Transit officials say they have enough money to begin building the planned TEX Rail commuter line from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport in July, and they remain on course to complete the work by late 2018 despite questions about federal funding for the project.
But if all that federal money — more than a half-billion dollars in all — doesn’t arrive before the start of the 2017 state legislative session in January, the long-awaited commuter rail project could face stiff opposition among some elected leaders who philosophically oppose the use of public dollars for passenger rail. Among them is state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville, who in recent months has repeatedly said that a project the size of TEX Rail — now estimated to cost more than $1 billion, including local funds — should not have been allowed to proceed without a countywide vote.
We’re going to all the transportation committee meetings to try and see what we can do to possibly stop this from going further.
TEX Rail opponent and state Sen. Konni Burton, R-Colleyville
Nonetheless, the president of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, the agency building the rail line, said he has no concerns about potential political roadblocks for the project and he is confident the federal money will arrive within months.
“The federal full-funding grant agreement is on target. It’s going to come,” authority President Paul Ballard said. “It’s just that the federal government requires so much detail. We just have to finish it.”
The 27-mile line would also serve North Richland Hills, Grapevine and a handful of other spots in Northeast Tarrant County — nine stations in all —where mass transit advocates have long held that public transportation is sorely lacking.
$1.034 billion Estimated cost of TEX Rail, a proposed 28-mile commuter train from downtown Fort Worth to Grapevine and DFW Airport.
Burton lives in Colleyville, where residents had a proposed train station in their city removed from the TEX Rail master plan. But those same residents are also frustrated that they can’t stop TEX Rail from passing through their city without stopping, on freight railroad tracks that have been there for decades.
Cities, counties and states have little control over railroad tracks, which are protected nationwide by federal interstate commerce laws.
Also, Colleyville isn’t a member of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority and doesn’t have a voice when the agency’s board makes decisions about commuter rail or any other transit projects. The transportation authority, also known as the T, operates mainly on sales taxes collected in Fort Worth, Grapevine and Richland Hills, but operates trains that run on tracks in other cities.
Burton said that she hasn’t settled on a strategy for fighting TEX Rail in Austin but that if the federal agreement isn’t finalized by the time lawmakers convene she will likely make some effort to delay the project. She has been perhaps the loudest voice opposing the project, saying it will do little to improve the environment, relieve North Texas traffic or improve mobility for the region’s low-income residents.
“It has been very aggravating. The government involved in this has so many different layers,” Burton said in a phone interview. “We are continuing to look at it from every angle. We’re going to all the transportation committee meetings to try and see what we can do to possibly stop this from going further.”
The federal full-funding grant agreement is on target. It’s going to come. It’s just that the federal government requires so much detail. We just have to finish it.
Paul Ballard, Fort Worth Transportation Authority president
Preliminary construction work on the TEX Rail corridor could begin as soon as July, after the transportation agency finishes structuring an agreement with its contractors, said Bob Baulsir, agency vice president of rail and procurement. The agency board could consider awarding construction contracts for the project Monday during the next monthly board meeting.
At first, residents will likely see mostly preparatory work, he said. For example, land will be cleared for train stations, including platforms and parking areas, he said. Also, construction staging areas will be cleared and maintenance facilities will be built.
The TEX Rail project includes replacing rails and ties for the entire 27 miles of the route, he said.
The total cost of TEX Rail is now estimated at $1.034 billion, after transit officials recently increased the figure by adding $38 million in contingency funds.
The T already has more than $400 million for TEX Rail, most of it from local sources. Some of the money has already been spent on consulting, engineering and design work, ordering rail cars that must be made by Switzerland-based Stadler (which is opening a facility in Salt Lake City where much of the assembly will take place) and acquiring property for train stations.
The cars have been ordered and will arrive in North Texas in January 2018 for almost a year of testing before TEX Rail is scheduled to open to the public, Baulsir said.
Of that $1.034 billion, about $536.9 million would be covered by federal funding, including $37.5 million TEX Rail has received and $150 million the Transportation Department has allocated through congressional budgeting but has not sent to North Texas. The remaining $349.4 million in federal funds must still be approved by the Transportation Department in a document known as a full funding grant agreement.
Locally, transportation planners are eager for the Fort Worth Transportation Authority to get construction going in July. The Regional Transportation Council voted in May to lend the TEX Rail project up to $80 million to ensure that construction continues through April, even if all the federal money isn’t in place. The loan, which would come from regional toll revenues, would be repaid with interest once federal money arrives.
The local funding for TEX Rail includes $162.6 million in Fort Worth sales taxes; $111.3 million in Grapevine sales taxes; $92.3 million in other local funds; $46.3 million in state funds; $40 million from Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, which is building a station near Terminal B; $25 million from the North Central Texas Council of Governments; and $20 million from Tarrant County.