All Aboard

Tarrant County missed the train in 1980 and is still struggling to catch up with the expansive system run by Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

You can build only so many highways and so many traffic lanes on those highways. But the people who move in don’t pay any attention to the problems they and their automobiles bring to the area.

And the people are coming fast. The U.S. Census Bureau ranked Fort Worth as fastest growing in the nation among cities with more than half a million residents. Fort Worth grew 42 percent between 2000 and 2013. Dallas grew less than 3 percent and ranked 24th in the nation.

Traffic congestion is a problem across all of North Central Texas and the major corridors linking what is called the Texas Triangle — Dallas and Fort Worth, Houston and San Antonio. An example: The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) ranks the section of I-35W from I-30 to 28th Street/State Highway 287 as the eighth most congested roadway in the state. TxDOT said the annual delay is 606,750 hours per mile at a cost of $67 million annually.

The only real way to take cars off the roads is to put the people who drive them on public transit, with trains being the most efficient.

Expanding Transit The Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T) has no trains other than the Trinity Railway Express it operates jointly with Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART). But the long-awaited TEX Rail line to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport is well underway, and officials of The T promise it will be carrying passengers in three years. “We will be in service in 2018,” Paul Ballard, the president and CEO of the authority, told attendees of the 6th Annual Northeast Tarrant Transportation Summit in February. “It might be a New Year’s Eve party in ’18. But we’re absolutely committed to 2018, and we’ll meet that timetable.”

The T is a separate authority with its own board of directors but who serve at the pleasure of local elected officials. Fort Worth City Council members were so fed up with slow progress on the connector line and other issues that they replaced the entire board in early 2013. Each of the eight council members has an appointment to the board along with County Judge Glen Whitley. Mayor Betsy Price does not.

It was out of frustration. “We just did not seem to be advancing, so we thought the best thing to do was reconstitute the board (and) get a fresh look,” said District 6 Councilman Jungus Jordan, the acknowledged transit guru on the council. “We brought on the new board, and I think the new board has been aggressive in pursuing new transit.”

The change of board members also led to the departure of Dick Ruddell, who became President/Executive Director of The T in 2003. He retired in October 2013. The board brought in Ballard, who is viewed as having more rail experience.

Ballard has launched a new master plan study of The T system, which pleases Jordan. “We’re not as efficient as we could be, and in order for transit to be acceptable, it’s got to provide mobility choices. Our bus services are taking too long to go to work centers and places people want to go. Our trains are practically non-existent except for TRE,” Jordan said.

Ballard told the transit conference in February that the plan would seek extensive participation from all phases of the public. “We have a network of services that have largely stayed the same for a long, long time in Fort Worth. The T has day-in, day-out, run a basic network, but we are being left behind,” he said.

Legacy of Rail Fort Worth has long been committed to rail, so much so that in 1875, when an economic panic sweeping the nation halted construction on Texas & Pacific railroad 30 miles from the city, Fort Worth took swift action. The Legislature was in session, and the line had to be completed before adjournment to preserve a state land grant. While volunteers labored on the rails, others worked to keep the Legislature in session. Businesses closed so employees could help, says Cy Martin in his essay, The History of Fort Worth Railroad Day. The first train pulled into Fort Worth at 11:23 a.m. on July 19, 1876.

The legacy continues with BNSF, built by mergers and acquisition of nearly 400 different railroad lines over 160 years, headquartered here. At BNSF’s Alliance Intermodal Yard in Haslet, workers perform 600,000 “lifts” of shipping containers a year, and that’s projected to grow to 1 million.

What is now Union Pacific operates a complex switching operation at its Davidson Yard just off Vickery Boulevard, built in the early 1900s by the Texas & Pacific. UP and BNSF contributed more than $50 million to ease train congestion at the Tower 55 at-grade crossing near downtown Fort Worth.

But Fort Worth’s commitment to rail didn’t manifest itself when the opportunity came to create a regional transportation authority linking all of North Texas with both buses and rail.

How We Got Here In 1980, voters in five counties and 58 cities voted down the proposed regional Lone Star Transit Authority, with only 27 percent in favor. In 1983, both Dallas Area Rapid Transit and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority won approval, but with one major difference. DART was funded with a penny of sales tax revenue. The T was initially funded with a quarter-cent, raised later to a half-cent.

The Texas Comptroller’s Office reports that in calendar year 2014, the half-cent for The T yielded $63,259,164.87. The penny for DART raised $488,945,040.21. The figures are not directly comparable because of the differing size of the systems, but they illustrate a problem The T has consistently faced. It is woefully underfunded.

In Texas, the state sales tax is 6.25 percent, but local taxing jurisdictions may impose up to 2 percent more. That 2 percent can be used for a variety of purposes such as economic development, property tax reduction, crime district funding and transportation. Jordan says that 97 percent of the revenue for The T comes from Fort Worth, but the city used up its last bit of sales tax in 1995 to establish a Crime Control and Prevention District (CCPD) at the height of the city’s drug and gang struggles. It has to be reauthorized periodically, but it is unlikely to go away.

