New T board deals with same challenges building TEX Rail

01/04/2014 7:46 PM

01/04/2014 7:46 PM

It has been nearly a year since all nine Fort Worth Transportation Authority board members were summarily dismissed by city and county leaders unhappy with delays on building the TEX Rail commuter line.

Mayor Betsy Price and other leaders also said they were skeptical about whether the transportation authority, commonly known as the T, could evolve from a bus company into a 21st-century transportation provider.

But how much progress has been made since then?

“The new board is doing a great job,” Price said Friday, adding that she expects the City Council to get a full briefing from the new T board in the next couple of weeks. “There’s a steep learning curve for any board.”

The new chairman of the T board, Scott Mahaffey, says the agency is close to signing a handful of agreements that are crucial to ensuring that the first phase of the proposed TEX Rail project, a 27-mile rail line from downtown Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, gets built by 2017 — or shortly thereafter.

“We’re hoping to have some good news in the next few weeks,” said Mahaffey, a Fort Worth businessman. “There’s still some points of negotiation going on, [but] all the deal points are pretty much together.”

But the T still hasn’t signed several key agreements, several top officials have been forced out of their jobs but still haven’t been replaced, and the date for the start of TEX Rail keeps getting postponed.

And at least one Fort Worth council member admits that the new leadership’s struggles to get TEX Rail going just like the old T board makes him realize that the region may need to rethink its long-term commuter rail strategy.

“It’s not the time to pull the plug on TEX Rail, but we need to make sure it’s still the most viable route,” Councilman Jungus Jordan said. “I think we’ve got a board in place to tell us that.”

A tough first year

It hasn’t been an easy first year since the Fort Worth City Council replaced eight of the nine T board members Feb. 5, after weeks of discussion.

The T board’s ninth member, who is appointed by Tarrant County, was also replaced days later.

Less than six months after the overhaul, on July 31, T officials announced their plans to indefinitely postpone development of the southern 10 miles of TEX Rail, from downtown to the city’s medical district and TCU, so they could instead focus on getting the northern 27 miles of the route to Grapevine and DFW Airport built.

Yet the T still hasn’t signed an agreement with Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which owns most of the tracks that would be used by TEX Rail from DFW Airport to the Stockyards area. Also, the T still hasn’t inked a deal with Union Pacific Railroad to build a bridge over the Trinity River so the line can reach downtown.

Finally, a deal to allow Amtrak to run on the Trinity Railway Express line instead of the Union Pacific line in Arlington also hasn’t been signed. That deal became part of the TEX Rail project after Union Pacific, which doesn’t want Amtrak on its busy freight lines, requested it as a bargaining chip in the TEX Rail negotiations.

Meanwhile, the T also has lost personnel in several key positions.

The agency’s president, Dick Ruddell, announced his retirement in September, and a search for his replacement could continue through March, Mahaffey said.

“They’re getting a new director, and that will make a big difference,” Price said. “The interviews are promising. They will start very soon.”

Ruddell was criticized for a lack of experience in building a rail line and was partly blamed for the T not moving quicker in developing TEX Rail, although he also was widely credited with helping the T convert its administration into a regionally significant body.

Also, TRE chief operating officer Bill Farquhar resigned Jan. 7, 2013, after a disagreement with T officials over what kind of rail car to use on the proposed TEX Rail line. Sal DeAngelo, TRE chief mechanical officer, was laid off in September in what T officials say was a cost-cutting move.

Candidates are still being identified to replace Farquhar, said Rob Harmon, T chief financial officer and vice president of commuter rail. Whoever gets the job will be asked to perform both Farquhar’s and DeAngelo’s duties, which are being consolidated.

Postponed plans

Those who supported overhauling the T board say they have no regrets about the move, Jordan said.

“I’m very pleased with the aggressive approach the board has taken,” Jordan said. “I think they’ve taken a serious business look at the concept. They’ve made progress.”

In addition to Mahaffey, the new board members are: Vice Chairman Andre McEwing, manager of supplier diversity for Tarrant County College District; Carter Burdette, a Fort Worth attorney; Neftali Ortiz, a Lockheed Martin engineer; longtime private banker and member Jeff King; developer Ken Newell; former Fort Worth Councilman Jeff Davis; and Dennis Dunkins, a retired Fort Worth schools administrator.

The county appointee to the T board is Sylvia Cervantes, a former Richland Hills Economic Development Advisory Board member.

Jordan, who is leading the Fort Worth Council’s commuter rail planning efforts, said he still believes TEX Rail can be built on roughly its current schedule — by perhaps 2018, if not the previous goal of 2017. But Jordan said watching the new T board struggle like the old board has raised questions about whether the T’s goals for commuter rail are realistic.

The original plan was to extend TEX Rail 10 miles beyond downtown to southwest Fort Worth, but the T couldn’t reach an agreement with Fort Worth & Western Railroad to use its tracks through the area. That portion of TEX Rail has now been put off to a future phase.

The T’s experience has shown leaders that it may not be wise to plan a transit system on property that isn’t owned by the entities that wish to run it. It’s one reason why those leaders are enthusiastic about an unrelated proposal to build a high-speed rail line on Interstate 30 right-of-way, which is already owned by the Texas Department of Transportation.

The struggle to use the railroad tracks north of downtown Fort Worth — tracks owned by Dallas Area Rapid Transit — also has raised questions about whether DART and the T are regional partners, or rivals.

The DART board in May agreed in principle to terms for allowing the T to use its tracks — formerly the old Cotton Belt Line. The terms included the T paying roughly $18.5 million for the rights and selling its undivided half-interest in three Dallas County properties that have been jointly owned by DART and the T for several years.

One of the properties is a 4.8-mile rail line along the Madill corridor, leading from the TRE corridor in south Irving through Carrollton — an area where DART would like to extend passenger rail. The other two properties are next to Valley View Lane and Rock Island Road in Irving.

The T’s lease of the Cotton Belt tracks would be for 44 years, with an option for 35 more. The T also agreed to pay for a railroad bridge over Texas 114/121 in Grapevine to make room for extension of the passenger rail service.

But those tentative terms have been on the table for months, and officials have declined to provide specifics when asked why the negotiations haven’t moved forward.

The old board

Former T board Chairman Gary Cumbie declined to reveal his thoughts on the subject, nearly a year after he was dismissed.

“I think I'll just kind of sit on the sidelines and let others decide what they think,” he said in a phone interview last week. “I am hoping for the best. I would love to see TEX Rail completed and other services move forward.”

Cumbie said he hadn’t kept in close touch with other former board members, but occasionally runs into some of them at civic events.

In addition to Cumbie, former board members are Maurice E. Barnes, Steve Berry, Mike Brennan, Gary Havener, Jesse Martinez, Rosa Navejar, Jeff Ritter and Janet Saltsgiver.

“The board we had was a good bunch of people working well together and trying to bring about the things that needed to happen not only with TEX Rail, but other things,” he said. “But I wish the new group well.”

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