FORT WORTH - A proposal to build a TEX Rail commuter line to Fort Worth’s medical district and Texas Christian University is being placed on the back burner - possibly for many years - so planners can instead focus on building the northern half of the line from downtown to Grapevine and DFW Airport.
“We just felt like, if we’re going to move this thing forward, we need to make a decision here to phase it in rather than try to bite the whole elephant at once,” said Dick Ruddell, Fort Worth Transportation Authority president. “The first phase is the highest ridership phase, and the most critical for our partners.”
Officials at the authority, also known as the T, also said Wednesday that even the first phase of TEX Rail from T&P Station downtown to Grapevine and DFW will now open no sooner than late-2017, one year later than previously planned.
They gave no timetable for development of the second, southern phase to the medical district, TCU and deep into southwest Fort Worth, where land owners could eventually incorporate rail service into mixed-use developments. But given the difficulty many cities have experienced in securing federal funds for transit projects, it could be a decade or more before the entire 37-mile TEX Rail corridor is built out.
The T board will be asked to approve phasing in of TEX Rail and other changes Aug. 12. Board members are already familiar with the likelihood that the project must be scaled back in order to qualify for a shrinking pot of federal grant funding available to cities nationwide for new transit projects. “It has become apparent that a phasing of the project will permit the T to begin this initial segment as soon as possible,” T board chairman Scott Mahaffey said in a statement.
Critics have said the T has dragged its feet planning TEX Rail during the past decade, and this latest plan to essentially chop the project in half - for now - and build it in phases is yet another setback. But reducing the scope of the project makes the T a better candidate for federal funds, which typically cover no more than half the cost of a new commuter rail line, officials said. Although the cost of the entire line is now more than $1 billion - and likely to continue going up - the portion from downtown Fort Worth to Grapevine and DFW Airport is estimated to total $770 million - and the T has partners including Grapevine and DFW Airport that have already committed tens of millions of dollars to help with the job. Grapevine voters in 2006 agreed to pay a 3/8-cent sales tax to cover their portion of the TEX Rail plan. Also, DFW Airport’s board has already begun building train station platforms near Terminals A and B, where trains operated by the T and Dallas Area Rapid Transit are expected to meet and interconnect.
In all, the T is asking for $380 million in federal new-starts funding, which covers nearly half the cost of the first phase of the project, Ruddell said. “We’ve met with the Federal Transit Administration and informed them of this decision (to scale back the project) and they’re fine with it,” Ruddell said. “They understand what we’re doing and why. They agreed we’re following federal regulations and staying in the pipeline for the new-starts federal grant. But they also told us there will be no more new-starts grants for 2014, and that was kind of a blow. We had figured we would start getting that in 2014, but now we’re looking at 2015. That’s one sort of dose of reality we’re having to deal with.”
Delaying the southern portion of the TEX Rail project also allows the T more time to negotiate a track use agreement with the Fort Worth & Western Railroad, which owns most of the railroad tracks needed for the project south of downtown. Despite years of negotiations, the T has been unable to reach a deal for track use south of downtown. On the north side of downtown, however, the T has reached an agreement with DART to use the old Cotton Belt line to DFW, and also is close to a deal with Union Pacific Railroad to use right-of-way near the Stockyards.
“Since they’re ready to go from the T&P to the airport, they’re going to get started. If we’re able to accelerate it and get to the airport that makes the rest of the TEX Rail project more viable,” said Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan, who is leading the city’s effort to expand commuter rail in partnership with the T. “I think this is proving we can get it accomplished, and we’ll continue to work on the southwestern section. It’s not a major change. TEX Rail is intact and is a complete line. It’s just a matter of phased-in construction.”
At the Aug. 12 meeting, the T board will be asked to designate the first phase of TEX Rail - also described as the “minimal operable segment” - as the locally preferred alternative. After the meeting, the T will open up a 30-day period for the public to comment on its decision, a routine move as part of the federally-required application process. The T is still on target to receive a record of decision from the Federal Transit Administration approving the project by early 2014, Ruddell said. Such a decision would make the project eligible for funding, when the money becomes available.
The decision to phase in the TEX Rail project comes about six months after Fort Worth and Tarrant County officials replaced the entire nine-member T board, citing delays on the project.
“We put the T Board in place to advance this project, despite the obstacles that may stand in their way,” Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said in a statement. “While the funding for TEX Rail continues to be a moving target, we simply have to start somewhere. Connecting downtown to DFW Airport has been and will continue to be our top priority. After the successful implementation of this first phase, I’m confident that future phases to extend the service will follow.”
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson