ARLINGTON A Georgia man who helped develop that state’s first coordinated rail plan has been hired as the new rail director for the Texas Department of Transportation.
Erik Steavens, 42, arrives as Texas seeks to build high-speed rail from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to Houston. The trains are capable of going 220 mph and building the rail line from Houston to Dallas is expected to cost at least $10 billion. As only the state’s second rail director, Steavens also will represent the state’s interests in working with freight railroads to improve congestion at crossings in populated metro areas, including the Tower 55 project near downtown Fort Worth, and to expand the state’s ability to handle multimodal freight such as shipments arriving at the state’s gulf ports from the Panama Canal.
Steavens’ resume on the LinkedIn website says he is “able to achieve results others believe to be impossible.” But when asked tongue-in-cheek on Wednesday whether that means he can bring high-speed rail to North Texas, Steavens said his main mission for the moment is to talk to state and local leaders and make sure he understands their goals and desires for both passenger and freight rail.
“Right now I’m in a big ingesting period,” he said.”Part of the process for me is learning what rail and what it does in the state. I’m getting together with people and trying to meet and learn.”
Phil Wilson, the transportation department’s executive director, confirmed Steavens’ hiring last week. Steavens arrives after a multifaceted career in Georgia. Steavens most recently worked as president of TIP Consultants LLC, a transportation planning firm. He also worked at the Georgia Department of Transportation, where he oversaw non-highway programs such as aviation, waterways and rail.
Steavens was in charge of developing Georgia’s first coordinated rail plan and at one point looked at a high-speed rail projects in that state, including a loop to link Atlanta, Athens, Augusta, Savannah and Macon, according to the Atlanta Business Chronicle.
Wilson stressed that although he welcomed Steavens’ expertise in rail, the state agency’s role in bringing bullet trains to the Metroplex is secondary to that of the private sector, and to local Dallas-Fort Worth officials. “Our primary role is to facilitate the conversation,” Wilson said. “Our job is to facilitate the environmental document so that if funding is identified to build high-speed rail from Dallas to Fort Worth the environmental document is cleared.”
In North Texas, officials are increasingly optimistic they can find a way to make high-speed rail work — and possibly connect Dallas to Fort Worth with trains capable of traveling 220 mph, making it possible to go between Dallas and Fort Worth, possibly with a stop at either Arlington or DFW Airport, in about 19 minutes. Multiple studies are underway. Texas Central Railway, a company partnering with Central Japan Railway has proposed building a bullet train from Houston to Dallas by 2021, using no federal funding. However, that plan initially included only a stop in Dallas, several officials briefed on the matter have said. However, North Texas officials say the region’s policy is that whatever form of high-speed rail comes to the region must stop in at least three areas — Dallas, Fort Worth and somewhere in the Arlington-DFW Airport area. So the North Central Texas Council of Governments is working on a plan to take the Texas Central Railway’s plan and extend it into the inner city.
Michael Morris, council of governments transportation director, briefed the Fort Worth City Council earlier this month on high speed rail. He said one option under consideration at the moment is for the private sector companies to work with the state transportation department’s leadership to focus on getting environmental clearance for the Dallas-to-Houston phase of high-speed rail. Then the federal funds identified for Texas high-speed rail studies could be spent making the more complicated and likely more pricey connections between the developed areas of Dallas and Fort Worth.
“There seems to be a lot of interest and excitement in moving forward,” Morris said. “If someone knocks on our door, we need to have the clear mechanics in place for either at-grade rail or high-speed rail.”
Relatively small amounts of money are available to study high-speed rail in Texas, but the state did receive $15 million in federal funds to begin the process in 2011. Also, in 2011 Texas received a $15 million federal grant to study high-speed rail from Dallas to Houston. Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes and Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan were among the officials who called for a more intensive effort to plan high-speed rail carefully in the region. Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price also chimed in: “This is probably the next project equivalent to DFW Airport,” she said. “There are a lot of proposals.”
