Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Take the Bus to First Night

If you plan on enjoying New Year's Eve at First Night Austin, try taking the bus to the festivities. In addition to the many regular routes that travel downtown, we're extending four routes (4, 101, 171 and 982) until 1 a.m.

And don't forget about the Night Owls that start running after midnight until about 3:30 a.m.

We encourage you to buy a Day Pass good for unlimited rides for 24 hours. Children under six ride free.

For more details, check out the handy pocket map that will help you plan your trip.

Have a safe and happy New Year!
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To Tree or not to Tree

The Statesman ran a story today about the removal of some trees on Capital Metro property near the railroad tracks. Good story.

The most important thing to remember here is that we’re talking about safety and federal regulations. Imagine if you were in your car approaching a major intersection and your view of a traffic light or stop sign is blocked by a tree. The consequences could be deadly. A train operator has to have a clear view of signals too.

We're required to clear any obstructions in these circumstances:

Line of sight to crossing signals: Train operators must have a clear view of all crossing signals and gates up to 20-seconds prior to reaching a crossing so the train has time to stop if the signals are malfunctioning. Drivers on the road must also have a clear view of all signals, signs and gates.

Line of sight to train signals: These are the signals that train operators look out for so they know whether they must stop or keep moving. Operators must have a clear view of all signals. Most signals on Capital Metro's line are placed within 12 to 16 feet from the center of the track and are about 12 feet tall. In areas with straight track, the line of sight could be as long as a half-mile from the signal itself.

Operating envelope clearance: There cannot be any obstructions within the operating envelope of a train. The size of the operating envelope varies depending on the curve of the track. The industry standard is 10-feet from the center of the track on each side and 22-feet high.

Failure to remove obstructions could result in a serious safety situation as well as violations from the Federal Railroad Administration.

MetroRail staff will continue to work closely with the landscape contractor to make sure that crews only remove what’s absolutely necessary to comply with the federal regs. And as the story mentioned, we’ll work with neighborhood groups to try to let them know in advance if there’s going to be any major trimming happening nearby.
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Tuesday, December 30, 2008

From Alcoholic to Workoholic

Here’s a feel-good story for the holidays. The New Jersey Journal reported on a former homeless man who turned his life around and is now recognized as one of New York City’s nicest bus drivers:

Once lost in drug haze, now 'nicest' bus driver
Friday, December 26, 2008

After being homeless for more than a decade, a Union City resident has found a home, love, and even an award for being one of New York City transit's nicest bus drivers.

His employer, the Metropolitan Transportation Authority, presented David Abramski, 51, who now lives in the Doric Towers in Union City and drives for the Manhattan and Bronx Surface Transit Operating Authority, with an award after 21 passengers contacted the authority in 2007 to praise him for being courteous and helpful.

He was one of four MTA workers presented with the Govan Brown Presidential Award in October. The award is named for a retired bus driver who collected 1,400 commendations for charming passengers during his 21-year-career.

Abramski chalks up his popularity to common courtesy, saying "Hello" to anyone who looks at him, announcing every stop and saying "Thank you" when passengers are departing.

"I try to treat everyone like they are my friend - like it's a rolling party," Abramski said. "I want everybody feel at ease."

He also goes the extra mile with service. He has hand-delivered valuables left on his bus to their owners.

Once playing guitar for a band that landed gigs at the storied CBGB's rock club, Abramski's life spiraled out of control in the mid-'80s, leading to his eviction from a single room occupancy hotel. He was homeless for 10 years, living in an Amtrak tunnel below Riverside Park in New York City.

Smoking pot since his teens, he says he got hooked on crack cocaine and alcohol when he was laid off from his job as a bicycle messenger after breaking his shoulder.

"I finally hit the bottom," he said. "You couldn't get any lower than living in that tunnel."
His parents took him into their home and clipped out job advertisements to help his search for a "real job."

He became a motorbike messenger after attaching a small motor to his bike. Then he got a motorcycle. And then finally a bus, when he landed a job as a part-time bus driver with NJ Transit before being hired by the MTA in November 2000.