What should happen in the region is to combine The T, DART and the Denton County Transportation Authority into a single regional one, but that is unlikely because cities that voted for a penny have equity in the DART system and did not get to use that money for other purposes. Efforts to persuade the Texas Legislature to allow jurisdictions the local option to increase the sales tax to make it equitable among DART and non-DART cities failed in three consecutive sessions. Tax, as you know, is a four-letter word in the Texas Legislature.

“I’m sorry, but I’m actually getting to be very envious that the most extensive light rail system in the United States of America happens to be 30 miles east of here, and we go buses,” said Bill Meadows, chairman of the Texas High-Speed Rail Commission and a former Fort Worth City Councilman. “We got left behind, and I was sitting there, part of the group that made the decision to create the Crime Control and Prevention District.”

DART built its infrastructure over a 30-year period using that half penny The T did not have, Jordan said. “If we build our infrastructure on the western side of the Metroplex, at some point the equity issue goes away, because whatever it costs to maintain the infrastructure would be comparable across the region,” he said.

High-Speed Rail Frontburner now on the transit scene is a proposed high-speed rail line connecting Houston with Dallas by Texas Central High-Speed Railway, a private for-profit company that intends to build the line without tax money. Potential funding, reports say, include the Japan Bank for International Cooperation and perhaps the Central Japan Railway Co.

From the Tarrant County perspective, making the northern terminus of that line end south of downtown Dallas is troubling, with some seeing it as a significant loss.

“Kicked our ass,” said one official. Previous plans envisioned bringing high-speed rail up Highway 360 to DFW and then branching off east and west to downtown Dallas and downtown Fort Worth.

There have been two earlier attempts to bring high-speed rail to Texas — trains that can run at 200 mph and cover the distance from Houston to the Metroplex in around 90 minutes at ticket prices that would be comparable to short-hop airline fares.

The first in the late 1980s and early 1990s failed for lack of financial support and because of airline opposition to perceived threats to short-haul routes between DFW and Houston and Austin. The second effort, in the mid 2000s, was called the Texas T-Bone because it envisioned a rail line running roughly from DFW Airport to San Antonio, with a line dropping off around Temple and running to Houston. But it collapsed in 2010 when it failed to receive federal funding.

Time will tell on the latest effort. Environmental Impact Studies are underway on it, and that may have a significant impact on the actual route. These studies require an examination of all viable routes to determine which has the least negative impact.

The Dallas-Houston proposal, says Meadows, is the most advanced one. “It is the one that clearly has some significant financial backing,” he said. “Clearly, there has been a significant investment to date in capital dollars, which has advanced it to the point where it is. It seems to be a very viable proposition.”

The T is in discussions with Stadler Rail, the manufacturer of the rail car in use by the Denton County Transportation Authority, to use the same car on TEX Rail from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Courtesy Denton County Transportation Authority

Tarrant County Impact The western side of the Metroplex is critical to the success of any high-speed rail project. “If you are looking at the passenger base, you’ve got to understand that the west side of the Metroplex already does represent 2 million people, and may, and more than likely will, represent more people than the eastern side if you want to take a 20-year view,” Meadows said.

An Environmental Impact Study already is underway on ways to tie Fort Worth and Tarrant County into the Dallas-Houston rail line with what is called the three-station concept. “In all likelihood, this would be along I-30 and would probably have a station in or near AT&T Stadium,” said Tarrant County Precinct 3 Commissioner Gary Fickes.

A DFW terminus is not the best plan, Meadows says. “What we’ve learned in our time focused on high-speed rail is that high-speed rail is a city-center to city-center proposition,” he said. “City center is where public transportation terminates and originates. It serves as the best collection point, which expands and defines your potential passenger base.”

Fickes is chairman of the Texas High-Speed Rail and Transportation Corp., a non-profit primarily made up of cities and counties that operates as an advocacy group to bring high-speed rail to Texas and to the communities its members represent. The announcement of the Japanese-backed Houston to Dallas route served as a wakeup call. “We’ve been running up and down the I-35 corridor for eight or nine years, telling people, like Chicken Little, it’s coming, it’s coming, and nobody believed us,” Fickes said. But they believe now.

The current proposal is to build the Houston-Dallas line with no federal funds, which bring with them a number of restrictions on the kind of equipment that can be used. “It’s private sector. There are other entities out there that would do the same thing along the I-35 corridor. You’ve got the people. What you’re trying to do is focus on connecting population centers,” Fickes said.

“It actually has served as a catalyst that has caused other proposals to come forth and other initiatives to advance that would serve to ultimately create a network of high-speed rail connectivity in the state of Texas,” Meadows said.

One group that may be interested is Société Nationale des Chemins de Fer (SNCF), the French company that operates the Chunnel train under the English Channel and the high-speed TGV trains in France. “We have met with them on multiple occasions now, and they have a great interest in Texas, and their real interest is in the I-35 corridor,” Meadows said. “They think the 35 corridor is really viable and think it’s ripe today.”

The potential passengers exist, and that will be even truer in the future. In 2000, 13.4 million people lived in the major cities along the three legs of the Texas Triangle. By 2040, some projections say that 24.6 million will.

It is only a question of time until high-speed rail will link the major cities in Texas, and local transit will provide what transportation planners call the “last mile” connection. But the people in Fort Worth and other western Metroplex cities need to recall the grit and determination that closed those last few miles of the Texas & Pacific line in 1875. It’s time to start working on the railroad.