Capital Metro delays new MetroRapid routes until 2025
Capital Metro is pushing back this summer's launch of two high-frequency MetroRapid bus lines until 2025 — the latest setback for Austin's multibillion-dollar Project Connect transit expansion.
The Pleasant Valley MetroRapid line will run buses as often as every 10 minutes from the Mueller neighborhood in Northeast Austin to the Goodnight Ranch neighborhood in Southeast Austin. The Expo Center line will run with similar frequency from the Travis County Expo Center to downtown.
The routes would be served entirely by electric buses, something Capital Metro has never done before. Electric buses are quieter and don't spew diesel exhaust. But they cost more than diesel buses and don't run for as long without refueling.
The two-year setback was caused by several factors — including poor planning assumptions about charging the electric buses and shipping delays.
"Programs of this size and magnitude go through these murky moments," Capital Metro CEO Dottie Watkins said. "I am confident we are going to come through this with some great clarity."
The 2023 timeline — developed before former CapMetro CEO Randy Clarke left Austin to run the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority — was based on an assumption that electric buses could be charged at bus depots. Buses with depleted batteries would have been swapped out with fully charged vehicles, Watkins said.
But as CapMetro started building route schedules and working with a consultant to model electric vehicle use, the agency realized swapping out vehicles at the depot would require 80 electric buses, not the 40 they planned for.
"Once we got the analysis done, we learned that it was a faulty planning assumption," Watkins admitted.
Each 40-foot electric bus costs CapMetro about $917,000. The 60-foot buses go for around $1.37 million. That's significantly more than similar 40- and 60-foot diesel-powered buses, which in 2017 cost Capital Metro about $535,000 and $760,000 respectively.
Rather than buy another 40 electric buses, CapMetro is planning to install chargers at the end of each MetroRapid route. Electric bus batteries could be topped off during the day.
But making space for the charging stations required buying more land at the Expo Center and Goodnight Ranch. CapMetro says it acquired enough extra land to build park-and-ride lots at those stations.
The MetroRapid project was also delayed by a plan to add more pedestrian and bike paths along the routes. The City of Austin last year agreed to reimburse CapMetro $1.6 million to build shared-use paths, expanded bicycle lanes, pedestrian crossing islands and other improvements.
In agreeing to those changes, Capital Metro had to move bus stops further out into the street — sometimes into a car lane — to make room for pedestrian and bike paths. Moving the bus stops created the need to relocate utilities.
"For the most part, we've now moved our bus stop on top of waterlines, which in these corridors in some places are rather shallow and in most places are rather aged," Watkins said.
Even if none of these problems existed, the electric buses are being delivered late.
The transit agency now has 21 electric buses and expects to receive 14 more by the spring. But the agency won't get all the buses it ordered for the routes until late 2023.
Building both bus lines will cost about $100 million. Two-thirds of that is expected to come from the federal government. CapMetro hopes to lock down that financing in the coming weeks. Watkins doesn't believe the delays will affect that.
"We have been working closely with our partners at the [Federal Transit Administration] through this entire process," Watkins said. "They're on board."
CapMetro has no official estimates yet for how much the delay will increase project expenses. Those estimates are expected within a month or so. But Watkins speculated the MetroRapid costs could go up by about $1.7 million to $3.5 million.
The MetroRapid snags are the latest holdup for Project Connect, which voters approved in November 2020 by authorizing a dedicated real estate tax of 8.75 cents per $100 of property value.
The Austin Transit Partnership — which oversees the most expensive part of Project Connect, the construction of two light-rail lines — announced last year significant cost increases caused by inflation and costly design changes to the plans.
Earlier this year, the ATP suggested a downtown subway tunnel, long considered a centerpiece of the system, might not happen after all. The option was likely presented as a worst-case scenario to get the public thinking about how spiraling costs might need to be dialed back.
For example, an underground shopping concourse along the Blue Line downtown is no longer considered a high priority.
Since last year, the ATP has been revising light-rail plans under new executive leadership. Interim Director Greg Canally took over in May after Clarke resigned as ATP's executive director. Canally's team is expected to present pared down light-rail options and timelines to the public next month.