"I'm sorry I messed up. I was so bad as a kid," sighed Abramski. "I was such a rebel."
After moving from a boarding house in Union City to a condo in Jersey City, he met his wife, Barbara Alice.

He plans to retire when he is 63 years old and move with his wife to Florida, and has been working overtime to earn enough to buy a house there.

"I used to be an alcoholic, but now I'm a workaholic," Abramski said.

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Wednesday, December 24, 2008

Are You Too Sexy for the Bus?

Local entrepreneur and Capital Metro rider Vicki Flaugher wrote an interesting article about the social stigma that sometimes accompanies riding mass transit. She had been in a car accident that totaled her vehicle, and had decided to ride Capital Metro so she could save up for a Prius. Here's an excerpt, behind the cut.

Little did I know, though, how much other people seemed to have negative ideas about riding the bus. My friends, even my new-age, modern-minded, vegetarian, recycling friends, all looked at me with pity in their eyes when I told them I was riding the bus.

For the first few weeks, they would offer me rides or tell me about some great deal of a car one of their neighbors had for sale, but after awhile that stopped. I felt a real disconnect from the socially conscious, energy efficient nirvana they talked about pursuing and how they acted about the actuality of it when a friend of theirs was living it.

Complete strangers were happy to fill the pity gap, though, as they saw me waiting at a bus stop. They would stop and offer me a ride because they just felt bad that a “nice woman” like me would be waiting for the bus. What’s that about? Do normal, cleanly dressed, law abiding, working people not ride the bus? The prejudice was obvious.

Flaugher goes on to challenge readers to examine their own prejudices when it comes to public transportation, just as she had to face her own. Some of the questions she raises: "Are you too sexy for the bus?" "In your mind, do I have to own a car to fit in?" "Do you think poorly of the people riding the bus?" "Are people who afford and use cars somehow held in higher esteem?"

The full article, including an audio version, can be found here.
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Tuesday, December 23, 2008

Happy New Year - Don't Blow Your Horn

It’s going to get a little quieter along part of the Capital MetroRail line beginning January 1. More importantly, safety will be enhanced as well. A new federally-approved quiet zone will take effect at these crossings: Block House Drive, New Hope Drive, RM 1431, Discovery Boulevard, Park Street and Brushy Creek Road.

Once the Federal Railroad Administration (FRA) approves a quiet zone, trains are no longer required to sound horns at those crossings. As part of Capital Metro’s commitment to safety and to reduce noise near neighborhoods, crews have been upgrading the safety technology at many crossings up and down the 32-mile line.

Many of the crossings now have (or soon will have) quad gates which prevent cars from driving around lowered gates, like this:

Upgraded safety systems like quad gates allow for the possibility of quiet zones. But simply adding quad gates doesn’t automatically initiate a quiet zone.
It’s actually up to the local jurisdictions, not Capital Metro, to submit quiet zone applications to the FRA. After the initial application there is a 60-day comment period. Then the applicant files a letter of establishment followed by a 20-day notification period before the quiet zone is official. That process is now complete for those Cedar Park crossings listed above.

Quiet zones already are in effect at crossings in the City of Leander. In Austin, the City has submitted quiet zone paperwork for crossings from McNeil Drive to Gracy Farms Road, and from Hwy. 183 to Downtown.

Once a quiet zone takes effect, that doesn’t mean you won’t hear train horns. Train operators will still sound the horn in emergency situations such as when there’s a car or pedestrian on the tracks. Unfortunately, people make the dangerous and illegal mistake of walking on railroad tracks. MetroRail trains are lighter, quieter and faster than freight trains – another good reason to stay off the tracks.

This is just a small sample of some of the rules. The regulations are very thorough, all for one good reason: safety. The details are available on the FRA’s site.

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Monday, December 22, 2008

MetroAccess makes a special holiday delivery in one of its shiny new "sleighs"

One of Capital MetroAccess' brand new paratransit vehicles left the Capital Metro parking lot this morning for its first public outing and a very special holiday delivery to 49 Central Texans.

It's not pulled by reindeer, but it was laden with gifts, and even Santa would be impressed by the roomy interior of the new MetroAccess vehicle.

