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April 01, 2013

Fort Worth may back Cotton Belt commuter rail project - UPDATED

Texrail@gdickson

Updated: 5 p.m. to include comments from mayor and clarify city's position.

Fort Worth officials say they're willing to support the proposed private development of the Cotton Belt commuter rail line, if they can be assured that any federal funds awarded for the Tarrant County portion of the project aren't spent in the Dallas area.

More than a month after rejecting development of the Cotton Belt line, Fort Worth city officials on Tuesday will be asked to approve a compromise resolution in support of the project. The Cotton Belt as originally pitched would stretch from southwest Fort Worth to Plano - 62 miles in all.

But Fort Worth officials say their sole priority is not the entire 62 miles. Rather, their focus is on TEX Rail, a proposal to develop the 37 westernmost miles of track from southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine and DFW Airport. In other words, they want to remain singularly focused on getting the Tarrant County portion of the line up and running by 2016.

"Our focus is on TEX Rail. Our emphasis is on getting to the airport," Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan said. "We need to build a connection on the western side of the Metroplex."

Fort Worth isn't seeking private development of TEX Rail. Instead, the Fort Worth Transportation Authority - also known as the T - is applying for a federal new starts grant to cover up to half the estimated nearly $1 billion cost.

Mayor Betsy Price said that while she would be interested in learning about any plans for private development that could make public dollars stretch further, she doesn't want the Cotton Belt project to cause any further delays on the TEX Rail plan, which has been discussed since 2005.

Mainly, Price and other Fort Worth officials say that if TEX Rail is awarded federal money - possibly up to $480 million - they don't want any of the funds being transferred to other portions of the Cotton Belt project in the Dallas area.

To prevent that from happening, the resolution the council will consider Tuesday calls for the Cotton Belt to be developed in two separate agreements - one for the TEX Rail portion west of DFW Airport, and the other for the cities east of DFW Airport.

"The eastern part from the airport to Plano, they're going to do that on their own," Price said. "Our focus is in the TEX Rail project. We want the Cotton Belt proposal split into two pieces."

Supporters of the Cotton Belt project say it's important for other cities in the region to be connected to DFW, including Coppell, Carrollton, Richardson and Plano - even though Dallas Area Rapid Transit isn't expected to have funds for such expansion for at least 20 years.

That's where the private investment would come in.

Under a compromise resolution hashed out last week by Jordan, Price and officials from the T and North Central Texas Council of Governments, Fort Worth would support private development of the Cotton Belt line from DFW Airport east to Plano.

Fort Worth's support is considered crucial because Cotton Belt supporters are in Austin these days trying to get the state Legislature's permission to create a special tax district covering the 13 cities and three counties that would be connected by the project. Fort Worth's decision in February to reject the Cotton Belt project has those supporters worried that their bill won't get anywhere during the current legislative session.

An unidentified developer has notified the council of governments that it intends to make an unsolicited proposal to develop the Cotton Belt line. The details haven't been released, but generally the idea is that the developer would arrange the upfront financing for the project and would be repaid over many years by increased property values and transit-oriented development along the corridor.

Some Fort Worth officials say they don't need a private developer to provide financing on their side. If an area has potential for transit-oriented development, the city already has the power to create its own special tax district, Jordan said.

Grapevine has joined with Fort Worth on the TEX Rail project, and has its own transit-oriented development plan in that city's historical center.

 

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