Growth

Light rail, TEXRail extension and rapid bus lines: How Fort Worth could transform your commute

Stephen West stood on a platform at Fort Worth Central Station with his phone out, a large suitcase at his feet.

West, who owns a car but hates to drive, was frustrated. He needs multiple apps to plan and pay for trips around Dallas-Fort Worth and often has trouble getting where he wants to go. He wants more frequent service and more transit options — but most of all, he doesn’t want to sit in traffic, whether it’s in his car or in a ride share.

“I don’t think a lot of people understand how inept our transit system is,” he said.

Inept or not, bus service in Fort Worth is not always rider-friendly, said Chad Edwards, the city’s regional mobility and innovation officer.

Of Trinity Metro’s 48 bus routes, five carry 50% or more of the system’s weekday riders. That means the bulk of the system isn’t doing much to connect riders. Weekend service is even more sparse, with fewer routes and longer wait times.

That’s likely because service is infrequent on most routes. Only seven operate every 15 minutes — the ideal frequency to attract riders — and 33 routes end service by 6 p.m. This makes using the metro tricky for all sorts of riders, whether they’re trying to get to and from work, headed to the grocery store or riding for fun, he said.

Better transit is not just about improving bus service for current riders. It’s also about diminishing the number of cars clogging DFW freeways as the region adds more and more people. DFW motorists are losing nearly three days of their lives per year — 67 hours per motorist — stuck in traffic, according to a report by the Texas A&M Transportation Institute. Gridlock will only get worse as the region adds close to 100,000 people a year.

“The more people on a bus or using transit in general, the fewer people there are on the roadways,” Edwards said.

Trinity Metro and the city could do more to help riders, ease congestion and make public transit more appealing, according to a mobility consultant. The growth of Fort Worth’s transit system is at least two decades behind the city’s growth, and languishes behind other large Texas cities in ridership and funding.

According to a 2015 transit plan, a little more than $71 million went to Trinity Metro, then called ”The T.” That’s more than $75 million below the average for Texas’s five largest cities, which spend about $147 million on average, and well behind the $254 million spent on Dallas Area Rapid Transit.

Though the numbers are a few years old, Edwards said they likely haven’t changed significantly.

“Part of our challenge is making it useful and easy for people who are not familiar with transit,” he said. “We need to be a competitive option that makes people think about how they want to get around.”

Transit for the future

Geoff Slater, a transit expert with mobility consultant Nelson\Nygaard, laid out several ways Fort Worth and Trinity Metro could tackle the growing need for transit.

Without adjusting funding, incremental changes can be made to the system, he said.

Those include improving frequency on at least 12 routes, adding three rapid routes and extending TEXRail to the Medical District. The six transfer stations across Fort Worth would become “mobility hubs” where riders could connect to other modes of transportation, like ride and bike share. Small improvements to bus stops, like adding benches and shelters, could also draw in more riders.

This is the weakest option Slater outlined, and wouldn’t add services to match the rate of Fort Worth’s growing population, he said.

It wouldn’t include bus rapid transit — fast moving bus routes that have fewer stops and travel farther distances, often in dedicated lanes. It also would only modestly improve the frequency of bus service and would not address TEXRail extension to the southwest and the new Tarleton State University campus.

To catch up with the city’s growth, a more robust plan would significantly increase the frequency of bus service on at least 16 routes and extend TEXRail to the southwest. Bus rapid transit lines would include Interstate 35W to Denton as wells as AllainceTexas, west on I-30 and along Chisholm Trail Parkway.

The third scenario, described as what Fort Worth could do with robust funding to be a “visionary” transit city, features extensive changes.

This plan calls for two light rail routes down Lancaster/Camp Bowie and North Main/Hemphill. Those routes mimic historic streetcar lines. Rapid bus service service would be available along the length of Riverside Drive and Jacksboro Highway. At least 19 of the bus routes would have frequent service at 15 minutes.

Two other commuter rail lines would join an extended TEXRail line and the TRE. One would run south from downtown to Crowley while another would connect far southeast Fort Worth to downtown.

