Fort Worth City Council moves to reshape T board

Posted Sunday, Feb. 03, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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FORT WORTH -- The City Council is taking steps to remove most, if not all, of its appointees on the Fort Worth Transportation Authority board after criticism from city leaders that the agency has stumbled in providing a comprehensive public transportation system.

Six of nine board members -- Chairman Gary Cumbie, Vice Chairwoman Rosa Navejar, Secretary Gary Havener, Steve Berry, Mike Brennan and Janet Saltsgiver -- confirmed in interviews Friday that they learned during the week from council members that they won't be reappointed.

A seventh, Jesse Martinez, who represents the south Fort Worth district of Councilman Jungus Jordan, said he had asked to step down from the board last August to spend more time with family, and Jordan informed him during the week that he had found a replacement.

"I have talked with my City Council member and have learned that the mayor has asked for an all-new board," said Janet Saltsgiver, a retired businesswoman who represents the southeast district of council member Kelly Allen Gray. She's holding out hope the council won't replace the board.

"If they replace this board, they will be losing a lot of expertise," she said. "I don't think the City Council or mayor really understands the repercussions of what has to be done on this."

The other two board members -- Maurice Barnes and Jeffrey Ritter -- did not respond to phone messages left at their homes or offices.

Council members haven't discussed the appointments in open session, and it wasn't clear whether they had discussed them in closed executive session. The eight council members and Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley each have an appointment to the board.

But Mayor Betsy Price and other city leaders have said they are skeptical about whether the authority, commonly known as the T, can evolve from a bus company into a 21st-century transportation provider.

They were particularly frustrated with what they felt was the board's lack of urgency on the proposed 37-mile rail line connecting southwest Fort Worth to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

Some of the new appointments may come as early as Tuesday. The agenda for Tuesday's council meeting contains a resolution for T board appointments, but it says only "Information Forthcoming." The one-year board appointments actually expired in September 2012.

Focus on rail

Price declined through a city spokesman Friday to discuss the board transition.

On Wednesday, as buzz began to circulate that the council was moving on the appointments, Price declined to say whether the council was going to turn over the T board.

But she said the council would make any new appointments with an eye toward focusing the T on commuter rail projects. Price has criticized the T for delays in TEX Rail, the southwest Fort Worth-Grapevine rail project now slated to open in 2016.

"Mobility is a crucial component to our city's future success," Price said earlier in the week. "As we move forward, the City Council will be focused on making appointments that put Fort Worth in the best position to quickly and completely deliver our vision of a comprehensive, convenient public transportation system."

The mayor and council chief of staff, Jason Lamers, said Friday that it was up to each council member to decide what to do with the T appointments.

"I think what you're seeing is there's an interest in having some fresh eyes in how we're addressing the challenge of the comprehensive transportation system in Fort Worth, which is a critical piece of our economic success," he said.

Joan Hunter, a spokeswoman for the T, said Friday, "The T appreciates the service of its board members, and we have always worked with the board members who are appointed by the city and the county, and we will continue to do so."

The TEX Rail schedule "is one we constantly monitor," she said. "We are currently on schedule to open in 2016."

Whitley could not be reached Friday.

'Arbitrary deadline'

Some of the current board members acknowledged frustration in getting all documentation together for a scheduled February submission to the Federal Transit Administration, as part of TEX Rail's application to the government for federal funding.

But they said the problem is overblown.

The T will still submit key documents related to an environmental impact assessment by Feb. 20, and the FTA has indicated that those are the documents it is ready to review, Martinez said.

Other documents that were to be part of the Feb. 20 batch will be submitted in the early spring, and the delay won't affect the TEX Rail schedule, board members said. Board members said changes are being made to those documents to reflect ongoing negotiations for TEX Rail right of way -- including a major new north-side bridge being added to the plan -- and a major change in the vehicle planned for use on the line.

"We were of the understanding that it was all due on the 20th," Martinez said. "Now we're being told that the FTA couldn't review the whole thing anyhow."

Saltsgiver said, "The deadline we are missing was an arbitrary deadline we set for ourselves."

Informed by council

Board members said they were informed of the replacements by the council members whose districts they represent.

Cumbie said he learned Friday morning from Councilman Danny Scarth, but declined to comment on the situation.

"I'm disappointed, pardon the pun," Cumbie said. "I'm just going to quietly let things go forward."

Navejar, longtime president of the Fort Worth Hispanic Chamber of Commerce, said she learned Tuesday from Councilman Sal Espino.

Berry, partner in a private-equity firm, said he learned Wednesday from Councilman Dennis Shingleton, but doesn't know when his replacement will be named.

Brennan said Councilman Joel Burns, who represents a south-side council district, told him Wednesday that he would be replaced at Tuesday's council meeting. Former Fort Worth City Councilman Jeff Davis, who served from 1977 to 1981, confirmed that he had been asked by Burns to replace Brennan, a Harvard-educated planning director for the Fort Worth South nonprofit.

Havener, a businessman, said he learned early in the week from Mayor Pro Tem W.B. "Zim" Zimmerman.

"It's their decision, not mine, and they didn't ask me," Havener said.

Davis, chairman of the Fort Worth division of Republic Title, was at Tuesday's council meeting for another matter when he said Burns approached him and asked him to consider serving on the T board.

"I've got many other things going on, but this is important," Davis said. "We've all heard it's a priority of the council and the mayor's to move rail forward. I'm very much in favor of moving rail forward, in addition to keeping our buses working. I think the council has a sense of urgency, and ... I'm willing to serve under those conditions."

Scott Nishimura, 817-390-7808

Twitter: @JScottNishimura

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