The bus was loaded with care packages for clients of a local nonprofit, H.A.N.D (Helping the Aging, Needy and Disabled) of Austin. Capital MetroAccess staff adopted ten of H.A.N.D.'s clients, and gathered up gift baskets of personal care items, household goods, food, etc. Some talented MetroAccess staff members even crocheted scarves for the recipients. In addition to the ten we adopted, the MetroAccess "elves" helped H.A.N.D. by delivering baskets for another 38 of H.A.N.D.'s clients.

MetroAccess "elves" show off the gift baskets and the roomy interior of the new MetroAccess vehicle.

Earlier this year, Capital Metro purchased 47 new paratransit vehicles to replace older models that have outlived their useful lives. A handful of the new vehicles will go into service the first week of January, and all of the vehicles will be on the streets by February.

Some of the amenities of the new bus include a slew of safety features, more passenger comforts like a smooth ride suspension and a quieter engine, a larger seating capacity, and room for service animals underneath each seat.
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Griping for Google

Bloggers created a ruckus in Washington recently, demanding that the transit authority join Google Transit. Looks like they’ll get what they wanted and soon will be able to plan bus and rail trips in the familiar Google format.

That’s old news for us. Capital Metro hooked up with Google Transit almost two years ago. There are a number of other electronic options for planning trips. In addition to our regular trip planner on, you also can try out our newer beta version that includes maps. For text addicts, you can request and receive trip info on your cell phone via Dadnab.

There’s no such thing as a perfect online mapping program. But they’re getting better every day. I remember when we first started on Google Transit the walking portion of some rare trips led you right into Town Lake. I haven’t encountered anything like that recently.

At least those fun folks at Google have a sense of humor. Doesn’t seem to work anymore, but a while back on Google if you requested driving trips for a ridiculous commute like New York City to Paris, buried within the directions was something like, “Swim across the Atlantic Ocean – 3,462 miles.”

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Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Mind Your Manners on the Train

We’re not planning on any rules prohibiting you from putting on makeup while riding MetroRail. And it’s perfectly acceptable on the bus too. Hey, it’s certainly safer than doing that while you’re behind the wheel.

Apparently the rules are much stricter on Tokyo’s transit system. Check out what the good folks at TransitTalent included in their daily newsletter:

Mind Your Manners on the Tokyo Subway

To help deter embarrassing and annoying behavior on the subways in Tokyo, the transit system displays a poster each month that illustrates a particularly obnoxious breach of manners.

In addition to drunken salarymen sprawled unconscious on benches, the posters also warn against chattering cell phone users, music lovers with loud headphones, women applying make-up and inconsiderate folks with bulky belongings. View the posters.
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Monday, December 15, 2008

Ride More, Weigh Less

Well it’s not quite as easy as the title implies. But a study by the University of Tennessee Obesity Research Center examined the relationship between obesity and using active transportation (defined as walking, cycling or using public transit) in the United States, Europe and Australia.

Researchers found that countries where people use active transportation more often tend to have lower rates of obesity. Of all the countries studied, the United States had the lowest level of active transportation use (12%) and the highest rate of obesity (23.9%).

No surprise there, right? But the University says the results make a good case to help justify the need for more active transportation infrastructure in the United States.

The study appears in the November edition of the Journal of Physical Activity & Health. The Statesman ran this AP story about it today.

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Friday, December 12, 2008

Come and See the Train

The Capital MetroRail train was the star of the show at Thursday's Holiday Hop 'N Shop Extravaganza at the Downtown rail station. Click through the jump to watch some of the TV news coverage.

If you didn't get to see the train, come back Saturday between 2 - 6 p.m. Santa will be there too, so be sure to bring your camera. And don't forget the new 'Dillo Hop 'N Shop discount program.

Here's a link to the Statesman's photo album from yesterday's event.
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Thursday, December 11, 2008

Billy and the i-Ride Man Video Shoot, and Bike Rack Rap

Capital Metro has been planning a series of short (fun) videos to help new riders get the hang of it. The idea spawned from the i-Ride campaign and the creative video submissions to the i-Ride contest held earlier this year. After the contest ended, we retained i-Ride winner Alex Diamond to produce the videos for us. Check out this earlier post for more info on Alex, the videos, and the casting call we put out last month.

