Prentiss Riddle: Austin

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My tour of Cap Metro's commuter station sites

Okay, Cap Metro won their referendum on commuter rail and it's time for me to stop whining for a little while. Maybe they'll actually make the thing work. But that doesn't mean there's nothing interesting to say about it any more.

One day last week I gassed up the car and took a little tour of the nine planned locations for commuter rail stations. I couldn't find any detailed documents on Cap Metro's website so I had to work with the rough map they presented to the voters. But as far off as I'm sure some of these guesses must be, at least now I have some picture of what parts of town they're planning to connect, rather than just a central-Austinite's idea that the stations are (waves vaguely to the north) out there somewhere. So, if you'll bear with my crude camera skills, here's a little souvenir brochure from my tour.

Cap Metro station map

Station 9: Leander [map]

Cap Metro station site, Leander Cap Metro station site, Leander

The end of the line 25 miles out from central Austin isn't just suburban, it's practically rural. I'm sure that there must be subdivisions all around, but downtown Leander is about as un-dense as you can get. Leander City Hall is on the west side of 183 and the tracks are on the east with plenty of empty land to build a station on. There are also a number of pre-war frame houses with big pecan trees on the east side, looking like they need some love; let's hope they turn into cafes for weary commuters instead of getting bulldozed for parking.

Station 8: Cedar Park [map]

Cap Metro station site, Cedar Park

Cedar Park, on the other hand, is unequivocally suburban. The station is planned for an existing park-and-ride site behind a huge strip shopping center to the southeast of 1431 and 183. The Cedar Park police HQ and a Williamson County court annex are also at hand. But none of it is convenient for pedestrians and you can be sure that most of the people who use this station will get there by car.

Station 7: Howard Lane [map]

Cap Metro station site, Howard Lane

After Cedar Park, riders will enjoy a meandering and (for now, anyway) scenic ride southeast through a big tract of what until recently has been ranchland and limestone quarries. I'm confused by the tangle of roads up there and their multiple names and I mistakenly placed the Cap Metro station at the Wells Branch/Howard/McNeil/Burnet/1325/MoPac intersection, which currently looks like the orcscape at Isengard as the roads all get worked on. But looking more closely at Cap Metro's fuzzy map I think I was off by a mile or so and the station may actually be halfway between MoPac and 183 on the Wells Branch/Howard/McNeil corridor. Oh, well.

Station 6: UT Pickle/Braker Lane [map]

Cap Metro station site, UT Pickle/Braker Lane

At this point I got a little worried that my photography would earn me a tap on the shoulder from Homeland Security, since I had a nice view of a site that's been doing weapons research for 60+ years now. This shot is looking south from the Braker Lane overpass, with the Pickle Center purposely cropped out on the left and MoPac on the right. There's a lot of (potentially flooding) land for a station, and a couple of major employers within energetic walking distance. It will be interesting to see what if anything Metro does to try to connect the station to the Arboretum and other major retail and entertainment developments a half-mile or more away.
Addendum: I messed up on this one, too -- see comments below.

Station 5: Lamar Blvd/Justin Lane [map]

Cap Metro station site, Lamar Blvd/Justin Lane

Here Cap Metro's description of the site gets curious. All their literature refers to the "Lamar Blvd/Justin Lane" station, but the tracks never actually cross Justin Lane. This picture is taken from the traffic island on Lamar looking west, with Justin off to the left and Airport behind on the right. Was the Justin Lane name used because it would sound better to people in Crestview than "Airport and Lamar"? Is the plan to take out the Walker Tire Co. and make the station extend along Lamar from Airport to Justin? Or would it actually be on the north side of the tracks (to the right in this picture), in the Huntsman facility, which has recently been scheduled for closure and possible redevelopment? I don't know, but I get first dibs on the "If it's in stock we've got it!" sign.

Station 4: Highland Mall [map]

Cap Metro station site, Highland Mall

Highland Mall is on the east side of Airport Blvd. and the tracks are on the west, so don't expect to be able to step out of the train into the food court. There's plenty of empty easement for a station, though. The Skyview neighborhood is right there, but fenced off from Airport with no pedestrian access.

