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Outlying counties may be brought into Metroplex transportation plan

The people moving into Wise County are good news for Susie Lewis, who owns a shop on Decatur's town square.

"Business is getting better all the time. We've doubled our sales from this time last year," she said last week at her What Not Shop, where she rents space to a variety of vendors.

By the latest estimates, Wise's population has increased 29 percent since 2000, to about 63,000 from about 49,000. While it's good news for Lewis now, Wise County residents don't have to look far down the road to see the future: traffic gridlock brought on by tremendous growth, like their neighbors in Tarrant, Denton and Collin counties face.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments hopes to get ahead of the stampede in Wise and other outlying counties in the Metroplex. The agency, which helps local governments plan for growth, proposes to expand its transportation planning area to help coordinate road projects, deal with congestion, and develop other forms of transportation, such as rail service.

Being in the planning area would give the outlying cities and counties better access to matching grants for transportation projects.

A strong economy, good weather and a low cost of living continue to draw a huge number of people to the area, said council spokeswoman Lara Rodriguez.

"We're adding a million people every seven years to this region," she said. By 2030, 9.1 million people are expected to live in an area covered by Tarrant, Dallas and eight surrounding counties.

Most of the population growth over the next 20 to 30 years will be outside the region's center, said Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes. "Sixty percent of our growth is going to be out of the core area," he said.

The need is already evident to Ellis County Judge Chad Adams. Two years ago, he said, five or 10 cars were generally lined up at the U.S. 287 bypass and Farm Road 663.

Now, he said, "There are times when it is a mile long."

The proposal

The plan is to expand the council's transportation planning zone to reflect higher populations in outlying areas. Gov. Rick Perry's approval is required.

The zone, known as its Metropolitan Planning Area, covers Tarrant, Denton, Dallas, Collin and Rockwall counties, and much of Johnson, Ellis and Kaufman counties. The area also covers eastern Parker County and a tiny piece of southeastern Wise County.

The proposal would expand the area to cover all of Wise, Parker, Johnson, Ellis and Kaufman counties, and add Hood and Hunt counties.

Why expand the area?

The last expansion of the council's planning area was 1993. The key factors in deciding the boundaries include commuting patterns, growth rates and population densities.

■ Counties must have 30 percent or more of workers commuting to the five counties at the area's center.

■ Counties must have a population density of more than 100 people per square mile.

■ Cities and counties must project population growth rates of more than 50 percent between 2005 and 2030.

■ Current and expected traffic on major roads is at least 25,000 vehicles a day.

What are the benefits?

The Council of Governments provides cities and counties with:

■ Population and demographic information.

■ Help in getting federal funding for local projects.

■ Transportation and growth planning.

■ Employee training.

■ Coordination between governments.

Taxpayers in the new areas would see benefits over time, such as help in coordinating road construction and developing other forms of transportation such as mass transit, said Dan Kessler, assistant director of transportation for the council of governments.

"We're telling people it's doubtful we'll be able to fund all of your transportation needs," Kessler said. "But through planning, many of the problem situations will be addressed. You have to start the process and have a plan in place."

What others are saying

Thom Lambert, executive director of the Decatur Economic Development Corp:

"It will help us with long-range master planning for the county and around the city; we'll become part of their planning process."

Johnson County Judge Roger Harmon:

"New housing starts up here have been tremendous. The whole Burleson area has been very congested. The greatest thing that I see ... is the planning of highways."

Parker County Judge Mark Riley:

"We have an opportunity to get ahead of the curve. It is going to take rail and public transportation. There are other things we can start, like some type of bus transportation, with gasoline at $3 per gallon and into $4 it might be easier to commit some people."