Last weekend, Alex and cast (and some Capital Metro folks) met at the Triangle for the first video shoot.
i-Ride winner and Capital Metro rider Alex Diamond (center) gets ready to film the first video.

The videos will cover several topics, like trip planning, paying the fare, loading your bike, etc., and should make their debut in early 2009.

Incidentally, Streetsblog recently blogged about a sweet video by the Transit Authority of River City (Louisville, KY): Bike Rack Rap. Check it out!

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Tuesday, December 9, 2008

Floridians check out Capital Metro!

Last Thursday, Capital Metro was honored with a visit by some guests from Lakeland, Florida. Sixteen of their community’s leaders, including their mayor and city manager, came to learn about many of the projects and places that have made the world-class city it is, including our favorite of all their stops--Capital Metro's North Operations Facility. Like Central Texas, Central Florida, where Lakeland is located, has some pretty serious population issues to deal with. Lakeland is smack dab in between Orlanda and Tampa so there are about 9 million people living within 100 miles of Lakeland. Think about that. San Antonio is about 80 miles from Austin, and the population of San Antonio’s metro area is about 2 million people and the population of Austin’s metro area is about 1.6 million people. We have some 3.6 million people versus their 9 million. That is a LOT of people, which means a LOT of moving around, which means a BIG transportation question.

Suffice to say, when they visited Capital Metro, they asked a lot of questions. Their communities are also considering passenger rail. Orlando is working on a 61-mile commuter rail project and Tampa is planning for light rail. Right in the middle, Lakeland is wondering how to connect those two systems because today, Lakeland’s only mass transit is their 38-bus “Citrus Connection.” (By comparison, Capital Metro has about 400 buses.) (They should give out oranges on their buses. I learned from my coworker Adam, who used to live there, that their county, Polk, produces more citrus than the entire state of California.) So they were very interested in our ENTIRE system and how it all worked together. Their community is also a freight rail hub so our experience in owning and operating our own freight rail line, and figuring out what to do with that when passenger rail starts next spring, prompted a lot of questions. And of course, they asked about the cost of the Red Line. The director of the Lakeland Economic Development Council who organized the trip, Steve Scruggs, had done his homework in advance and reminded his team how inexpensive our system is compared to others across the country, including the systems that are being considered in Central Florida right now.

I gotta say that made me proud. And it made me proud to see how impressed they genuinely were with our entire network. I think we forget that we do have a pretty darn good system. Sure, we could use improvement but who can’t? With these kinds of trips, you realize that you do have something to be proud of and you realize that you do have stories and lessons to share. And surely they have lessons to share with us; we just didn’t have enough time to talk unfortunately. So I am prompted to do more Googling and talk to Steve more. And maybe one day I’ll visit Lakeland and see what they’ve done to move around 9 million people. And besides, I love Frank Lloyd Wright and I hear that they have the largest single collection of buildings designed by architect Frank Lloyd Wright anywhere. Pretty impressive for a 38-bus town that'll one day serve millions of riders who may one day converge upon their fair city by passenger rail.
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Monday, December 8, 2008

'Dillos and Dale, Downtown!

Come listen to Dale Watson during lunch this Thursday at Brush Square Park. Capital Metro is kicking off the holiday shopping season with the 'Dillo Hop 'n Shop Extravaganza and the launch of the 'Dillo Hop 'n Shop Program.

In addition to the free concert, merchant booths will line Brush Square, and visitors can find out how the 'Dillo Hop 'n Shop Program can save them money and earn them free gifts. Visitors can also step aboard the MetroRail train for the first time, which will be parked at the Downtown Station.

How does the Hop 'n Shop program work? You get discounts and other perks at participating stores and restaurants along the `Dillo routes just by showing your valid `Dillo fare card. Some of our partners include REI, the Alamo Drafthouse, RunTex, Little City Espresso Bar, and many others.

