Establishment, newcomers clash over Fort Worth streetcars

The proposal to bring streetcars to Fort Worth is not only dividing the City Council and residents. It's also creating a growing conflict between the downtown establishment and the up-and-comers to the north and south.

The upstarts talk about self-determination and a new way of building urban villages. The old bulls worry about getting stuck with the bill and helping spur competing developments in the process.

Fort Worth takes pride in resolving disagreements behind the scenes and presenting a united front. So nobody is talking publicly about the clashes that played out Monday, when about 15 heavy-hitters met in two sessions, for almost six hours, to try to hash out their differences.

Skeptics, including leaders from Downtown Fort Worth Inc. and the Fort Worth Chamber of Commerce, insisted that they were just asking questions and vetting the numbers. Streetcar supporters, including the Trinity River Vision Authority and Fort Worth South, said that they felt ambushed and that the challenges were a pretense for killing the project.

Tempers flared, and some cautioned that the attacks were getting too personal.

The good news is that they compromised: to support keeping the process going, and to put off the yea or nay decision for another day.

The council should follow their lead on Tuesday, when it's scheduled to vote on the issue. And residents should keep this in mind if they go to the town-hall meeting at 7 tonight at the Fort Worth Convention Center.

On Tuesday, the council will not decide whether to start tearing up roads for a streetcar line. The vote is whether to complete the third phase of the streetcar study, which includes preliminary engineering, an environmental assessment and the final business plan.

That process may take nine months or longer, which provides time to address concerns from residents and businesses -- and gives fans a chance to win over opponents. After the study is finished, the council must still approve the funding for streetcars, even if they're covered by local tax financing districts, not the general fund.

So elected officials don't have to rush to judgment; they stand to get more information, and they hold the hammer on the local match. The only reason to vote no on Tuesday would be if the study's early work showed that a streetcar project isn't feasible. That certainly is not the case.

The consultant, HDR, estimated that the starter line would cost $58 million to $63 million, plus $25 million from a federal transit grant. The proposed line would circulate around downtown and run roughly one mile north along Main Street and one mile south toward John Peter Smith Hospital. HDR projects that the investment will generate almost $334 million in new residential and commercial development in 15 years, and almost triple that amount after 40 years.

HDR isn't estimating any revenue increase from sales or hotel taxes, so the numbers may be understated. As important, the consultant identified a way to pay for the line without tapping the city's general fund: The tax increment financing districts, or TIFs, in Fort Worth South and the Trinity River Vision have passed resolutions to pay for the installation.

The Fort Worth Transportation Authority has pledged to cover the operating costs for the first five years. But to satisfy federal requirements, a guarantor must be in place for at least 20 years. Funding could come from fares, sponsorships, advertising and other taxing entities that benefit from the streetcars.

That issue has to be addressed in the study's next phase, and it's one of the major concerns of Downtown Fort Worth Inc. and the chamber of commerce.

Will streetcars pay off in today's economy? Doesn't the city have higher priorities in transportation?

Officials from Fort Worth South and the Trinity River Vision Authority explained why they want to spend their TIF money on streetcars. They believe the impact will be great in attracting development and residents. And if the downtown TIF, which includes Sundance Square, wanted to put $47 million into leased spaces in parking garages, don't they have a right to bet on streetcars instead?

Leaders from Sundance, Hillwood, Tarrant County College, the T and the city staff were at the meetings. Some complained that the process was being rushed, that there wasn't enough due diligence or consensus-building, to meet deadlines for the federal grant. But city staffers believe that the grant is not in jeopardy as long as the city continues to move forward.

A Tuesday vote to continue the study buys more time to let things play out. Maybe the mayor and others can bring the sides together.

Ten months ago, two of the leading skeptics wrote glowing letters of support to the chief of the Federal Transit Administration. They were part of the package that helped the city win the federal grant.

"Fort Worth's streetcar network will be a strong catalyst for the types of walkable, high-density, mixed-use neighborhoods needed to attain the goal of a more sustainable future for our country," wrote Andrew Taft, president of Downtown Fort Worth, Inc.

The Fort Worth Chamber, wrote President Bill Thornton, would appreciate support for "this very important community project, which will improve economic opportunities for all residents and the sustainability of the region."

Those don't have to be empty words. Not if leaders want to make this work.

Mitchell Schnurman, 817-390-7821