Station 3: MLK Blvd. [map]

Cap Metro station site, MLK Blvd.

Give me land, lots of land, under starry skies above... The MLK station is supposed to be at the Featherlite Tract, a big piece of east Austin that's had developers salivating and scratching their heads ever since a construction materials company vacated it years ago. If Cap Metro's premise that commuter rail will focus redevelopment is true, this station may be ground zero.

Station 2: Plaza Saltillo [map]

Cap Metro station site, Plaza Saltillo

That's a crummy photo of what would be a pretty place, if it just connected to its surroundings somehow. Plaza Saltillo has been an interesting answer in search of a question ever since it was built. The rail station may finally give it its reason for being there. Except, how many people want to ride from Leander to East 5th Street? Again, though, if it's true that commuter rail spurs redevelopment, I predict mixed-use loft and condo projects as far as the eye can see. Can we get historic status for Cafe Mundi, please?

Station 1: Convention Center [map]

Cap Metro station site, Convention Center Cap Metro station site, Convention Center

And here's where my powers of deduction break down completely. If you follow the railroad tracks the short hop across I-35 to the Convention Center, you end up in a densely built-up part of downtown with nowhere obvious to put a station. These shots are both looking west, from I-35 and Red River, respectively. I can't wait to see what the solution is.

austin 2004.11.17 link


I read in the Statesman a week or two ago that the planned Justin/Lamar site would be where Huntsman is now.

In the Pickle/Braker pic, is that the golf driving range on the right?

Bill Bradford [mrbill cxe mrbill punkto net] • 2004.11.18
Yes, that's the driving range. Looks like he's on Braker, over the railroad tracks located west of IBM and JJ Pickle.

Comet • 2004.11.18
Thanks for this post. I lived in Austin in the 80's and now live in Dallas. I don't get down there near enough and its nice to see Austin getting onboard with a rail system. Here in Dallas you can go from far north Plano to south Dallas. And from downtown Dallas all the way to Ft Worth by rail. A day pass for the rail on Dart is only $2. I havent taken the one to Ft Worth but I think it is only $5. Cheap way to get around. I live near the Mockingbird station and my wife and I take our daughter to the Dallas Zoo via the rail. It lets out right accross the street from it.

Lane [lagbnaft cxe gmail punkto com] • 2004.11.18
Thanks for the news about Huntsman. My quick Google search turned up some speculation but not a definite statement like that Statesman article.

Yes, as I said, that Braker shot was taken looking south from the overpass. My guess is that the driving range is rented cheap from some government agency as it looks like it's in a flood control feature and they could simply cancel the lease when it's time to build the station.

That raises the question of whether it makes sense to park cars for a train station in a flood control feature. What happens when all the downtown workers hear that it's raining? Will they madly dash back up to Braker to retrieve their cars?

Alternative locations for parking could be on slightly higher ground on the Pickle campus, but knowing UT I think that's unlikely. Or the whole station could be on the north side of that overpass (behind me in the picture), where the City of Austin owns a few acres of currently empty parking lot for the industrial/R&D park across Braker from Pickle. That would make one wonder why they named the station after the Pickle campus, but as with Justin, they seem to be willing to name them after things which are nearby, not right next door.

Somewhere there is no doubt a Cap Metro document which pins these things down and would put an end to all my speculation. This is mostly recreation, not a serious planning discussion. (Maybe I should have posted it under "travel"!)

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.18
Lane, yes, Dallas has a great system. Whether Austin's will be has been the subject of much discussion. But I promised to drop that for now...

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.18
I just thought of a very good reason not to name station 5 the "Lamar/Airport" station: Airport Blvd. is nowhere near the airport and there's no telling how many out-of-towners would go there by mistake.

I recall thinking what a misfeature it was that Mexico City's rail system has an "Aeropuerto" station which is miles from their airport. At one time it was the closest station and the name made sense but now there's a completely separate line that goes right there. Rather like Airport Blvd. itself, come to think of it.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.18
The driving range at Braker has the MoPac tracks running beside it and the Pickle Center. The CapMetro tracks are on the other side of Burnet running through the IBM campus and then some industrial buildings.

