Arlington council decides not to build Stadium Drive underpass

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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ARLINGTON -- After months of discussion, the Arlington City Council decided Tuesday that a $35.3 million proposal to build an underpass at the railroad tracks crossing Stadium Drive is too costly.

The plan was to widen Stadium Drive to six lanes between Division and Abram streets and to build an underpass beneath Union Pacific's two railroad tracks. That project, originally estimated to cost about $20 million, aimed to reduce traffic congestion coming out of the entertainment district, eliminate the risk of vehicle-train collisions and provide another route for emergency vehicles when Arlington's other at-grade rail crossings were blocked by a train, city officials said.

But the cost grew by about $15 million after Union Pacific asked the city to build a wider bridge than originally anticipated to accommodate future rail lines.

The council was faced with two choices: divert millions of dollars in surplus bond and street maintenance sales tax money to bridge the funding gap or go with a less expensive plan to improve the crossing.

Councilman Robert Shepard was one of the council members who said Tuesday that they could not support spending the additional millions of dollars to improve one railroad crossing when the city has so many streets in poor condition.

"If we can find this kind of money to do this, I think we need to use this found money to cure the deficient infrastructure we know we've got than fix a problem we might have," Shepard said.

Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon argued that, with the city's growing population and economic growth in the entertainment district, creating the underpass on the busy north-south corridor would reduce traffic congestion and help improve air quality.

"That intersection means so much, in my opinion, to the whole city," Wilemon said.

Such a project will only become more expensive if it is put off to future years, she said. "I don't want to look back in 20 years and say 'They wouldn't spend that to do what we can't do today?'"

With the council's informal vote Tuesday, the city will now move forward with a $12.8 million plan to expand Stadium Drive to six lanes at the crossing and add safety improvements that would allow the at-grade crossing to become a quiet zone so trains would not have to blow their horns while passing through.

A city divided

Arlington started as a small rail stop between Dallas and Fort Worth in 1876. Since then, the city has expanded to 100 square miles, with the Union Pacific track splitting the northern third from the rest of the city.

Stadium Drive is one of eight at-grade crossings in Arlington along the line. The city has only five roads that cross over or under the train tracks -- West Green Oaks Boulevard, Forest Edge Drive, Fielder Road, West Street and Texas 360.

The railroad's impact on Arlington's traffic was highlighted this year when Union Pacific closed crossings including Cooper and Collins streets for several days to replace northern track. Having an underpass at Stadium Drive would have helped with traffic management during the closures.

"I would have loved to have a grade-separated crossing there during the Union Pacific work," said Keith Melton, public works and transportation director.

Stadium traffic

After Arlington voters approved Cowboys Stadium in 2004, Melton said, city administrators identified a grade-separated crossing on Stadium Drive as "critical" to managing entertainment district traffic.

So, in the 2008 bond election, voters were asked to approve about $15 million for the project, which they approved. The project also received $4.6 million in bond funding from Tarrant County.

Now that the $1.1 billion football venue has been open nearly four years, Melton said, the city has found that the at-grade crossing has caused only brief delays for motorists leaving events.

"I can't sit there and tell you today that this grade separation is critical for game traffic," Melton said. "We've done this long enough now we can move traffic on the existing roadway. That is not a justification anymore."

Money to other roads

Originally, the city planned to elevate just the two rail lines. But then Union Pacific asked the city pay for a wider, elevated track that would allow for two future rail lines and for tracks spaced farther apart.

Arlington asked Union Pacific to contribute $1.7 million for a portion of the expense, but the rail company was willing to pay only $650,000, Melton told the council. That contribution will not be available for the at-grade crossing improvements, Melton said, and the city does not know yet whether the county bond funding will be available either, now that the project has changed.

The city has spent $1.4 million of a $2.3 million contract to design the underpass. The design for the at-grade crossing improvements will cost $400,000 more to complete, which will save the city $500,000 in design costs, Melton said.

Surplus bond and street maintenance money identified by the city will be spent on other street projects, he said.

Arlington spends about $30 million annually on street repairs.

This report includes material from Star-Telegram archives.

Susan Schrock, 817-709-7578

Twitter: @susanschrock

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