The 'Dillo Hop 'n Shop Extravaganza is this Thursday, Dec. 11, from 11:30 a.m. to 1:30 p.m. at Brush Square Park (4th and Trinity).
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Friday, December 5, 2008

An Exhaustive Look at Railcar Safety

We spotted an article recently in R&D magazine about the extraordinary safety measures in the design of Stadler’s GTW railcars. Capital Metro will use the same type of vehicle for MetroRail service that begins in March.

The story is highly technical, but it’s a good read if you really appreciate the nitty-gritty details of crashworthiness testing. It definitely highlights the modern safety technology that we have in place for our upcoming passenger rail system. I'll paste the article below.

Now If you’re not ready to get into the highly technical details and prefer something more fun on a Friday, then definitely read Misty’s post about Uncle Skulky and friends who will greet passengers on the rail platforms in Portland.

Realistic Simulation Makes a Safe Impact on Train Design

Swiss-based Stadler Rail Group produces about 700 light and commuter rail vehicles per year. All of its products meet stringent requirements governing safety equipment, strength of train units (cars and engines), and, above all, passenger and crew protection from the forces of impact.

But with a recent order from the Netherlands for 43 of the latest generation of Stadler’s GTW articulated rail cars, the company faced a new challenge: the train units had to meet as-yet unreleased crashworthiness standards that the country had adopted in advance of their approval by the European reviewing committee. Among the requirements was that the units provide passenger zone protection during a 36 km/h front-end collision between two units with a vertical offset of up to 40 mm.

Two developments drove the new requirements. First, head-on impacts could easily include a small offset because two train units had differing amounts of wheel wear or braking inclination. A second reason was more urgent: a recent numerical simulation of an offset collision indicated that the previous design of a crash module (a safety device on the front of the train car) might not prevent damage to the passenger zone of the train units during such an impact.

“Numerical simulation suggested that the crash module could undergo global shear deformation and fail at the fixation point, falling off the front structure,” says Alois Starlinger, head of structural analysis, testing, and certification at Stadler. “In such a shear-mode failure, the module would not absorb any significant energy.” In a worst-case scenario, both trains would then climb over each other, deforming the passenger zones severely.

To satisfy the new safety requirement—which is scheduled to become the standard throughout Europe in 2008—Stadler designed a new crash module with an anti-climb feature. Engineers validated the module design through a combination of dynamic physical testing and simulations in Abaqus finite element analysis (FEA) software from the SIMULIA brand of Dassault Systèmes, Providence, R.I.

A “crash” design project

The crash module is a slightly tapered rectangular tube that is 12 in high and wide at the front, 30 in long, and 14 in high and wide at the rear, where it is welded to an end plate bolted onto the crash wall of the train unit. Partitions divide the module into chambers that provide stability to counter eccentric forces. On the front of the module are five horizontally aligned teeth, 70 mm apart with a depth of 40 mm, which are designed to engage the teeth of a similar module on an oncoming rail car and prevent climb.

Once the teeth have engaged, the rest of the crash module is optimized for controlled structural deformation from the front to the back. Targeted slots on the sides create intentional weak points that initiate buckling and subsequent energy absorption. In developing the design, engineers built on lessons learned while producing crash modules for previous generations of GTWs.

For the new design, the engineers selected the aluminum alloy AW 5754. This alloy combines low yield strength with good plastic forming characteristics, enabling it to undergo large deformations without fracture. An important engineering goal was to create modules that could absorb up to 900 kJ of a crash impact while decelerating the train unit at 5 g (g-forces) or less as far as was practicable.

To capture the material behavior of the module, Stadler extracted information from its own materials database, compiled from exacting physical tests. Engineers incorporated the data into an Abaqus model and calibrated the metals simulation still further by extracting aluminum samples from a series version crash module and testing the samples to create stress-strain curves. By comparing these curves to results generated by Abaqus simulations, the engineers were able to fine-tune the behavior of the FEA so that it closely matched the real-world characteristics of the aluminum alloy in a crash module.

The engineers were then ready to build a model of the crash module and analyze its behavior on impact. Simulation of the head-on offset impact followed a number of parameters:

-Collision masses (train units): 100,000 kg each;

-Closing speed (combined speed): 36 km/h;

-Maximum energy to be absorbed by crash components of both train units: 2,230 kJ ; and

-Maximum energy to be absorbed by a single train unit: 1,115 kJ.

