Commuter Rail Texas Style

By R.G. Pickard | September 28, 2010

In a 2004 referendum, Austin voters approved the idea of a commuter rail line, but adamantly rejected the idea of slashing through property to build an all new commuter line. The engineering firm of Lockwood, Andrews & Newnam, Inc. (LAN) had been working with the Austin Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority (CMTA) in the LAN CAP Metro program. The public/private planning and construction management team is administrated by CTMA while LAN is the program support consultant, fulfilling technical roles in the design and construction process.

Stephen Roth, project manager for LAN, said that "we work hand in hand with Capital Metro as an integrated team. We're collocated in the same office where we work together every day, and this project is being implemented at a cost per mile level well below most industry expectations. We're implementing 32 miles of commuter rail for a total cost of slightly over $100 million, which includes the cost of the six Stadler diesel multiple-unit vehicles at $6 million each." The project is entirely funded via a local 1-cent sales tax.

As a result of the referendum, LAN engineers were challenged with the conundrum of designing a commuter line with no new rail construction. Their solution was to integrate about 32 miles of the existing Texas Central Railroad line into a commuter pattern with minimal new construction, and alternate times for freight and commuters.

"The CMTA will use a Centralized Traffic Control system which was designed and installed by URS Corporation," explained King Kaul, manager of Commuter Rail Design and Construction for Capital Metro. "Centralized Traffic Control will be used in commuter rail territory, with track warrant control in freight-only territory. URS Corporation did the design work on the track and track-related structures." To complete the control system, Railroad Controls Limited is adding railway signalization and control systems, with crossing signals being installed by Gulf Coast, Inc. URS also designed the rail maintenance facility, which was constructed by Mitchell Enterprises, Ltd. at the north operations facility.

Austin Bridge & Road constructed the Red Line overpass above the UPRR freight line south of Leander. The piers for the overpass were constructed on site, and then the 60- to 90-foot spans were topped with precast concrete beams. Construction required a great deal of coordination with UPRR, and Austin Bridge & Road crews were given time slots for work to avoid freight traffic, which passed 20 or more times per day. Construction crews had to be at least 25 feet away when trains passed.

Parsons Brinckerhoff, Jacobs Carter Burgess, Lopez Garcia Group, and Associated Consulting Engineers served as the design consultants for the nine railway stations along the line. The nine stations were constructed by several companies. Muniz Concrete & Contracting Co. placed the foundations for the stations. Neon Electric Corporation performed steel structural work, and constructed the canopies and steel elements at each of the stations. The railway siding tracks at the stations are being built by Trans-Global Solutions and Veolia Transportation. Journeyman Construction, Inc., of Austin built the Downtown Convention Center station and the Martin Luther King station. Jobsite Construction, LLC is nearing completion of Howard Station.

The existing Austin MetroRail stations are already providing the impetus for high-density, mixed use development, known officially as Transit Oriented Development (TOD). TOD plans in progress include office, retail and residential projects by Trammell Crow at the Crestview Station. Future plans are developing for a mixed use project by St. Croix near Kramer Station, with other developers planning a TOD project adjacent to the Leander Station.

Future rail service expansion plans, which will require another referendum and voter approval, include the possibility of adding additional stations and a double track from downtown to Leander, as well as the possibility of expanded MetroRail services east to Manor and Elgin. Rehabilitation of the abandoned MoKan corridor is also being considered, as is the development of a regional rail system from Georgetown to San Antonio.

The popularity of Austin's Capital MetroRail System will determine the route that Austin will take for further commuter rail projects, according to Kaul. Construction of the Red Line is expected to be completed ahead of schedule, with revenue-generating commuter service planned to commence on March 30, 2009.