Fort Worth road repairs may be delayed for years

Two years ago, Mayor Mike Moncrief stood at North Beach Street and Shiver Road and made a pitch: If voters would approve a $150 million bond package, the intersection would be widened.

Today, that stretch of North Beach is still a two-lane bottleneck.

Residents in far north Fort Worth are growing angry at the slow progress on road construction and feel that the city is giving them short shrift. City officials say the real culprit is Fort Worth's explosive growth in the early 2000s, compounded by the recession.

It may take until 2015 to fix some of the roads that the city promised to fix, and there's no short-term solution to the lack of funds.

"You want to just throw your hands up and scream," said Colleen Demel, executive director of the North Fort Worth Alliance, which represents 18,000 homes in 21 neighborhoods.

Since 2004, the city has announced plans to borrow $604.7 million to pay for roads, city buildings and other infrastructure. Voters have approved bond issues for $273.5 million and $150 million in 2004 and '08, respectively. The City Council has also authorized two rounds of certificates of obligation -- a type of debt that doesn't have to be approved by voters -- for $153.6 million and $27.6 million.

City officials announced in the summer that nearly a quarter of those funds -- $147 million -- wouldn't be spent on time. Projects scheduled to be finished this year would be pushed to 2011. Others would be delayed as late as 2015.

The culprit was the recession -- property tax revenue dropped faster than expected, so the city couldn't borrow as much money as planned.

The slowdown will affect road projects all over. However, Randle Harwood, who heads the city's project management office, and residents say far north Fort Worth, roughly north of Loop 820 and east of Interstate 35W, will be affected more than most other areas. It has more "leapfrog development" -- subdivisions built without adequate road access.

'An urgent need'

Still, Harwood said, the bigger issue is the economy.

"Our capacity isn't as great as it used to be, so we had to push some stuff out -- we didn't change the priority," Harwood said. "Certainly there's an urgent need there. ... . We're getting to them as quickly as we possibly can."

Far north Fort Worth residents aren't so sure. They point out that downtown projects have already gotten their share of funding, while roads for their area have languished.

"I pretty much guarantee it went to the Trinity River Vision bridges, which is exactly what we said would happen," said Shirley Gansser, who analyzed the city's financial data for the North Fort Worth Alliance.

Residents' concerns about the Trinity River project prompted Moncrief to make his appeal in 2008.

The alliance wanted the city to split the bond election into two propositions, one for roads and one for the Trinity River bridges. Moncrief appealed to voters to support the whole package, and it passed with 68 percent of the vote.

Forty-two percent of the funding -- $63.7 million -- from the 2008 bond election has been spent, according to city figures. But only $1.2 million has been spent in far north Fort Worth, where it was supposed to widen arterial streets, according to Gansser's analysis.

There have been other changes, too. The amount dedicated to "unspecified projects" has been increased in some of the debt issues, Gansser's analysis shows.

"What's 'unspecified?' I've never driven on that road," Demel said.

'Balancing act'

There has been some progress -- a section of Beach has been completed near Golden Triangle, eliminating a detour that had existed for years. And Keller-Hicks Road has been widened near two Keller schools at a spot where schoolchildren had been hit by cars while walking to school.

Sal Espino, whose district includes the Trinity River project and far north Fort Worth, said the city funded the bridges to get federal matching funds. He said officials are doing all they can to build roads.

"You can do central city projects and you can do neighborhood projects -- it's a difficult balancing act," Espino said.

Susan Alanis, the city's planning and development director, said the larger problem is that Fort Worth doesn't invest enough of its budget in road construction.

A consultant, Willdan Financial Services, last year recommended two fixes: devoting more of the property tax to debt service, which would allow the city to borrow more for construction, or creating a dedicated fee for roads that would be added to property owners' water bills.

Neither approach is a slam dunk. There's not a lot of support on the City Council for increasing the overall tax rate, so the only way to devote more money to debt service would be to cut programs from the general fund.

The advantage to a street fee is that it would be dedicated to construction and harder to divert to other priorities, Alanis said.

"It would be unlikely that we'd have any type of a fee before spring 2011," she said. "We've got a lot of work to do."

MIKE LEE, 817-390-7539