spencer Selvidge/KUT News

Austin's "MetroRapid" buses are larger and, let's be honest, nicer than your typical bus. They've got more doors, for one, which makes for faster loading and unloading. You can look up when the next one's going to arrive on your smartphone. They have Wi-Fi, too. In January, the first line debuted, the 801, running up and down North Lamar and Congress. This week, the second one started up, the 803, going from the Domain down Burnet, through downtown and down South Lamar. 

The Rapid bus system is the first major transit project in Austin since the troubled rollout of the MetroRail red line several years ago.* That project was late, over budget and struggled to attract riders.

The rapid buses, however, started on time and under budget. But six months after the launch of the first rapid line, ridership in its corridor is down 16 percent from two years ago during the same period. (You can view the ridership numbers obtained by KUT below.)

"We certainly didn't want that to happen. We hoped that wouldn’t happen. But it did happen," says Todd Hemingson, Vice President of strategic planning and development with Capital Metro.

So why, after premiering shiny new buses with plenty of features, did ridership go down in the corridor?

Callie Hernandez for KUT News

Update: Capital Metro’s MetroRail Service is back up and running this morning. But trains are running behind schedule because of a technology problem earlier this morning.

Capital Metro says the first train will depart from Leander at about 6:50 a.m.

A Capital Metro spokesperson says crews will work hard this morning to get back on schedule.

Original Story (6:22 a.m.): Capital Metro’s MetroRail Service is down this morning because of a technology problem.

KUT News

Update: Capital Metro says MetroRail service is back up and running as normal this morning – all the way from Leander to downtown Austin.

Derailed freight cars have been removed from the tracks.

Original Story (April 4, 2013): CapMetro has resumed MetroRail service to the MLK station from their Kramer, Howard and Leander Stations. Trains will run as schedule for the foreseeable future while buses will shuttle passengers between MLK and downtown.

Capital Metro is reaching out to residents in the suburbs north of Austin for input on possible transit options for connecting them to Central Austin. Cap Metro says it’s the number one transportation priority for the region. The big reason? A lot of people may live in Williamson County, but many of them work in Travis County.

Cap Metro has already heard from people during traditional open houses. Now, the transit company is seeking input through a website – what it’s calling an “Online Open House.”

The website lets visitors control what looks like a sort of power point presentation. It highlights a few problems: congestion, rapid population growth and the restraints of the current highway system.

But what Cap Metro says it’s really interested in is feedback. One of the most interesting forms of feedback that commuters can give is on the site’s “Interactive Map.” Website visitors are invited to draw in suggested transportation alternatives for getting around in the North Corridor during rush hour.

Photo courtesy Twitter user JenelleS_KVUE,

This spring, Austinite Jeremy Barta was killed when a MetroRail commuter train collided with his car while it was stuck on the tracks at a private rail crossing. Barta’s two children also suffered in the accident. The train engineer was cleared in an internal Cap Metro investigation, despite a malfunction of the train’s camera system.

In a report today, the Austin American-Statesman raises new questions about the crash. 

According to police reports, the engineer didn’t immediately apply the brakes as soon as he saw the car on the tracks:

The engineer, Kazi Adnan Jahangir, 43, applied the train's emergency brakes and sounded the horn and bells only after realizing that the white Ford Taurus, driven by Jeremy Barta, might not move off the tracks, the documents said.

Daniel Reese for KUT News

Capital Metro is upgrading rail warning systems at some private MetroRail crossings.

Jeremy Barta, 32, of Austin was killed and his two children were injured when their car was hit by train at a private crossing in April.

Cap Metro now plans to install flashing warning lights at six crossings. The company will install the lights at one crossing per year for the next six years – at a cost of about $200,000 per crossing.

Nathan Bernier/KUT News

It’s been a marathon session of Austin City Council today, and it’s not over yet. Here are some highlights from this evening. (Check out earlier action here.)

Electricity Rate Hikes Delayed

Austin city council voted 6-1 against a temporary increase in electricity rates. Council members had been considering an interim rate hike while they worked on a larger overhaul of Austin Energy’s rate plan. But the public utility’s general manager, Larry Weis, told council that a temporary increase would complicate billing and take months to implement.

Photo by Erik Reyna for KUT News

Capital Metro’s Red Line will start running late into the evening on Fridays and Saturdays. Austin City Council voted 6-1 this evening on this resolution directing city staff to finalize the deal with Cap Metro. Kathie Tovo was the only council member to vote against the proposal. 

The new schedule will see commuter trains run hourly from 7 p.m. until midnight on Fridays. On Saturdays, they'll run every 35 minutes 4 p.m. until midnight. That schedule takes effect Friday, March 23.

Photo by KUT News

Austin’s public transit agency has known for a while that its fledgling commuter rail service could see a lot more riders if they let people take the train on Friday and Saturday nights. Back in May, we reported on how Capital Metro broke ridership records when they did that during the Pecan Street Festival.

But the problem was always money. Six months ago, the cost estimates were around $1 million annually for Friday and Saturday night service.

“That’s arguably a million dollars we don’t have,” Cap Metro Board Chair and Austin Mayor Pro Tem Mike Martinez told us in May. The head of Cap Metro, Linda Watson, said the agency was in talks with the city to secure funding.

Fast forward to the present, and costs estimates are now closer to $2.7 million per year, but it appears the city is willing to pay for it.