There are no underdogs in this year’s NCAA Final Four.
But as Connecticut, Florida, Kentucky and Wisconsin prepare for national championship weekend at AT&T Stadium in Arlington, the transportation system in North Texas may have a Cinderella story of its own.
With numerous sporting events, concerts and other crowd-generating activities taking place throughout Dallas-Fort Worth the next four days — and with many roads under construction — officials strongly recommend that residents and visitors alike use buses and trains to get around.
In particular, the Trinity Railway Express commuter line could be a smart option for fans to reach not only the Final Four games in Arlington but also the ESPN broadcast site at Sundance Square in Fort Worth, as well as events in Dallas, including concerts at Reunion Park and the Bracket Town attraction at the Kay Bailey Hutchison Convention Center.
“We’re using every vehicle we have available so that transit will be available for the various activities occurring in Fort Worth or for people returning to Fort Worth after attending events elsewhere,” said Joan Hunter, spokeswoman for the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, known as the T.
Even with the best-laid plans, Metroplex traffic can be wildly unpredictable. For example, on Thursday, a national coach of the year honor was awarded to Wichita State coach Gregg Marshall. But the Shockers’ coach was late to the ceremony because of congestion on the way to Arlington.
The beefing-up of transit options comes as North Texas prepares for one of its most festive and sports-intensive weeks ever. Besides the basketball games in Arlington, Texas Motor Speedway will host NASCAR’s O’Reilly Auto Parts 300 on Friday and its Duck Commander 500 on Sunday.
Area officials are also launching a 511 service that residents can call for frequently updated recordings. Callers will be given tips on which roads to use or avoid, and they will get the latest on parking in downtown Fort Worth and Dallas and in the stadium area in Arlington.
Electronic highway signs will also provide up-to-date information, including any warnings about crowds at the free March Madness Music Festival at Reunion Park in Dallas. If that show begins to fill up, officials plan to post messages on signs warning motorists that the concert gates are closed so they have time to turn back before arriving in downtown Dallas.
The status of the TRE as well as Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which is adding cars to its light-rail lines to accommodate crowds, will also be available at 511.
Lane closures delayed
To minimize problems on roads, most scheduled lane closures in areas leading to the potpourri of events are being postponed, said Bill Hale, a Dallas district engineer with the Texas Department of Transportation.
“Thousands of people will be visiting North Texas, many of them, for the first time,” Hale said in an email. “And TxDOT is doing its part to make sure our visitors enjoy their time here.”
There will be no main lane closures on the North Tarrant Express project on Texas 121/183, Loop 820 and Interstate 35W in Tarrant County, he said. And the high-occupancy-vehicle ramp at Interstate 30 and Baird Farm Road will be reopened for motorists heading to AT&T Stadium.
In the Grapevine area, the managed toll lanes known as TEXpress on Texas 114 will be opened to motorists for free during an introductory period. The Texas 114 corridor is a popular route for those heading to the speedway in far north Fort Worth.
In the Dallas area, the eastbound I-30 exit to Commerce Street is opening after a two-month closure, and the northbound I-35E frontage road between Reunion Boulevard and Commerce Street is opening.
To better manage traffic, police will close the Lamar Street ramp to westbound I-30 and I-35E, as well as the northbound I-35E frontage road between Hotel and Houston streets.
And in north Dallas, the LBJ Express and I-35E projects will not have main lane closures.
The Trinity Railway Express is adding trains to its schedule and will operate a full schedule Sunday.
Fans who wish to take the TRE to the Final Four can buy a transit pass for $10 a day or $30 for four days. With it, fans can ride the TRE to the CentrePort Station, near Texas 360 and Trinity Boulevard, where buses chartered by the NCAA will shuttle them to AT&T Stadium, Hunter said.
Only 4,000 Final Four transit passes will be sold to ensure that the bus and rail system isn’t overwhelmed, said Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. As of Wednesday night, about 1,700 had been sold.
Although anyone can ride the TRE with a day pass — for sale at any station — those who want to board the buses from CentrePort to AT&T Stadium must have a Final Four transit pass, sold through the GoPass mobile app.
On a typical weekday, about 7,500 riders board TRE trains, but much larger crowds can be handled. The all-time record TRE ridership was 27,499 — the day of the Mavericks’ parade in downtown Dallas after the team won the NBA championship in 2011, DART spokesman Morgan Lyons said.
For those attending ESPN’s setup at Sundance Square, the TRE stops just a few blocks away at the Intermodal Transportation Center in downtown Fort Worth.
And for those heading to concerts or Bracket Town in Dallas, TRE stops a short walk away at Union Station.
At AT&T Stadium, transit officials will also monitor taxi queues. If there aren’t enough taxis — which happened after the 2011 Super Bowl — officials have an emergency plan to shuttle some people to the CentrePort Station, where they can either take the train to downtown Fort Worth or Dallas or catch a cab, Morris said.
In downtown Fort Worth, the Molly the Trolley rubber-tire streetcar system will operate for extended hours, Hunter said.
T employees will monitor stations such as the Intermodal Transportation Center to ensure that train riders aren’t stranded after hours, Hunter said.
Airports are also bracing for extra activity.
At Alliance Airport in far north Fort Worth, the proverbial red carpet is rolled out for NASCAR drivers, their families and crews, and major race sponsors — many of whom fly in their own Learjets and Beechcrafts.
The activity typically peaks just after the last race Sunday — when up to 120 NASCAR-related aircraft are ready to fly out in about three hours.
Federal Aviation Administration officials take steps to ensure that the aircraft leave in an orderly manner, allowing them to take off in staggered fashion from both runways. That tactic is normally not needed at Alliance.
On a normal weekday, Alliance will experience up to 650 arrivals and departures. But on NASCAR days, it could have 1,000 plane movements, an FAA official has said.
At Arlington Municipal Airport, officials plan to use a new west parallel taxiway as a parking area for extra planes coming in for the Final Four, said Karen VanWinkle, airport manager.
“We will be expecting everything from Cessna 172s to chartered flights coming in for the Final Four,” she said.
On a normal day, the airport handles roughly 250 takeoffs and landings, she said.