Can the Apple campus be transit-oriented?

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The future Apple campus is located between stops 7 & 8.

One of the many reasons that Amazon supposedly was never seriously considering Austin, along with many other cities, is that it had no interest in dealing with a metro area that doesn’t already have top-notch public transit. In these United States, that’s a pretty short list of cities.

But that doesn’t appear to be a major concern for Apple’s much smaller campus, which it announced last week will be plopped down on Robinson Ranch, a massive tract of land in Northwest Austin, at the intersection of Parmer Lane and SH 45.

As it stands, Robinson Ranch is about as far away from transit-oriented as a work place in the city limits could possibly be. For instance, I asked Google maps for directions from the Capitol to Robinson Ranch via transit and it told me it “could not calculate transit directions” for that journey. I asked for transit directions from the Domain, which is about 11 miles closer, and still no dice.

But at first glance, there is a glimmer of hope. You see, Robinson Ranch is just a whisker away from the tracks of MetroRail, the Leander-to-Downtown boondoggle that has diverted millions of dollars away from Cap Metro’s bus service. Right now, Cap Metro is spending about $19 per MetroRail passenger (compared to $4 + change for every local bus rider), but things might improve significantly if we could put a station right in front of the new Apple campus, making it a compelling commute option for thousands of Apple employees.

In fact, I can imagine Apple marketing it to employees coming to down: here are the locations you can live that will provide you direct access to your job. It would be a pretty good range: downtown, MLK, Plaza Saltillo, Highland Mall, Crestview, the Domain, plus a few suburban locales. The proliferation of scooters around those first six locations might help expand the distance from the station that people are willing to travel. And Apple, ever the woke capitalist, would no doubt be happy to provide workers with discounted transit passes.

But putting a new station there is not easy. It will not only cost millions to construct another station, but the tracks would have to be realigned. That’s why Cap Metro has said a station is unlikely to come in the near future and has instead emphasized putting bus service on Parmer Lane. But that hardly sounds like a promising solution given how sparsely populated that area is and how disconnected it is to the rest of the city’s transit network.

Cap Metro spokesperson Mariette Hummell told me the following in an email:

“If we did a major track realignment, then we could potentially add a station within walking distance of the new campus. It’s something that may be possible if we have the partnership and financial support.”

That financial support should come from Apple.


7 thoughts on “Can the Apple campus be transit-oriented?

  1. I vaguely remember promises of the track being straightened in that area way back when the Red Line was first proposed. My first preference would be to shut down MetroRail and give the money to the bus system. Given that that’s a political impossibility, second preference would be Apple paying for the realignment at no additional taxpayer cost. But, given that their favorite hobby is getting tax breaks, I’m not sure that’s in the cards.

  2. “the Leander-to-Downtown boondoggle that has diverted millions of dollars away from Cap Metro’s bus service”

    The Red Line has _provided_ millions of dollars for bus service and saved CapMetro from rapidly approaching bankruptcy.

    The passage of the Red Line proposition allowed the reinstatement of the “quarter cent” tax, the majority of which has ended up going to non-rail purposes.

    1. Matt, this seems to be a pretty tortured argument. We had to build a very inefficient service as part of a political compromise to get money for worthier services? I mean, sometimes you have to accept bad things as part of a political deal, but can we both agree that Cap Metro would be better off if the quarter-cent had never been taken away to begin with and the red line hadn’t been built?

      1. Capital Metro is fundamentally a political organization, and every decision it makes has political repercussions. Trying to pretend otherwise seems to be a fools errand.

        But if I had the power to roll back one political decision from CapMetro’s entire history, it sure wouldn’t be the construction of the Red Line (which is a functional and productive part of the system). It would be Round Rock withdrawing from the system. That would be (if I’m remembering from the last time I checked) $50M or more per year in sales taxes. .

        If you’re asking if we’d been better off if the 2000 light rail plan had passed, and never would have even gotten to the point of having to build the red line? Yes (though the elephant in the room is that CapMetro wouldn’t have actually have been able to afford to build the line they promised).

        Once the 2000 vote failure happened, choosing to build the Red Line was smart. It also had the side effect of cementing Leander into the system (and probably has helped to keep Manor).

      2. Basically, I disagree (with data) on your characterization of the Red Line as “very inefficient”.

        Does it have a higher subsidy/boarding? Yes. But so does every commuter/express service. So does choosing to run the 801 all the way out to Tech Ridge and Southpark meadows.

        Fundamentally it’s always going to cost more to carry a butt in a seat for a half hour or an hour, than it does to carry someone 5 blocks. But the former is still a productive trip. The former has a greater environmental benefit (avoided CO2 emissions) than the later.

        If you really wanted to minimize subsidy/boarding, you’d basically cancel all/most of the routes in the system, and just run the UT shuttles. But that wouldn’t be a better system (even ignoring that it would be “political” suicide for CM).

        The transit system has a lot of things it’s trying to accomplish, and it’s a balancing act among all of them. Simply looking at subsidy/boarding is short-sighted. If nothing else, that’s also why you track subsidy/passenger*mile.

      3. Here’s my argument on the Red Line, and why it is anything but a “boondoggle”.

        1) Your argument (subsidy/boarding) is distorted by the high fixed costs of the system. Those fixed costs end up amortized over a small number, as the (intentionally built small) system has basically reached max capacity.
        The capacity of the system is set to ~double in a few years, with the in-progress improvements. I wouldn’t be entirely surprised to see the per passenger subsidy get close to halving in the next few years (not entirely due to some increased variable costs).

        Some relatively small capital improvements following that (station extensions, not the full double-tracking project) could double capacity again.

        2) Even if the Red Line had never been built, or was shuttered tomorrow, not all of those fixed costs go away. CapMetro still has a freight line that needs to be inspected/maintained/repaired. *
        Similarly, if the Red Line goes away, that doesn’t mean that all the money is there to be spent on buses. I believe CM gets some operating grants that help to cover (some small part of) the costs.

        3) Even absent the monetary costs, the Red Line has been a positive benefit for Austin, in a way that simply running more buses would not have been.
        About the only major upzoning that has taken place in Austin in the past decade and a half can directly or indirectly be traced to the Red Line. The TOD zones around station (small as they are, irregular as they are) have lead to density improvements. This effect has been disproportionate to the actual capacity of the Red Line. Look at Broadmoor, where the existence of a station there could unlock a large increase in density. The (at the time planned) Red Line was taken into account even in the initial creation of the North Burnet Gateway planning area.

        4) As mentioned, the RL is efficient on a passenger*mile basis.

        5) If the Red Line goes away(or never existed), you’ll have to run more commuter buses up to Leander. Yes, this is in part a political consideration, but those don’t go away.

        6) I claim (as above) that Leander is less likely/unlikely to leave the system due to the existence of the Red Line. That’s up to $6M a year last I checked,and growing fast.

        *CMs freight operations had always been a loss for them, for decades. After the introduction of the Red Line, they have less capacity for freight, but now can make a profit? To me, that doesn’t seem to be a coincidence. Splitting expenses between freight and passenger operations seems to have helped.

  3. It seems unlikely Apple would be interested in paying for rail infrastructure.

    They could have (but presumably already decided against) locating the campus on RR acreage adjacent to the existing tracks.

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