Fort Worth's Hemphill Connector Tunnel Project Hits Obstacle

Fort Worth's Hemphill Connector Tunnel Project Hits Obstacle

Fort Worth’s long-awaited Hemphill Connector - a tunnel project beneath Interstate 30 and Union Pacific Railroad that will directly link Hemphill Street on the Near Southside to downtown - has hit a rock.

Estimated construction costs on the project, which has been on the books for years, have come in as high as $44 million, city officials and Near Southside business interests confirmed. The budget for the project, which includes the tunnel, a new rail bridge, drainage and other amenities, is $26.6 million, meaning there’s a funding gap of as much as $17 million.

“We’re going to take a look and see how we can make the project viable,” Jay Chapa, assistant city manager, said in an interview Tuesday night.

The drainage piece of the project, already complete, came in at budget. The rail bridge would go next, then the tunnel. The tunnel would extend Hemphill from its intersection at West Vickery Boulevard to Taylor Street at West Lancaster Avenue downtown, on the west side of the giant T&P Warehouse.

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.

Chapa declined to go into further specifics on costs, but said the city is finding construction costs in general are up 15-30 percent in the last year. It’s been years since voters approved the Hemphill Connector; its construction launch was delayed by the city’s need to first make major improvements to Tower 55 downtown, one of the nation’s most clogged rail intersections.

“It’s a totally different world out there” today with construction costs, Chapa said.

At a board meeting of the Fort Worth South economic development nonprofit Monday, Chapa presented the numbers. Somebody asked whether it would be possible for the three tax increment finance districts that are in the proximity of Hemphill and the connector - Near Southside, downtown, and Lancaster - to consider contributing.

All three TIFs have the financial capacity, Chapa said. It’s possible the city and contractor could shrink the costs through what’s called “value engineering,” but Chapa declined to go into specifics. TIFs generate money for public infrastructure connected to development projects based on growth in taxable values over the TIFs’ base years; the Near Southside, downtown and Lancaser TIFs have seen considerable growth over the years.

David Motheral Jr., chairman of the development committee of the Hemphill Corridor Task Force, said a delay in the Hemphill Connector would slow redevelopment progress on the lengthy street. His group has been leading the development of a street plan for Hemphill that it expects to forward next year to the city’s volunteer committee that is redrawing the Fort Worth Master Thoroughfare Plan. After completing the street plan, the committee plans to begin work on proposed design guidelines and related zoning for the corridor.

Motheral, one of the leaders who helped create what turned into Fort Worth South and its box of economic development tools, says a connected Hemphill will better open up the Southside neighborhoods to downtown, and a strong plan for the street would hasten redevelopment.

“We hope we can keep the momentum going, but a lot of it depends on whether we get the Connector,” said Motheral, who attended the Fort Worth South meeting Monday.

He’s not surprised construction costs are up for the project. “It’s been in the mill for such a long time, when they finally go out to bid it, it’s obviously gone over the amount that was set aside to do it,” Motheral said.