Map of the area

Strangely the map above mislabels the IBM campus. IBM owns land North and East of the Burnet/Braker intersection. The purple land labelled IBM is the Domain land of the infamous shopping mall--IBM sold it to Endeavor years ago and leased it back. I don't know if all the Domain land will be turned into shopping or not. The driving range is slated to be another mall from Simon I believe, which strikes me as mall pollution and really funny considering Simon owns the extremely nearby Arboretum. So, this station would serve 2 extremely close malls (assuming they get built), Pickle and IBM. The Arboretum, National Instruments and a lot of other companies are nearby for the circulating buses. Could be a well used stop.

Story about Simon leasing the driving range

Story about the Domain/Simon/Endeavor strange alliance

Carter B • 2004.11.18
Great work! I think the Justin nomenclature is an effort to shade the "center-city station" issue a bit. Airport Blvd doesn't fool anybody; while some people think Justin Lane is center-city.

M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.18
Re Huntsman: The Huntsman article was about possible redevelopment as a TOD (transit-oriented development), not any indication that the station wouldn't be on Lamar at Airport.

M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.18
I noticed you mentioned the lack of pedestrian access in reference to several areas. I'm under the impression that each station will have a number of buses and shuttles serving it. I could, however, be very wrong, but that's been my understanding from the get go.

Staci [stacipr cxe gmail punkto com] • 2004.11.18
Thanks for all the comments!

Yes, Staci, each station is supposed to be the hub of local circulator bus routes (as well, I'd guess, as a stop on the long-haul arterial bus routes which I hope will still be running). Whether that will work or not is part of the pro-con debate which I've promised I won't get back into, although I can't seem to stop alluding to it, can I? However, another aspect of the plan has been denser, multi-use, walkable/bikeable development around each station, and I think existing pedestrian access and density will have a big influence on whether that ever happens, either.

Carter, thanks for straightening me out about the MoPac vs. Cap Metro tracks. That's an important distinction! (And probably part of why I screwed up on the Howard Lane location, too).

I agree about the mall pollution. However this town is crawling with proposed retail locations and, short of another 90's-style boom, it's hard to believe that more than a small fraction of them will get built.

And thanks for the info about the Domain. I parked there to walk over to the Braker overpass for the photo and there were signs stating that the City of Austin owned the property. Or did I misinterpret them and the City also just leases part of it, which it sublets to startup businesses or something? Curious.

Would the Braker station really be "extremely close" to to those malls, though? That's quite a hike for your average non-walking Texan, and given the likely frequency of trains I don't see people using them to go shopping much anyway. But you're right that the station would be close enough to major employers that it could be one of the more successful stops.

Here's an irony for you: if Simon puts in a swanky new mall at the Domain, it could cause the decline of Highland Mall (already looking a little faded), and make the Highland Mall stop less useful -- the mall being the only major destination at that stop.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.18
Nice job, Prentiss. It'll be interesting to go back for another round of photos and compare them with these shots when the rail line opens for business in 2008. I've got an Austin photo project of my own in the works which I hope to have done over the next couple of months.

Assuming I'm still with the same company in 4 years, a rather big assumption these days, and assuming that the rapid bus line stops anywhere near my house, I'm going to make an effort to use this despite voting against it. My current job is easily within walking distance of the Braker/Mopac stop. It's just a question of how easy it is to get from roughly the IRS Austin Service Center (Ben White/I-35) to the Convention Center or Plaze Saltillo stop. As with today, I'm going against the commute which isn't bad in the mornings, but really can be a nightmare in the evenings.

ttrentham [todo cxe thechunk punkto com] • 2004.11.18
Sorry, you won't be allowed on the train unless you show proof that you voted for the rail system. Only fair, you know...

conductor • 2004.11.18

The problem with buses TO the train station is that your transit trip then becomes a three-seat all-transit ride (bus to station, train, bus from station), which for anybody that owns a car, is not going to be a real winner.