The city has not finalized the cost of each option, Edwards said, but it should have more details before a series of public meetings this fall. Costs also vary based on the type of transit. Light rail, like a streetcar, costs as much as $100 million per mile while a bus rapid transit line is close to $5 million, according to a Trinity Metro estimate.

The City Council briefly discussed the options Tuesday. Councilwoman Ann Zadeh called the modest option “a no brainer” and said she supported expanding services as much as possible. Other council members homed in on specifics they’d like to see in their districts, like a connection between the Northside TEXRail station and the Stockyards, which Councilman Carlos Flores has pushed. Councilwoman Kelly Allen Gray urged better transportation options near the rapidly evolving Texas Wesleyan Campus.

Funding

Absent from the conversation was talk of funding.

That’s the biggest hurdle, said Councilman Jungus Jordan, a former chairman of the Regional Transit Council who has worked on North Texas transit plans since 2005.

“There’s just not enough funding out there for all the needs,” he told the Star-Telegram.

The city could draw some funds by reallocating some of its 2 cent sales tax. Fort Worth collects a half-cent sales tax for transit, compared to a full cent in Dallas. But city commissioners have had little appetite in recent years to take money from the general fund or the Crime Control and Prevention District. The city could draw down federal and state transit dollars and partner with other cities.

Across the Metroplex, the North Central Texas Council of Governments has identified more than $136 billion in transportation needs, including roadways, rail and other transit modes.

There are other, more creative ways to fund transit projects, said Kevin Feldt, a project manager with the council of governments.

Train and other rail stations attract dense development, which drives up property tax revenue. Capturing some increased tax revenue in these areas and diverting the funds to transit has worked in other parts of the country, he said. Selling ad space and easements in rights-of-way can yield additional money.

Jordan said other Tarrant County cities will have to consider joining a regional system. The combined efforts of multiple cities spreads costs around and increases the likelihood of federal assistance, he said. Plus a regional system does more for commuters.

“At some point — I don’t want to get the cart before the horse, because we have a lot to do — it doesn’t really makes sense without regionalizing,” he said.

Feldt said now is the time for Fort Worth and other cities to act on improving transit. Not only will construction costs increase, but the amount of available land will decrease.

“The sooner you can do something, the better off you are,” he said. “If you wait for some perfect time it may never come.”

Trinity Metro today

Trinity Metro is already preparing to make significant changes, said Wayne Gensler, a vice president and chief operating officer.

The city allocated an extra $1.5 million in the 2020 budget. Part of that will go to starting a ZIPZONE, where bus riders can connect to a ride share service in the medical district. But the highest priority is redoing the app and rerouting buses.

Over the next year, the metro will study ridership and population data to determine how to reroute buses. If it finds pent-up demand on some routes, Gensler said, increasing bus frequency or service time are fairly easy.

“The routes haven’t been looked at in probably 40 years,” Gensler said. “We could make some fairly quick changes.”

This ridership study will help determine which aspects of the consultant’s scenarios make the most sense in both the short and long term, he said.

At the same time, Trinity Metro is working with DART to revamp the app used to purchase tickets and plan trips. Gensler said riders on either side of the Metroplex will be able to use one app that connects them to routes depending on their location.

Some small changes may also have big impacts on ridership. Trinity Metro has installed more than 100 bus shelters over the last year and a half and plans to install another 50 this year.

Back at the Fort Worth Central Station, Tamika Gamble was boarding the Route 11 bus to North Beach Street. She rides “everyday, everywhere,” she said, and complimented the clean, updated buses. But she wished routes like the 11 were more frequent. The weekday schedule switches frequency from a half hour to an hour between 10:15 a.m. and 3:15 p.m. and after 6:15 p.m.

“If you’re late by a minute you got to wait a whole hour,” she said. “I’ve got a lot of places to go.”

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Luke Ranker covers the intersection of people and government focused on Fort Worth and Tarrant County. He came to Texas from the plains of Kansas, where he wrote about a lot, including government, crime and courts in Topeka. He survived a single winter in Pennsylvania as a breaking news reporter. He can be reached at 817-390-7747 or lranker@star-telegram.com.
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