Steavens is the second director of the state transportation department’s rail division, which was created in 2009, as many people in the state began to show renewed interest in improving passenger rail service across the state. The first director was Bill Glavin, who retired in July.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson
Dick Ruddell, who has led the Fort Worth Transportation Authority for more than a decade, on Monday afternoon announced his retirement effective Oct. 4.
"I intend to take some time off to spend with my family, but I also intend to remain active in the transit industry in which I have been a leader for over three decades," Ruddell told T board members at the conclusion of a regular monthly meeting Monday afternoon.
Ruddell is widely credited with helping the T transform itself from a relatively small transit agency that did little more than operate a metropolitan bus system, into a regional partner in efforts to reduce North Texas' reliance on the automobile.
But last year Ruddell came under fire from Fort Worth city officials who said the T under his leadership was dragging its feet in the effort to build TEX Rail, a proposed commuter rail line to Grapevine and the DFW Airport north entrance. The rail line, which has been discussed and planned for nearly a decade, is now scheduled to open no sooner than 2017, assuming it qualifies for federal funding.
Earlier this year, Fort Worth and Tarrant County dismissed all nine T board members, and replaced them largely with members of the business community charged with accelerating the TEX Rail program. Although city and county officials at that time said Ruddell wasn't being chased away, they did say they wanted to bring in new leadership to the T - specifically with commuter rail experience.
This summer, Ruddell interviewed for a job heading Pittsburgh's transit agency. But on Monday Ruddell said to his knowledge that job hasn't been filled.
Ruddell said he had a couple of part-time job opportunities coming up, including some pro bono consulting work. But beyond that, he didn't have a permanent gig lined up.
T chairman Scott Mahaffey praised Ruddell's 10 years-plus at the end, especially the last six months educating new board members about the ins and outs of running a transit administration.
"Dick has done so many things for this community that is not known by the general public," Mahaffey said. "There couldn't have been a better teacher."
Ruddell arrived at the T from Toledo, Ohio.
He oversaw a massive reorganization of the T's administrative offices. Until his arrival, virtually the T's entire workforce was employed by a private sector contractor, Fort Worth-based McDonald Transit Associates.
The city of Fort Worth, the largest member city of the T, wanted closer oversight of the T, so through the T board they directed Ruddell to create an administrative staff from the ground up. He forged a new office for himself, a handful of assistant executives and department heads ranging from planning director to human resources.
It's well-known that public transportation users tend to also be smartphone customers - largely regardless of income levels. With that in mind, North Texas' three main public transit agencies on Monday launched GoPass, a phone application that opens the door to paperless travel on Metroplex buses and trains.
GoPass is free at Apple's App Store and Google's Play Store. It can be used to buy tickets for the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (the T), Dallas Area Rapid Transit and Denton County Transportation Authority.
To help people use the app, T officials were on hand Monday morning at downtown Fort Worth's Intermodal Transportation Center, T spokeswoman Joan Hunter said.
Officials estimate that about half of customers in the three transit agencies use smartphones, Hunter said.
p.s. Here's a link to our July story by the Star-Telegram's Elizabeth Campbell in which the GoPass was first reported.
The Trinity Uptown/Panther Island project promises to remake the image of Fort Worth's central city, by creating an 800-acre island north of downtown that could lure developers for 3 million square feet of commercial space and up to 10,000 mixed-income households. But it could be many, many years before the development materializes. Three road bridges are being built for Trinity Uptown/Panther Island starting next year - and until the federal money is available to rechannel the Trinity River, those bridges will span little more than dry, vacant land - bridges over nothing. Check out my video below. Also, to read the pair of stories I wrote for the Sunday paper, click here and here.
Here's an interesting story from Forbes, which proposes that the United States economy actually operates more like the economy of seven different nations. A story like this could provoke an interesting debate about whether the U.S. spends its resources on transportation in the correct spots. @gdickson