M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.18
Conductor: does that mean I don't have to pay the taxes for it, either? :-)

(And, hey, I'd give up the right to drive on certain roads in Austin too if they were paid for only by their users. Wait -- isn't that what they call toll roads? Oops, I'd better save that for another post...)

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.18
M1EK- regarding three-seat transit rides:
I grew up in the SF Bay Area, and the light rail transit system could never service every person close enough for walking. They have done an excellent job of linking buses to it, though, and many people either begin their day with a drive to the station and park there or they take the bus. In the Bay Area, and I think soon it will be comparable to here, even three seats on public transit is better than driving 2 to 2 1/2 hours in absolutely horrible stop-and-go traffic to San Francisco.

Sarah [princessbride42 cxe yahoo punkto com] • 2004.11.19

That's true; New York and San Francisco can serve commuters with three-seat transit rides and be competitive with the car. Areas that are just starting to penetrate the "choice commuter" market, though, can't afford to present such a crappy transit alternative to the car and expect many people to take it.

It'll be decades before Austin traffic is bad enough that a three-seat transit ride will be competitive with the automobile.

M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.19
I see your point. It's hard for me to understand why, if one had to commute, one would choose sitting in traffic to riding and being able to read or sleep or listen to music. But that's probably because I grew up in an area where alternative transit was widely used and accepted. I've noticed people here are very attached to their cars.

Sarah [princessbride42 cxe yahoo punkto com] • 2004.11.19
Thanks for the great photo tour. I would like to add that the Plaza Saltillo site has the potential to become the most active of the stops, with the 105-unit Pedernales Live/ Work Project, the 160-unit Villas on Sixth affordable-housing complex, the El Nuevo Mercado mixed-use development, which will include retail, residential, and office space, UT's new elementary charter school, and the Lance Armstrong Bikeway all being built or planned for nearby. While I don't imagine a lot of the people living in the Saltillo area will be making frequent trips to the cow pastures of Leander (except possibly during mushroom season), I can see them going shopping at Highland Mall and helping to reverse it's steady decline, or going to work in the concentration of warehouses and offices that stretch from the Braker / Mopac stop to the other side of Metric.

SudoNimm • 2004.11.19
Why didn't you think of this before the election? I'm still holding onto optimistic dreams this line will work, or at least be the impetus to something great. Nothing is worse than a city without public transportation (or is a city with bad pub. trans. worse?) Guess we'll find out.
Anyway, it also reminds me of an idea I just got for my site - taking pictures of houses with Bush or Kerry signs in front of them - along with submissions around the country - no commentary, just pictures.

Anyway, great job.

Michael [info cxe schliefkevision punkto com] • 2004.11.20
That's a great photo project, Michael -- and could be an even better theme for a series of paintings. Red states/blue states?

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.20
Your story (and including info from the comments) and photos would make a great story in the Chronicle. Can articles be submitted? If so, maybe also interview some capmetro people on their plans?

Austinite • 2004.11.21
Thanks, but I wouldn't claim that this little piece of mine meets the basic standards of journalism, even the refreshingly opinionated kind practiced at the Chronicle.

I did make a suggestion to Mike Clark-Madison at the Chronicle that they do a story along these lines themselves and he sounded interested.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.21

The problem with the reverse-commute theory is that the employment centers are, for the most part, clustered fairly close to the US 183 corridor, not the Burnet / McNeil corridors that the commuter rail line follows. (This would have been a problem with the 2000 light rail line as well, since at this stage the LRT line would have been in the same place). Shuttle buses would be nearly universally required for distribution, which, again, for new users of a rail line, is a huge disincentive to ride.

M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.22
Nice essay.

The rails with trails portion of the commuter rail project is intended to facilitate pedestrian access to and from the stations. Next year, Capital Metro will have public planning processes on designs for the stations and the trail. Pedestrian access to the stations will be a major focus of the process. In addition, Capital Metro will also have a public discussion of the neighborhood circulators for the Downtown, 45th St./Mueller, Highland Mall, and Braker/Arboretum stations.