Because of the complexity of the analysis, engineers chose to run nonlinear dynamic simulations with Abaqus/Explicit so that they could observe the elastic-plastic behavior of the metal, measure progressive damage and failure of welding, analyze the large deformations of the module, and model contact and friction. ?“Abaqus was able to capture all the forces and materials behavior we needed,” Starlinger says. “General contact capabilities of the software were particularly useful.”

The finite element model and the analysis task before it were both dauntingly large. There were 450,000 elements in the model, and the dynamic simulations captured a period of 0.4 sec broken down into 200,000 “snapshots.” To promote a speedy run time, the engineers ran the software on an SGI Altix 350 with four Itanium processors with activated parallel processing.

Train units were modeled in 3-D with running bogies (wheel, axle, and frame assemblies) and suspension characteristics to capture any lift-off of the wheels and axles on impact. Contact conditions were defined between the wheels and the rails, as well as between the bogies and the train unit body. Forces applied on impact by attached articulated units were modeled axially with 1-D elements and mass elements.

Safe, speedy arrival at results

Abaqus simulation results correlate very well with physical dynamic tests. The anti-climb teeth prevent either train unit from moving over the other, and the module body undergoes controlled deformation to absorb 1.1 MJ. Aluminum buckling decelerates the train unit at an average of 1.25 g.

“Our goal was to achieve an overall compressive strength for the train unit to 1,500 kN, without undergoing any yield and deformation in the passenger structure,” Starlinger says. “In fact, our crashworthiness engineering improved the compressive strength to about 3,600 kN, with only small amounts of plastic deformation in the passenger zone.” He adds, “And we proved out the anti-climb device against offsets as high as 80 mm.”

In addition to the accuracy of the Abaqus simulations, their fast run time (18-46 hr) was important. “We were able to release the crash module for production exactly eight months after the contract was signed,” Starlinger says. “The whole GTW Arriva went into operation ten months later, which is probably a record for starting a design from scratch in passenger train service.” Six units of the same GTW model have recently been sold to Capital Metro in Austin, Texas.

Stadler plans to build on its experience and continue making each new train design safer than the last. Starlinger sees Abaqus software as an important part of that process. “In its own way,” Stadler says, “FEA is now as essential to ensuring train safety as brakes are.”

—Nick O'Donohoe is a technology writer based in Providence, R.I.

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Weird Art…sounds like Austin

Happy Friday. Thought I'd share something amusing that caught my eye yesterday.

TriMet, the public transit agency in Portland, has invested in public art at several of their commuter rail stations. That sounds like something we might be interested in, especially in Austin. Well, the art has left a creepy impression on a local reporter. And it creeped me out too. Check out his blog posting and judge for yourself. Read more

Thursday, December 4, 2008

Stroll on the 'Dillo

If you’re planning to attend the annual Holiday Sing-Along, Capitol Tree Lighting and Congress Avenue Stroll on December 6 starting at 6 p.m., Capital Metro will make it easier for you to get around to the many restaurants, shops, galleries and museums that will be open for the event.

We’ll keep running the Congress Avenue ‘Dillo route until 9 p.m. You can pay just 50 cents for unlimited ‘Dillo rides for two hours. Or if you already have a 31-Day ‘Dillo Pass, that’ll work too.

If you drive your car to the festivities, you can park once and then hop on the ‘Dillo. No need to worry about the schedule. The ‘Dillo comes by every five minutes.

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Wednesday, December 3, 2008

Sampling the Sausage Link

Capital Metro stepped up to the plate and presented its proposal for the Austin-Manor-Elgin transit corridor (also known as the Sausage Link) to the CAMPO Transit Work Group (TWG) on Monday. Click here to see the presentation of the proposed Green Line. You can read the full review from September here. Click through the jump to see KTBC's story from Monday.

A Green Line extension of MetroRail could be an important part of a regional transportation system in Central Texas. The proposal is the first transit project to go through the TWG and its Decision Tree. Capital Metro will return to the TWG next Monday for further discussion of the Green Line.

(Image from the Austin Chronicle. Click here for the AC's new story this week.)

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