CLEBURNE -- Next month, big changes are coming to the once-rural community that grew up around the railroad.
Dirt is expected to be turned on the long-awaited Chisholm Trail Parkway toll road project connecting Fort Worth to Johnson County. Cleburne officials say it will usher in a new era for their small city of almost 30,000 -- converting a community with rural roots into a more cosmopolitan place just a short drive from the big buildings and hectic pace of Fort Worth.
For the past five decades, most of the attention regarding the construction of the 28-mile toll road has focused on a stretch cutting through southwest Fort Worth. But residents at the other end of the road say the impact on their lives will be even greater when the toll road opens in 2014.
"We are excited. I believe [the toll road] will open up Cleburne to be a commuter city. Now, it takes an hour to get to Fort Worth, and the toll road will cut that in half," said Ron Lindsey, manager of the Liberty Hotel, which plans to build a new events center for weddings, dances and banquets. "It will benefit us to have that easy access" to the parkway.
City leaders believe that besides bringing new prosperity to Cleburne, the toll road will improve the lives of residents by easing congestion along Texas 174, where drivers must contend with at least 30 traffic lights if they want to go to Fort Worth, and diverting noisy tractor-trailers that now clog the streets around the historic courthouse.
The North Texas Tollway Authority also remains bullish about seeing the dirt fly on Chisholm Trail's southern section despite new projections that traffic and revenue will be much lower than originally forecast. Building the Johnson County portion costs less per mile than in the Fort Worth area because the land is cheaper and there are few barriers to cross.
"We are all geared up, and the timing is right," tollway authority Executive Director Allen Clemson said.
Portions of the project are already under way, including construction of a new bridge over the Union Pacific Railroad yard in west Fort Worth, the interchange with Interstate 20 in south Fort Worth and the connection to U.S. 67 in Cleburne.
Preparing for growth
The numbers are exciting, staggering -- and maybe a bit scary -- for folks in Cleburne.
City Manager Rick Holden said the population is expected to double by 2050, not an unreasonable goal since the latest census numbers show that the population increased by 12.8 percent, from 26,005 in 2000 to 29,337 in 2010.
Because of population growth during the past 10 years, Cleburne could be designated an urbanized area by the Census Bureau, making it eligible for additional federal funds for transportation and other services, said Linda Cherrington, a research scientist at the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University. Census officials are expected to make a determination by spring.
If Cleburne became an urbanized area, it would join Denton-Lewisville and McKinney, which are already separate urbanized areas near the Dallas-Fort Worth core.
Holden said he and others want to make sure that Cleburne is prepared for that growth. Officials are working feverishly on plans to annex land and on zoning requirements to give the city more control over its growth.
To lure the right businesses to the area nearest the toll road, the city is creating a tax increment financing district, or TIF, where the road will come through northwest Cleburne. The city is also applying for state funds to pay for waterlines and sewer lines.
Businesses are already showing an interest. Holden said a General Motors dealership -- The Mike Brown Group from Granbury -- plans to move to the area where the toll road will be built, creating at least 55 jobs. The dealership is the only business to have "actively" pursued property at this point, Holden said. But it is a "very credible retail source" that he hopes will act as a magnet for other businesses.
In making their plans, Cleburne officials met with leaders in Frisco, which saw an explosion of growth when the Sam Rayburn Tollway was built.
"We don't know yet if we will see that kind of growth in Cleburne, but we want to be prepared," Holden said. "We've got a great combination here, but we are on the edge of an explosion. We don't know how it will affect us yet."
Chisholm Trail Parkway has had to overcome numerous financial and political roadblocks to get this far, and it still faces tough challenges.
Recently released traffic and revenue numbers show that the project could generate $16.9 million less in 2015 and $21 million less in 2016.
New calculations also show that while southern Tarrant County and northern Johnson County are expected to grow through 2030, the region will experience infill growth in areas such as east Fort Worth, reducing the number of potential parkway drivers.
But North Texas Tollway Authority officials said they were ready to move forward with financing the $1.6 billion Chisholm Trail Parkway project in October, believing they can make up that shortfall by taking advantage of low interest rates and other bond market conditions.
Even though construction is going forward, Johnson County officials are holding their breath because the road has been on the back burner for so long.
The concept of a road cutting diagonally through southwestern Tarrant County and extending into Johnson County appeared on planning maps at least as far back as 1962.
But money was always the issue.
The project, while a popular idea for those who wanted to develop southwest Fort Worth residentially and commercially, lost the competition for funds with other area projects. In the 1960s, when officials on both the west and east sides of the Metroplex agreed to work together and build Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, their focus on spending transportation funds turned toward building new highways in Northeast Tarrant County.
In the 1980s, when the area was recovering from an economic slump, the focus shifted to the Alliance Airport area north of Fort Worth, where companies led by Hillwood Properties made significant private investments.
But many Fort Worth officials continued to push hard for the road, originally called Southwest Freeway and later renamed Southwest Parkway. They cited the need not only to open the southwest corridor for development but also to relieve traffic on overworked roads such as Interstate 35W.
In 1994, city and state officials began discussing speeding up the project by building it as a toll road. In 1998, Fort Worth, the Texas Department of Transportation and the tollway authority agreed to split the costs.
Often, the negotiations centered on building the northernmost eight miles, from Interstate 30 to Dirks Road in southwest Fort Worth, with the idea of adding the 16-mile southern portion connecting Fort Worth to Cleburne in a future phase. But Johnson County officials pressed for quicker work on the connection to Cleburne.
"I'll take a deep breath once the road bonds are sold. I'll totally believe it once it is constructed, because there have been so many delays," Johnson County Judge Roger Harmon said. "Hopefully, our economy will stay at a point where it won't be delayed anymore."
Harmon compared the impending arrival of Chisholm Trail Parkway to the importance of the Santa Fe Railway to the city's history.
"When the railroad left, people thought Cleburne would dry up and blow away, but it got other industries," Harmon said. "The construction of 121 will probably have an effect on Cleburne like the railroad."
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796