Fort Worth Likely Putting Hemphill Connector Tunnel Project on Hold

Fort Worth likely putting Hemphill Connector tunnel project on hold

Fort Worth’s Hemphill Connector - the long-planned tunnel project beneath Interstate 30 and the Union Pacific Railroad that would directly link Hemphill Street on the Near Southside to downtown - will likely be put on hold while the city looks into how to handle significantly higher costs than were projected.

The city staff on Tuesday will recommend that City Council members temporarily halt work on the project and hire a consultant to study options.
 Voters approved the project more than 10 years ago, but its construction start was delayed by the need of the railroad and city to first make major improvements to Tower 55 downtown, which was one of the nation’s most clogged rail intersections.

Estimated total costs to complete the project have come in at $44.9 million, $18 million higher than the $26.6 million the city has allocated for the project based on estimates from July 2013, Jay Chapa, assistant city manager, said.

Construction costs, the biggest part of the budget, are now estimated at $27.8 million, up from $14.9 million in the 2013 estimates, according to a presentation being given to council members.

Estimated costs for utilities, an agreement with the railroad, engineering, right of way, project management, and material testing are also higher, according to the report the staff is presenting to the council with the recommendation.

The new estimates contain $4-$5 million in contingencies that could ultimately come off the final numbers, Chapa said.

The project includes the tunnel, new rail bridge, drainage and other amenities. The connector would create an extension of Hemphill from its intersection at West Vickery Boulevard to Taylor Street at West Lancaster Avenue downtown on the north side of the tunnel. It would ease traffic flow between the Southside and downtown.

The drainage piece of the project, already complete, came in at budget. The rail bridge would go next, then the tunnel.

The roadway would be a four-lane major arterial comprising 12-foot lanes, retaining walls, streetlights and traffic signals.

McCarthy Building Cos, a 35-year Texas contractor, won the project in the summer of 2014 under a construction-manager-at-risk arrangement, launched the drainage piece of the project in April and has finished it. Completion of the entire project was slated for later next year.

McCarthy sought harder numbers for the railroad bridge and tunnel after launching construction on the drainage part of the project, and that’s when the higher costs showed up, Chapa said. He and Doug Wiersig, the city’s transportation and public works director, said they knew construction costs were going up, but not as much as what showed up in in the final estimates.

“The price of stuff just went crazy,” Wiersig said.

The consultant will examine whether there are ways to bring the Hemphill Connector project in on better numbers, and will also look at whether there are ways to improve Hemphlill’s linkage to downtown without building the connector. One potential option: a traffic circle at Hemphill and West Vickery that links to South Jennings Avenue a block to the east of Hemphill, Chapa said. South Jennings connects to downtown via an old tunnel.

“There’s less than a quarter-mile between the two,” Wiersig said of South Jennings and the proposed Hemphill Connector.

It will cost the city about $200,000 to hire the consultant, and it would take several months of work with the stakeholders in the area to reach conclusions, Chapa said.

Stakeholders along the Hemphill Corridor, a 5.2- mile stretch between West Vickery and Interstate 20, have been looking forward to the link to downtown for years.

A delay in it will likely slow down nascent redevelopment that’s underway in the corridor, said David Motheral Jr., the leader of the Hemphill Corridor Task Force development committee that’s been working on establishing a street plan for Hemphill that will fit into an ongoing redraw of the city’s master thoroughfare plan. The street plan is one of several tools that Motheral and other leaders established on the Near Southside years ago that led to the revitalization of West Magnolia Avenue, West Rosedale Street, and South Main Street.

Now the group wants to bring the same toolbox, including design guidelines and related zoning and financial incentives, to Hemphill.

The Connector, once built, “changes the whole complexion of the South Side, when you develop an alternative to I-35,” said Motheral, who confirmed he's in a partnership that's purchased a 2.2-acre site at 415 Hemphill for what they plan as a 220-unit apartment development with ground-floor restaurant and retail space.

At a recent meeting of the Fort Worth South economic development nonprofit, the organization that resulted from the Near Southside work of Motheral and other leaders, somebody asked whether it would be possible for the three tax increment finance districts - Near Southside, Lancaster, and Downtown - that are in the vicinity of Hemphill to pitch in to cover the increased costs of the Hemphill Connector.

The TIFs, which generate money for public infrastructure improvements based on incremental growth in the property tax base, have the capacity, but it would be premature at this point to approach them without having done a full study of the options, Chapa said.