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February 23, 2012

Federal Transit Administrator visits Dallas, warns about funding crisis for Fort Worth rail project

I'm in Dallas today, and I just rode a Dallas Area Rapid Transit train with Federal Transit Administratation leader Peter Rogoff. Rogoff is touring the Green Line, which was funded with a $700 million-plus federal commitment beginning in 2006.

2012-02-23_10-35-59_226 (1)Rogoff (pictured at right, visiting with dignitaries at Baylor Medical Center Station in Dallas) is making the rounds talking about the need for a solution to an ongoing brew-ha-ha in Congress over transportation funding. The House is considering a bill that would end the practice of dedicating a portion of federal motor fuels taxes that motorists pay at the pumps to pay for public transportation projects.

 The gas tax is the primary generator of approximately $10 billion a year spent on buses, rail lines and other forms of transit in cities across the United States.

"Federal gas taxes are a reliable source," Rogoff said as he boarded a train for Parkland Hospital. "They may not generate as much as we need, but they have been a reliable source of funding since the Reagan administration."

Congress is scheduled to resume debate on the subject next week.

The dispute over federal funding for transit doesn't bode well for the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, which is seeking approximately $375 million from Washington to cover half the cost of its proposed TEXRail line from southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas Fort Worth Airport.

T officials hope to get the rail line up and running by 2016 - if the funding gap can be closed.

Rogoff said the T's application is proceeding. The Fort Worth agency had been cleared to begin preliminary engineering on the project. However, Rogoff stressed, the fate of TEXRail and potentially dozens of others like it competing for federal funds lies with Congress maintaining its funding levels.

"We are in the battle for our funding lives in the House of Representatives," he said. He note that, while passenger rail and bus lines are often built with federal funds, they're operated on a day-to-day basis with local funds. In Fort Worth, for example, residents pay a half-cent sales tax to the T, and in Grapevine residents have agreed to contribute a three-eights-cent tax to the TEXRail project.

"The people of this city have agreed to tax themselves and build these projects, and we need to see them through," he said.

The proposal in the House Ways and Means Committee to cease spending gas tax funds on transit does have supporters, especially among those who believe taxes collected on highways should be spent on highways.

Among them is Robert W. Poole Jr. of the Reason Foundation. Poole wrote in his recent newsletter that fears Congress would stop funding transit altogether were "exaggerated," given Congress' history for supporting transit projects.

He sees the House proposal as a way to close about $40 billion of a $50 billion gap in highway funding over the next several years.

"... (T)imes change, and we have entered an era in which all kinds of traditional federal programs will have to be rethought," Poole wrote in his Surface Transportation Innovations newsletter. 

4:50 p.m. Update: Julie Smith from Baylor Health Care System just sent over an interesting factoid from DART's Baylor Medical Center Station, which is where I joined Rogoff on his Green Line tour this morning.

For example, of Baylor Health Care System's roughly 19,700 employees, 700 have DART annual passes. There's one reason that particular station is a bustling place!

The Baylor stop on DART's Green Line is between the Deep Ellum and Fair Park stations.



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Sounds like it will be near impossible to get the Dallas railway completed if the funding gets cut off. Doesn't seem fair to halt a project midway.

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