Backers of Cotton Belt commuter rail line seek legislative sponsor

Posted Wednesday, Feb. 20, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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AUSTIN -- Supporters of a proposed Cotton Belt commuter line are still seeking a lawmaker willing to go to bat for their project, with just over two weeks to go until the deadline for filing most bills in the legislative session.

A new law is needed because the project, which would span 62 miles and connect southwest Fort Worth to DFW Airport and either Plano or Richardson, would pass through 13 cities in Tarrant, Dallas and Collin counties. An unidentified team of companies has notified the North Central Texas Council of Governments that they wish to develop the line, using property values and station development along the corridor to repay their investment.

But such a move would require a law allowing the creation of a special tax district in those cities. The deadline for filing local or nonemergency bills is March 8.

Lawmakers want assurances that the Cotton Belt project is supported by leaders in every jurisdiction.

"The drive for this has to come from the local communities," said Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth. "When they come to us, they will give us a green light to move forward."

The Tarrant County portion of the project from southwest Fort Worth to DFW is the same 37-mile corridor where the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, also known as the T, is seeking to build the TEX Rail commuter line by 2016. The Cotton Belt project would encompass everything in the TEX Rail line, plus an additional 25 miles to the northeast to Plano or Richardson.

The project would boldly connect Metroplex neighborhoods such as Fort Worth's Texas Christian University, Grapevine's historical Main Street and Dallas County's Addison Circle -- places that today seem far apart.

Fort Worth City Council members, who on Wednesday held a joint meeting with the newly remade T board, are supportive of the concept of the Cotton Belt project, but only if it doesn't slow down the effort to build the TEX Rail project on the Tarrant County portion of the line.

Councilman Jungus Jordan said the Cotton Belt project "could be a backstop," a form of insurance in case the T is unable to get a federal grant to pay for up to half of TEX Rail's nearly $1 billion cost.

"But TEX Rail is our No. 1 priority," he said during the joint meeting. "The unsolicited proposal, if it comes to fruition, is only a complementary action."

Fort Worth has already passed a resolution declaring that the council of governments is the responsible entity for the Cotton Belt project. But Jordan said the city will also consider a second Cotton Belt resolution in early March -- this one endorsing a bill to create a special tax district.

Even if Fort Worth approves the measure, there's no guarantee that other cities in the Cotton Belt Corridor will follow suit.

"There's probably some that won't," Jordan said in a phone interview after the joint meeting.

Grapevine, for example, has no immediate plans to look at put a resolution, City Manager Bruno Rumbelow said.

In December, Grapevine officials refused to vote on a resolution endorsing the Cotton Belt project, saying they had concerns about a loss of control over property within their own boundaries. Grapevine officials have contributed roughly $50 million to the TEX Rail project from a three-eighths-cent sales tax -- and council members think that should be sufficient.

Council of governments officials have sought to assuage concerns about cities losing control of property within their limits, saying that if a private developer were used it wouldn't have the power of eminent domain.

Dallas officials also have yet to act on a Cotton Belt resolution, officials said.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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