A man credited with helping to bring commuter rail to Nashville has been hired to lead the Fort Worth Transportation Authority.Paul J. Ballard will take the helm at the transportation authority, also known as the T, on April 14.Ballard has been chief executive officer of the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority since 2002, according to T officials. Ballard’s experience in launching the Music City Star, a commuter rail service in Nashville that began in 2006, was a crucial factor in the T’s choice, board chairman Scott Mahaffey said.The T is aggressively trying to start a commuter rail service known as TEX Rail that would connect downtown Fort Worth with Grapevine and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. But the planning is years behind schedule, and in early 2013 Fort Worth officials cited a lack of progress on TEX Rail as a major factor behind the decision to fire eight of the nine T board members and bring in new blood.“His experience will be valuable to us as we navigate the next few years,” said Mahaffey, who took over as T board chairman about a year ago.In the year since the leadership changes began, agency officials say they’ve made progress in their application for hundreds of millions of dollars in federal new-start funds to pay for up to half the cost of TEX Rail. But many critics, including members of Fort Worth’s City Council, have openly questioned whether the T can meet its goal of opening TEX Rail by 2017.“Particularly in the area of commuter rail and the [federal] new-starts process, Paul’s leadership is something that we will count on for our TEX Rail project,” Mahaffey said.Ballard replaces Dick Ruddell, who retired from the T in October after a decade as president. Ballard’s five-year contract pays him total compensation of about $270,000 a year —$100,000 a year more than his predecessor.“The job has greatly grown from what it has been,” Mahaffey said. “We went back to our consultants and had them evaluate what the job should pay in order to get the candidates of the caliber we needed.”Ballard was chosen after extensive candidate interviews and evaluation by an executive search committee that included T board members and business and community leaders, T spokeswoman Joan Hunter said. A pool of about 40 job candidates was whittled down to 13 finalists, then five, before the T board decided by consensus in January to offer Ballard a contract.The T’s bylaws don’t require a board vote to authorize the hiring, Mahaffey said.In a statement, Ballard said, “I will enjoy participating in the significant changes underway such as the TEX Rail project.”He graduated from Indiana University with a bachelor’s degree in business, transportation and utilities management, according to background provided by the T. He also has a master’s degree in public administration from Webster University in St. Louis, as well as training in customer service from the Harvard University Graduate School of Business Administration.The Music City Star, which boasts six stops between Nashville’s Riverfront and Lebanon, Tenn., failed to meet ridership projections in its initial years, according to news reports from the region.Despite projections that the service would carry about 1,500 riders per day, by 2010 the train service was carrying only about 860 per day, according to the news site TNReport.com. But Ballard and other Tennessee transit officials have taken steps to generate better ridership in recent years, Mahaffey said.Ballard is stepping into a public transportation realm with far higher and more established ridership.The Trinity Railway Express, which opened in 1996 and connects downtown Fort Worth to Dallas, serves about 7,500 riders per day on a typical weekday.TEX Rail, which would connect portions of Northeast Tarrant County that lack public transportation and also meet Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s Orange Line at a new DFW Airport train station, is expected to generate even higher ridership.In the Dallas area, an extensive bus system and nearly 90 miles of light rail are managed by Dallas Area Rapid Transit. On a typical weekday, nearly 132,000 people ride DART buses and more than 90,000 people board DART trains, according to the agency’s fiscal year 2012 figures.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796 Twitter: @gdickson