To help alleviate traffic in Capital Metro’s busiest and smallest station in downtown Austin, the agency decided to build a new Downtown Station that would create both a public gathering place and mobility hub—a task complicated by both its location and underground unknowns.

Since Capital Metro needed more than the single track at the existing station to serve its growth plan, the agency’s board hired a consortium of engineers and architects to form Downtown Gateway Partners to determine a path forward.

“It took several years to develop an acceptable plan with the input from so many stakeholders, including the Austin Convention Center, Hilton Hotel, restaurants and many other affected businesses and condo dwellers,” says Ron Albee, president of Jay-Reese Contractors Inc., the general contractor.

The original station, with a 1,610-sq-ft platform, was intended to be a temporary location in anticipation of an intercity line extension—but that extension never happened and, as a result, the temporary station was in use for more than a decade, says Joshua Mieth, project manager for HNTB, the engineer of record.

The service capacity improvement project includes three tracks with center and side platforms spanning 5,360 sq ft to accommodate four trains at a time, explains Marcus Guerrero, project manager with Capital Metro. “The new station includes custom canopies, aesthetic enhancements, safety enhancements, utility upgrades, new streetscape, a bikeway and sidewalk improvements, a new bridge and a public plaza,” he says.

Construction spans five city blocks in the downtown core area, Guerrero says. A $22-million Texas Dept. of Transportation (TxDOT) mobility grant made the project possible, he adds. The total construction budget is $36.8 million.

The project is also registered under Austin Energy’s Green Building Program. “While the program is more suited for buildings, the team was able to fit its criteria with the project and [while] working with Austin Energy staff [was able to] determine appropriate scoring for sustainable elements,” Mieth says. Sustainable items included the “use of recycled materials for construction, installation of trees and incorporation of bikeway elements within the project footprint.”

Team Building

CapMetro sent out a request for proposals solicitation for the station. Proposers were first ranked on technical merits, which allowed the owner to select the best qualified proposer with price a secondary factor, Guerrero explains.

“This also allowed each contractor to propose unique solutions for construction and/or propose improvements to the designs, budgets or schedule. The process involved several rounds of interviews and negotiations before a final contractor was selected,” he says.

Typically, CapMetro does lump sum payments with contractors, Mieth says. But in this case, to validate costs for future change order control, the owner also requested a schedule of values as part of the contractor’s overall price, he explains. “This has aided in more efficient change order discussions as well as a better understanding of possible cost impacts prior to the price request,” Mieth says.

“After the station opens, we will store the temporary station for future reuse, as it is modular.”

– Marcus Guerrero, Project Manager, Capital Metro

Albee explains that under the competitive sealed proposal, Capital Metro considered factors such as previous experience, available managers, planning and value engineering ideas and work plan execution in selecting the winning contractor.

“The original bids all came in well over Cap Metro’s budget. There were many iterations and changes to achieve an acceptable price range for the project,” Albee says. “This process helped us in that we self-perform between 50% to 70% of the work in our projects. We could speak very specifically to many of the challenges the project could expect in dealing with so many utility entities and stakeholders in Austin.”

However, the delivery method was also a disadvantage because the Jay-Reese team had not frequently made such formal presentations to sell their abilities and experience, Albee recalls. “We were competing against some large, nationally based firms with greater portfolios of experience in other cities around the country as well as more experience in putting on presentations,” he says.

Jay-Reese beat out two other firms for the job.

This project marks the first time CapMetro has partnered with TxDOT and the city of Austin to design and build a transit facility in the middle of a public right-of-way. Mostly local Austin and Texas companies, including small businesses, comprise the design and construction team.

As construction moves past the 20-month mark, “there is an average of 90 people per week working on the project in some way, with an average of 30 who are full time/daily,” Guerrero says.

Balancing Act

One of the initial challenges was figuring out how to construct the new station while maintaining service and safety for the traveling public. To do this, a multi-phase approach was vital. Construction began with closure of the downtown rail segment for several months, requiring CapMetro to provide bus service into downtown from the nearest active station. In the meantime, a temporary station was built two blocks from the old station.

“We are also repurposing the previous station as the temporary station during construction. And after the station opens, we will store the temporary station for future reuse, as it is modular,” Guerrero says.

Another challenge was coordinating with stakeholders. The project team conducted hundreds of meetings with stakeholders, adjacent businesses and property owners. It maintained ongoing coordination with 12 city departments and outreach to more than 15 adjacent business and property owners throughout construction.

The project was originally set up for 22 work phases to accommodate vehicle traffic, pedestrian access and to keep the Lance Armstrong Bikeway open, Albee explains. However, with help from Austin’s traffic department, the project team was able to significantly reduce the number of phases to just three and speed up work, he says.

“We devised a plan to avoid detouring the Lance Armstrong Bikeway traffic to another street north of the project and accommodated the path through the project for the duration of the work. We passed on over $160,000 in savings to CapMetro,” Albee says.

The project is subject to Buy-America provisions, but the team didn’t encounter any major issues with materials. Some of the rail infrastructure components did require long lead times, Guerrero notes.

“The mirrored soffits on the large canopies over the south platform created unusual challenges in handling and fabrication,” Albee says. “We were able to design column splices to be shop fabricated rather than fabricated in the field, which helped. We also had to overcome issues fastening the mirrored panels to the structural steel in order to make the connections more invisible.”

The soffits are 3-ft x 5-ft panels made of mirrored stainless steel, which also made them difficult to handle because they had to be protected from being scratched.

Work included installation of approximately 1,000 linear ft of 5-ft x 5-ft storm box culvert at a depth of 14 ft, along with utility relocations for five private telecom companies. However, resolving unforeseen utility conflicts and unforeseen subsurface conditions required a collaborative effort.

A “spaghetti bowl” of utilities lay along 4th Street, right where the second set of commuter rail tracks and station platforms were being built, Mieth says. So crews relocated utilities for five different telecom companies, three major electrical ductbanks, six wastewater lines, six water lines, two chilled water lines and 15 storm inlets, Guerrero says.

The team also installed “additional storm sewer improvements in coordination with the city to avoid future reconstruction in the area,” Mieth says.

During construction of the storm box, the team discovered that an Austin Energy chilled water line was closer to the proposed box location than initially determined, Mieth says.

“Typically chilled water adjustments are a time-sensitive installation, require specialized crews and would have been a significant increase in cost due to the specialized nature of the work,” he adds.

The proposed storm box was on the critical path of the schedule, and there were other utilities crossing the box that were gravity-fed, which meant that they could not be easily adjusted.

Close coordination among the owner, contractor and Austin Energy helped the project team figure out a solution, which involved decreasing the culvert height from 5 ft to 3 ft and widening it from 5 ft to 10 ft along a 10 ft distance, which provided an acceptable tolerance from the chilled water line to leave it in place, Mieth says. This collaboration limited cost changes and maintained project schedule.

“The rail station opened for passengers on Oct. 19 and is currently in use. However, the total project involves more than the station and spans several city blocks, so there are other areas of the project that are still in progress. As of Dec. 4, I would estimate the project is about 95% complete,” Guerrero says. Work is  progressing ahead of schedule and under budget.

Jay-Reese’s team has completed more than 150,000 worker hours so far with zero recordables. The entire project will open in early 2021.