Supporters of a proposed commuter rail line from southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas Fort Worth Airport say the project is a huge step closer to reality after a federal agency gave its blessing for preliminary engineering and design to begin.
"This puts us in the pipeline," said Fort Worth Transportation Authority president Dick Ruddell. "This means that all of our engineering costs are reimbursable."
The Federal Highway Administration sent a letter dated March 23 to the transportation authority, also known as the T, that it was okay to proceed with the work on the proposed 37-mile route. Although the T hasn’t yet been awarded a federal grant for more than half the roughly $758 million needed for the rail line, officials said it’s a very good sign that the federal agency is willing to let design work begin.
It also means that the T can apply for federal funds to offset the estimated $6 million to $9 million needed for preliminary engineering and design. So far, they have only a $4 million grant to cover those costs.
Federal funding for public transportation is extremely tight in Washington, but Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff visited North Texas last month and showed interest in the project. However, Rogoff expressed concern that the T had not yet reached agreements with several railroads to use their tracks for the TEX Rail service.
Preliminary engineering is expected to take about a year, and by the time the work is completed the T hopes to have permission to use tracks owned by Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Union Pacific Railroad and Fort Worth & Western Railroad, Ruddell said.
The proposed rail line could open by 2016. It would connect Texas Christian University, Fort Worth's medical district and downtown to the Stockyards and the north end of Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.The T late last year submitted a request for a federal new-starts grant that could cover more than half that cost, and the Federal Transit Administration accepted that application.
URS Corp. is performing the consulting work for the project and will oversee preliminary engineering.
But the March 23 letter from the FTA's regional administrator, Robert Patrick, also provides a laundry list of steps the T must complete for the project to move to final design. For example, in addition to working out agreements with the railroads, the T must update its real estate acquisition and management plan, ande make mechanical corrections and refinements to its cost estimates.
Also, the letter warns that the T's request for a federal new starts transit grant to cover $415 million of the project - or nearly 55 percent - is too high. Local matching funds should play a greater role in the project, Patrick wrote.
"Given the high demand for new starts funding, the FTA strongly encourages overmatch," Patrick wrote. "During PE (preliminary engineering), the T should examine options to lower the requested new starts share to 50 percent. This is more consistent with other proposed projects currently in FTA's new starts pipeline."
The FTA considers the TEX Rail project a "medium-high" priority, based on the T's technical, legal and financial ability to complete the work. Medium-high is the second-highest of five possible ratings.