T board shake-up must refocus transit discussion

Posted Saturday, Feb. 02, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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On Tuesday, the Fort Worth City Council is expected to replace the T's board of directors. As an outgoing board member, I was told that slow TEX Rail progress led to the shake-up, as did a sense that the T must be more aggressive in bringing world-class, rail-based transit to Fort Worth.

I fear that the upheaval will prove counterproductive to TEX Rail's schedule and overall prospects. But being replaced will be even more disappointing if this shake-up fails to change the discussion about Fort Worth's transit future.

On the board, I took part in dozens of community discussions about transit. Those talks always generate excitement, but they also highlight an inconsistency between the world-class system that many envision for Fort Worth and our city's current capacity to deliver it.

Personnel changes alone won't get us there. Without facing major questions now, TEX Rail's issues are likely to become a preview of endless frustrations.

Here are some fundamental questions:

How could we secure additional funding -- above the existing half-cent sales tax -- to support a top-tier transit system?

Fort Worth's peers with strong transit systems are implementing networks of fixed-rail routes within their central cities. Those cities (Dallas, Charlotte, Denver and many more) operate more robust systems than our limited bus-based network because they dedicate more taxes to transit.

Strong grassroots support exists for this type of rail system, but our half-cent sales tax will never cover those costs, nor will it fund the commuter rail-based system prioritized by the council. Federal funding won't cover the gap.

We face three options: pay an additional transit tax; shift money from existing local programs toward transit; or make our existing bus-based system more effective. Progress toward a great system begins with more local funding.

Should we be so focused on a rail system that relies on the shared use of existing and active freight rail corridors?

This question is crucial, but the discussion should not take the focus off TEX Rail, an excellent project that will become an essential link in our transit system.

TEX Rail's strong prospects for ridership are tied to the existing and future development along that corridor: established neighborhoods, employment centers and underdeveloped areas where the rail line will capture new growth in higher-intensity, mixed-use development.

Unfortunately, those TEX Rail advantages may be distorting our discussion of other rail projects. Located within a freight corridor, TEX Rail's strong development synergy is exceptional. But freight corridors don't often follow the most logical transit routes, such as connecting higher-density urban villages.

Freight corridors also present tremendous technical and financial impediments. In contrast to a highway project, a transit agency enjoys little leverage when negotiating for public use of private land. DART's impressive system avoids shared corridors by acquiring underused corridors or creating new ones, using local funds. Its full-cent tax provides more options.

How could we get stronger transit results from our state and federal representatives?

As with so many issues these days, conversations about public transportation and urban development are affected by our polarized political climate.

In Washington, anti-transit interests pressure Congress to shift funding from transit programs. In Austin, similar groups persuade representatives to block local referendums on transit funding. The result is a lack of strong state and federal support for local priorities. How do we get better alignment of priorities at all levels? We need new strategies for greater support from Austin and Washington.

These are a just a few significant questions that warrant as much consideration as T/city politics or the lines drawn on our vision maps. I wish the new board the best of luck, and I'm hopeful the transit conversation will soon shift focus to these fundamental issues.

Mike Brennan of Fort Worth is planning director for Fort Worth South Inc. and an outgoing T board member.

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