As for Highland Mall, there is discussion that it may be redeveloped.


Jeb [jeboyt cxe hotmail punkto com] • 2004.11.23
Rails with trails are nice. They don't change the fact that most commuters won't walk more than 1/4 of a mile to a train station, and most choice commuters won't take shuttle buses.

The catchment area for this line is really really poor. I'd be surprised if the FTA rates it highly, even given their previous bias towards commuter rail.

M1EK [mdahmus cxe io punkto com] • 2004.11.23
Thanks for this, it was really helpful for when I went on my bike excursion of future rail station locations for a reasearch paper.
(Mtn Biking on train tracks is tiring, btw)

Adam [adamswood5000 cxe yahoo punkto com] • 2004.12.18
Thanks for this, it was really helpful for when I went on my bike excursion of future rail station locations for a reasearch paper.
(Mtn Biking on train tracks is tiring, btw)

Adam [adamswood5000 cxe yahoo punkto com] • 2004.12.18
Thanks for this, it was really helpful for when I went on my bike excursion of future rail station locations for a reasearch paper.
(Mtn Biking on train tracks is tiring, btw)

Adam [adamswood5000 cxe yahoo punkto com] • 2004.12.18
Thanks for this, it was really helpful for when I went on my bike excursion of future rail station locations for a reasearch paper.
(Mtn Biking on train tracks is tiring, btw).

Adam [adamswood5000 cxe yahoo punkto com] • 2004.12.18
i too cannot wait to see what occurs everywhere as a result of this new train for austin and beyond..(from the Austin station located on the northwest corner of Lamar and Caesar Chavez. A transportation system will become as good as it needs to be. Repeated commutes and strings of interconnected networks of appropriate services will reap enormous benefits.

joejoe [jcs0009 cxe netscape punkto net] • 2004.12.20
First of all, Prentiss: very nicely done survey of the potential sites. It has encouraged some discussion... may I continue it?
M1EK's point about 3 seat journies focuses me on Capital Metro's real mission. Their mission seems to be to mobilize people who do not have cars, not to compete with those who do. (This is short sighted) Whatever the official line is, if you have to spend an hour commuting by 3-seat-journeys, including ponderously SLOW buses for something that takes 30 minutes by car, the choice if foregone for most people. Plus the heat problem: in San Francisco you can show up for work in June after walking 15 minutes... can't swing that in a business office here.
For example, I can drive from Highland Mall to Convention Center in 10 minutes. It's seven miles... If Cap Metro could cover it in 12 mins., it would encourage me to park at Highland Mall and take the train downtown. Just think how many drunk driver miles that would take off the road (from downtown to the suburbs). But to make this in 12 mins., you've got to average 35+ mph.
We've got to encourage Cap Metro to operate the trains at 35+mph average speeds to compete with cars and push the City to rezone the areas nearby the stops so that more people can live within walking distance (more 1-seat-journey potential riders).

Chris • 2005.05.07
this is a reallly good idea i think everyone should vote for this. it would be better then filling up the tank to get up to the 9-5 daily. really reallly doh.

sean#1 • 2006.07.19
Would appreciate someone telling me the proposed routes of the circulator(s) for 45thStreet. Also what is meant by a 3-seater? Is that a very small bus with only 3 seats or do three people sit on each of whatever count of seats are on the circulator.
Any would beat having to take 3 buses to get to many Austin locations, stalling on walk light cycles along the way! For the old Rail election, Cap Metro talked about rail riders having to walk up to a mile for their potential ridership -- that didn't get many votes so maybe that's why now "circulators" are planned.

doris gayle [dgayle cxe austin punkto rr punkto com] • 2007.03.10
Doris, a 3-seater is a commute in which you have to use three vehicles, and hence two transfers, for example if you take your car to the train, a train to near downtown, and then a bus to your office. Nobody likes a 3-seat ride.

Mike Dahmus and other critics say Cap Metro's commuter rail is doomed to low ridership because it would require a 3-seat ride for most UT and downtown workers. I tend to agree.

Prentiss Riddle [riddle cxe io punkto com] • 2007.03.10
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