TEX Rail project is stalled again

Posted Sunday, Feb. 10, 2013  comments  Print Reprints

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The Fort Worth Transportation Authority's attempt to get the TEX Rail commuter line up and running is again stalled - putting a potential $480 million in federal funding at risk.

Federal Transit Administrator Peter Rogoff warned local officials more than a year ago that a grant covering about half of the $960 million project would not be considered until contracts are signed with Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Union Pacific Railroad and the Fort Worth & Western Railroad. Those entities own the nearly 37 miles of tracks stretching from southwest Fort Worth to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.

Failure to ink those agreements has already taken a toll. Officials say it's now unlikely that the southern portion of the line running south of downtown to the medical district and neighorhoods near TCU will be ready by the scheduled opening in 2016.

Meanwhile, the short-term focus is on the more plausible north end of the line, connecting downtown Fort Worth to DFW. Most of those tracks are owned by DART and could be open by 2016 if the T gets its environmental work completed by March.

"DART is the agreement we've got to have, to get anything done at all," said Jeff Ritter of Richland Hills, a T board member. "They own the track to the airport. Fort Worth & Western is certainly a problem, but until we get trackage rights on that right of way, we can't turn in our program to the FTA and without that we're nothing."

Failure to reach these vital agreements by the authority is what led Mayor Betsy Price and the Fort Worth City Council to replace all eight board appointees last week. The ninth member, Ritter, is appointed by Tarrant County.

"Progress means acquiring at least some of the trackage rights," Price said. "I'm just not sure they've had a proper focus on this project."

But Gary Havener, who was removed from the board last week, defended the years of behind-the-scenes dealmaking. He said that the "heavy lifting" on those agreeements has been done and that the new T board and DART probably will approve agreements within weeks.

"All of this ballyhoo about delays," he said, "it's about half-fictional."

Havener and others say that many of the issues were outside their control. For example, in December the T agreed under pressure by the council and DART to buy more expensive rail cars for TEX Rail, but that delayed submission of important documents to the federal government.

"Quite frankly, the City Council pushed for that. That wasn't necessarily to satisfy DART," Havener said. "That was pushed by the city. This was basically the type of vehicle the City Council, and Betsy Price in particular, was insisting that we use."

A proposal by the North Central Texas Council of Governments to bring in private developers and extend the line 25 miles east also complicated what was already a complex project being developed under a tight deadline, Havener and others said.

Once the new T board members start their terms this month, they will be charged with getting up to speed on the project in a matter of weeks, including hiring a new T executive with rail experience. The new T board and the council are scheduled to hold a joint meeting Feb. 20.Reaching accords with the other three railroads has become increasingly complicated.

The T is close to an agreement with Union Pacific, which is being asked to allow construction of a separate track for TEX Rail next to the company's tracks north of downtown, and across the Trinity River, officials say.

Also, on the south end of downtown, the T plans to build a new track for TEX Rail next to the Union Pacific track at T&P Station.

Union Pacific officials are meeting regularly with the T and are cooperating with them on the portions of the project that affect its right of way, spokeswoman Raquel Espinoza said.

Several issues remain with Fort Worth & Western, which owns the tracks south of Interstate 30 and west of Eighth Avenue and also owns the rights to run freight trains on DART's Cotton Belt line in Northeast Tarrant County where TEX Rail will run.

North of downtown, unexpected difficulties have also surfaced near where the old Cotton Belt tracks cross under Long Avenue. DART owns the tracks but Fort Worth & Western has trackage rights on the line and operates a freight area and a Y-turnaround at an area known as Hodge Yard.

Officials at Fort Worth & Western couldn't be reached for comment. A woman answering the phone at the company declined to take a message.

In negotiations, the T has also been told there isn't room for its passenger cars passing through Hodge Yard, so the T is looking at building a 3,000-foot bridge over Long Avenue -- which will allow its trains to bypass the rail yard but will add millions of dollars to construction costs.

The T and DART have a draft agreement. One DART official said the agency doesn't want to hold up the T's progress on TEX Rail but also doesn't want to sign an agreement until Union Pacific and Fort Worth & Western are on board.

Even outgoing board members are frustrated that the T and DART -- two public agencies that share a mission to improve North Texas mobility -- didn't ink their deal sooner.Picking a more modern rail car in December for the TEX Rail line -- even though some board members favored using the cheaper, more readily available bi-level cars like those used on the Trinity Railway Express -- also delayed the project.

Outside agencies, including the council of governments, wanted to use the cars as part of its plan known as the Cotton Belt initiative, which would take the TEX Rail northeast to either Plano or Richardson, and use private investment dollars to cover the initial costs.

The Cotton Belt plan hinges on the use of modern, more expensive rail cars favored by DART on the eastern side of the Metroplex.

When the T agreed to use those cars, it not only added millions of dollars in costs to the project, but it also forced the T to rewrite some of its federal environmental document. When T officials disclosed that they wouldn't meet their internal Feb. 20 deadline for getting the document to Washington, that was one of the motivating factors in the City Council's decision to bring in new board members..

"We basically agreed it was a better solution, but we didn't go to it, No. 1, because when we put the initial package together for the federal government this type of vehicle was not compliant," Havener said. The rail car was approved for use on freight lines in mid-2012.

Many changes in Washington also delayed the T's ability to file its federal environmental impact statement. After the Obama administration took over in 2009, the Federal Transit Administration changed its criteria for estimating transit ridership using computer models.

It took two years for the T and the council of governments' staff to adjust its computing formulas, Havener said.The incoming T board members share little experience in public transportation or passenger rail.

"I never really was involved with or knew much about the TEX Rail project," said Carter Burdette, a former Fort Worth councilman appointed to the T board. "That's something I'm going to have to learn."

But new board members say they do have deep knowledge of Fort Worth's business and government community, and an ability to cut through red tape and get projects done.

"There are so many moving parts we have to get a handle on, with Fort Worth, DART the funding and the private [Cotton Belt] option," said Jeff Davis, another former Fort Worth councilman appointed to the T board. "But this group is pretty savvy. I don't think it'll take more than a meeting or two to get us up to speed. It's really a matter of political will."

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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