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Fort Worth's streetcar plan is derailed

12/07/2010 11:45 PM

12/08/2010 8:18 AM

FORT WORTH -- The city's discussion and study of the viability of a modern streetcar system for the central city is over for now.

The City Council voted 5-3 on Tuesday to pull the plug on a feasibility study of running a streetcar line to the near north side through downtown and the near south side.

Mayor Mike Moncrief joined council members Carter Burdette, Jungus Jordan, Danny Scarth and Zim Zimmerman in voting against continuing to the final phase of the three-part study. Council members Joel Burns, Sal Espino and Frank Moss voted to proceed.

District 8 Councilwoman Kathleen Hicks was in Europe on city business, said Will Trevino, her assistant.

"This has been a real struggle for me," Moncrief said. "The bottom line is, many of us are still wrestling with concerns over funding."

A vote to proceed with the study would have paved the way for the city to accept a $25 million federal grant, which was expected to jump-start the estimated $88 million project.

A consultant, HDR Engineering, reported that streetcars were viable for the center city.

The line, according to city plans, would have consisted of three cars traversing a six-mile round-trip. It would have operated 14 hours a day, 365 days a year and carry an estimated 2,000 people a day.

The total cost of construction would have been offset by the federal grant. The rest would have been covered by the Trinity River Vision and Southside tax increment financing districts, or TIFs.

Officials estimated the system's operating cost at $1.6 million a year, which initially would be funded by the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, or the T.

Later, residents of the neighborhoods where the line runs would vote on whether to take on operational costs.

The assumption that the residents would take on operating costs and the unknown health of the TIFs in the future made forging ahead a risky proposition for taxpayers, Burdette said.

Critics were also skeptical of a study that projected $334 million in new residential and commercial development along the line. Not to mention that the federal government didn't need to be spending the money, either, their thinking went.

Advocates promoted the project as a environmentally friendly transportation option and a big step toward the dream of downtown as a fully functional and livable urban center.

Many were at Tuesday night's council meeting to plead with the council to "get all the facts," as one speaker said, before making a final decision.

"Proven by every economic study, investment in streetcars creates billions in economic development and brings jobs to our community," Burns said. "We are taking these job opportunities away from the Fort Worth community."

However, Moncrief asked: "What if economic development doesn't occur? What if interest rates don't drastically improve? How do we pay for maintenance and upkeep?"

Proceeding to Phase 3 of the study did have the support of the transportation committee of DFW Inc. as well as a majority of the board that replied to a survey, President Andy Taft said.

'Not the end'

About $821,000 was spent on the study, a large portion of which -- roughly $657,000 -- was covered by a federal grant. The city and The T split the difference. The city's money not spent on Phase 3 will be returned to a bond fund dedicated to urban projects.

A yes vote would not have cleared the way for streetcars. Phase 3 was expected to take up to a year to complete and included an environmental assessment.

The council is unanimous in agreeing that a comprehensive mass transit plan to deal with congestion and moving people from the suburbs to the central city is a priority.

Whether the streetcar is a part of that discussion is still a question.

Moncrief and Scarth both said streetcars would and should be discussed again, but with investors and not taxpayers bearing the burden of the cost.

"This is not the end of the conversation about streetcars and the related transportation needs of this city," Burns said.

"If we are to realize our potential as an important, major U.S. city and provide the economic opportunities we owe our citizens we must not fail to plan for our future."

John Henry, 817-390-7539

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