FORT WORTH — On a normal day, driving on gridlocked Interstate 35W between downtown and far north Fort Worth can be a hair-pulling, brow-sweating experience.And it's about to get worse, as the Texas Department of Transportation and its private partners begin a complete makeover this year of the highway, which is being modernized and expanded with toll lanes. To make room for the roughly $1.6 billion in road work, a massive work zone stretching from near I-30 downtown to just south of Alliance Airport will likely be in place through 2018.But just in time for that gorilla of a driving headache, a little relief from public transportation may be also on the horizon.A new bus service to downtown Fort Worth is scheduled to be launched in late spring probably no later than June, Fort Worth Transportation Authority officials said.Riders will be able to catch buses three times each morning at a new park-and-ride lot on the southbound side of I-35W between Golden Triangle Boulevard and Heritage Trace Parkway. The buses will make a return trip from downtown back to the Alliance area three times each afternoon.As the traffic gets worse, youre going to find more people are going to ride, said Cindy Sears-Clemmons, a sales manager at the Jacobs engineering firm downtown. She already rides the one other regular bus route offered by the T in her neighborhood Route 62 Summerfields Express but that bus arrives in her far north Fort Worth neighborhood only once a morning and returns only once each afternoon.Although Summerfields Express service will still be available, she looks forward to taking the new Alliance corridor route and its options of multiple departures and arrivals per day.The bus gives me life balance, she said, referring to the rigidity of a bus schedule that in effect draws a divide between her work and personal time. The roughly half-hour bus ride each way, she says, is a stress-free buffer between those worlds. I read USA Today, The New York Times app and e-books. Ive taken conference calls on the bus, too.Let the bus driver handle traffic hasslesResidents who want to learn more about the planned bus service may attend a public hearing Feb. 10 downtown. The transportation authority, aka the T, is scheduled to approve the opening of the route during its regular monthly board meeting Feb. 17.The T hasnt finalized a schedule but hopes to have morning departures from the park-and-ride lot, which is under construction, at roughly 5:35, 6:11 and 6:50 a.m. The trip downtown would typically take 35 to 50 minutes, so those buses would arrive at their destination at about 6:10, 6:51 and 7:40 a.m., said Curvie Hawkins, the Ts assistant vice president for planning.Afternoon trips would leave downtown at roughly 4:20, 5:15 and 5:50 p.m. and arrive back at the park-and-ride at about 5:10, 6:05 and 6:40 p.m.In far north Fort Worth, the route will stop only at the park-and-ride lot, so it wont serve Alliance-area businesses at least not yet. But once its downtown, the bus will make multiple stops in the central business district, so riders can have a shorter walk to work, he said.T officials wouldnt rule out eventually adding more far north Fort Worth stops for the buses, if riders show up and in essence demand that service, T service planner Phillip Dupler said. But first those T officials just want to get the park-and-ride open and the bus service operational.We dont yet know how construction is going to impact ridership, he said.Between Alliance and downtown, the bus will be scheduled to follow I-35W, but the driver and dispatchers will have the discretion to use alternate routes such as Sylvania Avenue and North Main Street to get downtown on days when I-35W is especially clogged, he said.For riders, the benefit wont necessarily be time savings, T officials said. Instead, it will be a better use of their time. Instead of coping with traffic, riders can take a nap, use mobile devices or make friends on the bus while a professional driver handles the traffic hassles.A precise price for bus fare hasnt been publicized, but today a monthly pass for riding the T costs $60 for a bus-only pass or $80 to $160 for those who also want to ride the Trinity Railway Express to Dallas. Lower fares are available for children, seniors and people with disabilities and many downtown employers subsidize the cost of transit for employees.T officials say its too early to project how many people may want to ride the Alliance express buses.Wasted timeSeveral years ago, the T highly publicized the opening of two express routes to north and south Arlington but those services never really caught on, attracting fewer than 100 riders daily. The Arlington express routes have been discontinued.The trip from Arlington to downtown Fort Worth on I-30 and I-20 was rarely congested, possibly limiting the audience for the bus. In far north Fort Worth, however, a 12-mile trip downtown commonly takes 45 minutes or more and residents often complain that theyre losing valuable hours of the day just commuting.The stretch of I-35W between I-30 and North 28th Street in Fort Worth is considered the worst leg of road in the state, according to a publication titled 100 Most Congested Roadways, by the state Transportation Department.That stretch of road, which shrinks from three lanes in each direction to two, causes motorists to waste more than 2 million hours collectively, according to the report. On I-35W, some early steps toward construction are already underway, said officials with the North Tarrant Express Mobility Partners, the private consortium that was hired to do the job. The group has also been working on the Loop 820 expansion which is now 80 percent complete for much of the past four years.The state Transportation Department has entered into an agreement with NTE Mobility Partners to rebuild existing lanes and keep them toll-free and to modernize ramps and add two toll lanes in each direction. The developer would build the section from I-30 to Loop 820 and maintain it until 2061 and keep the tolls generated on the managed lanes during those years.The department would build the portion from north of Loop 820 to U.S. 287 at an estimated cost of $234 million, then turn it over to the developer.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson