Plan for Fort Worth-Richardson/Plano commuter rail line died a sloppy death

Posted Thursday, Mar. 07, 2013  comments  Print Reprints
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norman Tuesday's Fort Worth City Council vote killed plans to join a proposed extension of commuter rail service to Richardson and Plano.

"We're out," Councilman Jungus Jordan says. "I don't see us doing a U-turn."

If that means the end of the Richardson/Plano project for the foreseeable future, so be it. Plans weren't solid enough for Fort Worth to get behind it in time to meet today's deadline for filing necessary legislation in Austin.

The idea died a sloppy death, but it's not Fort Worth's responsibility to make it work. The goal of the proposed public-private venture on the current Cotton Belt line was to bring commuter rail service to Collin County about 25 years ahead of schedule.

The Fort Worth Transportation Authority, the T, is still moving forward with its planned TEX Rail line along those same Cotton Belt tracks from southwest Fort Worth to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. Jordan says getting TEX Rail going by 2016 is the city's top transportation priority.

Tuesday night's City Council vote was on a resolution to support a bill allowing creation of special taxing districts around rail stations on the Fort Worth-to-Richardson/Plano rail corridor. Plans called for nine of those stations and special tax districts in Fort Worth.

If all of the 13 cities, three counties and dozens of property owners along the line participated, new development on 9,600 acres around the stations would face additional taxes, about a third of it in Fort Worth, according to information presented to the council. A consortium of private companies proposed to pay the estimated $2.7 billion upfront cost of developing the rail line in exchange for a share of that new tax revenue.

But as Jordan pointed out both to the council and in separate interviews, the draft legislation placed before the council was incomplete. Council members were being asked to take a leap of faith and vote for it.

That leap involved high stakes in terms of tax money collected in Fort Worth and handed over to a private business.

"We're trying to rush through legislation that we really don't know what it says," Jordan told his council colleagues.

"We're elected to serve the taxpayers' interest," he said in an interview. "I do not feel comfortable signing a blank check."

The biggest unfilled blank: Exact boundaries of the taxing districts were not described in the draft legislation, and in fact have not yet been determined, the council was told Tuesday.

"They started this a year ago, and here we are at the 11th hour," Jordan said. He was chairman of the Regional Transportation Council last year when the as-yet-unnamed private group first contacted officials of the North Central Texas Council of Governments about its Cotton Belt rail plan.

Private investment was seen as a way to get an early start on the Richardson/Plano commuter line, for which public money is not expected to be available for 25 years, NCTCOG Transportation Director Michael Morris has said.

Ever since the private group brought up the idea, NCTCOG's efforts have been focused on making it work. Meanwhile, Fort Worth's TEX Rail efforts proceeded on a separate track. That was confusing.

For at least a year, the T has worked on its application for a federal grant to pay about half of the $1 billion cost of TEX Rail. It must have been confusing to federal officials for Fort Worth to be asking for that much money while at the same time attempting to work out the private project instead.

Five council members joined Jordan in putting a stop to the private plan, at least as far as Fort Worth is concerned. Councilmen Danny Scarth and Joel Burns wanted to go ahead with it. Mayor Betsy Price was absent.

Jordan and the council majority made the right decision. The TEX Rail connection with DFW needs the city's full attention. Let the more expansive private plan go.

Mike Norman is editorial director of the Star-Telegram.

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Twitter: @mnorman9

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