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March 29, 2012

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price scolds T board for delays on TEX Rail commuter rail project

Updated 12:45 a.m. Corrects Gary Cumbie's quote from"... bodacious ..." to "big, audacious ..." (At the risk of editorializing, I'd like to say that I would have preferred that Gary use 'bodacious' in this context, but he insists he said 'big, audacious') :-) -- gd

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Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price on Thursday scolded members of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority for dragging their feet on the proposed TEX Rail commuter rail line from the city's southwest side to Grapevine and Dallas Fort Worth Airport.

"The timeline for our portion of the TEX Rail will not reach the airport until late 2016. That's not acceptable," Price told members of the T board and executive staff during an annual retreat at a downtown hotel. "We as an administration and you as the T board simply must act now."

The 37-mile project is expected to cost $758 million, and the agency is several years behind schedule in applying for federal funding to cover at least half that cost. Last month, Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff visited North Texas and told the Star-Telegram the TEX Rail project couldn't proceed until the T negotiated trackage rights with the railroads that own the property on which the line would run.

Price called for the T to immediately step up those negotiations with Union Pacific Railroad and the Fort Worth & Western Railroad, and added that she as well as other members of the City Council would step in and join the negotiations if necessary.

Price's comments are the latest evidence that she intends to make transportation a cornerstone of her time in public office. An avid cyclist, Price is seeking input from young people about their civic concerns - and when it comes to mobility, she doesn't like what she's hearing. The next generation of residents wants more public transit and walkable neighborhoods, she said. Yet, decision-makers such as the T board aren't making progress in those areas, or even sending a message to the public that the issue is on the radar.

"Our citizens don't believe Tarrant County has a convenient rail system yet, nor do we have a strong plan. Nor do they see that sense of urgency on this side of the Metroplex," she said. "Some have even said the thing holding back mobility in the region as whole is the western half of the Metroplex. That is not acceptable. Truth be told, I'm simply not satisfied with the progress and I don't think the council is either."

"If buses circulate in strategic locations that provide the most benefits to commuters, riders will come. If the T provides commuter rail that is fast and convenient, they will line up in droves. We've seen that on the other side of the Metroplex. This is what our younger generation is asking for. It is simply what our focus must be."

Price's message comes just days after the Federal Transit Administration agreed to let the T begin preliminary engineering and design of the TEX Rail project. That work is expected to take about a year and cost up to $9 million, which could be reimbursed by a federal grant. But, Rogoff said, the issue of trackage rights must be resolved before the project proceeds into final design.

The T board includes nine members, eight appointed by the Fort Worth City Council and one by Richland Hills.

Several board members pledged to do everything possible to make TEX Rail their priority. But they also noted that a lack of funding for big projects is always an issue with the T, which operates one a half-cent sales tax. Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which now has an extensive light-rail system that is the envy of the western United States, operates on a full penny of sales tax.

"It's one of those big, audacious challenges," T board chairman Gary Cumbie said. "We're facing needing half our money from the fedearl government. It's sort of working on their timetable. This agency will look at what could be done, what creative things are there that might shorten the time."

T board member Janet Saltsgiver, who previously served on the city's streetcar task force, told Price she was disappointed in late 2010 when the City Council on a split vote shot down down a proposal to bring streetcars to the city's downtown and near south, west and north sides. The council determined the possible $88 million cost was too high, and that the plan - while it would have helped development in the city center - didn't fit into the region's overall mobility plan.

"We just need your support and the council's," Saltsgiver told Price. "It was really a letdown to know we had done all the work and the council said no. I felt like the city let us down."

Price responded that while she wasn't mayor during the streetcar debate, today she is confident the council is united behind the TEX Rail project, and also is pursuing a commuter rail line from downtown to the Alliance Airport area.

"I'm willing to bet we'll see 100 percent participation from the council," Price said.

The mayor said she was even willing to entertain the possibility of a single, region-wide entity forming to take over commuter rail responsibility from the T and other transit agencies, although later she said she doubted such a step would be necessary.

The mayor was a keynote speaker of the day-long retreat, which otherwise focused on ways to improve the T's use of technology to not only operate its services, but to communicate better with riders.

###

Good morning. I am covering a Fort Worth Transportation Authority retreat at the Hilton in downtown Fort Worth. The T's board and executive staff is here in shirt sleeves, talking about upcoming technology improvements and other matters such as the financial state of the agency.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price is scheduled to speak about 9 a.m. and word on the street is that she will scold the T for not being quicker in building the planned TEX Rail line from southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine and DFW Airport. That project, estimated to cost $758 million, has been delayed for several years and is now scheduled to open no sooner than 2016.

@gdickson

p.s. Walking over to the hotel this morning, I ran into the T's senior VP, Tony Johnson, who was riding a sample of the B Cycle bikes the T would like to begin offering for rent in central Fort Worth. I wasn't fast enough to shoot a photo of him riding past me on the street, but I took this snapshot of him with the bike inside the conference room.

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Comments

TXKeith

Oooohhh. A scolding from the "gay" parade queen. Can it get any worse?

DC

Kudos to Mayor Price for this stance on transportation. Public transit and walkable neighborhoods are pathetic for a city of this size, and the vote against the streetcar (including the rumors of votes swayed by wealthy special interest groups to maintain the downtown status quo) is still fresh in some minds. The younger - and increasingly middle-aged - generations are waiting to see if Mayor Price and the council will be able to deliver.

Dallasm

This is the same mayor that took up the Tea Party charge a few years ago and took a HUGE grant for a downtown streetcar line and threw it back in the Fed's faces and told them they didn't want any of their money any more, right?

GF

Will we be seeing Mayor Price be equally insistent on having the T restore bus service to the level it was before the cuts of a few years ago? Haven't there been reports that city sales tax revenue has risen since then?

While regular bus service may not be as "glamorous" as rail service,improvements are BADLY needed.

Dub

What does transportation have to do with "gays"? Just look at our freeways. More accidents each day. Do we want to remain an "Old Cowtown?"

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