Fort Worth

When will this tunnel connecting downtown Fort Worth to the South Side be complete?

A tunnel at Hemphill and Lamar streets under I-30 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks is scheduled to be completed in 2020.
A tunnel at Hemphill and Lamar streets under I-30 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks is scheduled to be completed in 2020.

Ever since the railroad tracks came through the middle of Fort Worth in 1876, city leaders have been trying to find ways to reconnect two severed neighborhoods — downtown, and the Near South Side.

The latest effort is connecting Hemphill and Lamar streets with a tunnel going under Interstate 30 and the Union Pacific Railroad tracks. The project has endured multiple delays over the years because of rising construction costs and a lack of sufficient funding.

But work finally began last year. And now, city officials say they’re comfortable that the Hemphill-Lamar tunnel is on course to be completed by spring 2020. Workers have already completed much of the underpass entryway on the south side of the project.

The task on the north side is a bit more complicated, with crews digging under one of the busiest freeways in the Metroplex, as well as what has traditionally been one of the busiest railroad main lines in the United States.

“We are trying to restore the grid in places where we have done things that cut off the grid,” said Councilwoman Ann Zadeh, whose district includes both neighborhoods. “This is a really complicated project, with a whole lot more moving parts than most people can think of.”

Once completed, the Hemphill-Lamar tunnel will provide a fourth underpass-style passageway between downtown and the Near South Side. The others are at Main Street, Jennings Avenue and Henderson Street.

The Main Street and Jennings Avenue tunnels have walkways, but they are encased in concrete, dark and often littered with trash, leaves and other debris. Henderson is a long walk between the two neighborhoods, and is clogged with vehicle traffic.

Other than those dark passageways, there aren’t many ways to get from downtown to the Near South Side.

To the west, an overpass connects Summit and Eighth Avenues. And to the east, Lancaster Avenue and Vickery Boulevard are connected by the Interstate 35W frontage road, although that road is mostly used by motorists trying to gain access to a handful of businesses along the freeway, or to the freeway itself.

The Hemphill-Lamar tunnel will be more than just another connection for drivers, Zadeh said. It will provide safety features the other area crossings are lacking.

The Hemphill-Lamar tunnel will feature a more open design, with more use of natural lighting complemented by electrical light.

“Whether you are driving, riding a bike or walking — whatever form of transportation — this will be the most pleasant path to take,” she said, adding that the tunnel project includes modern lighting and wide pedestrian and bike lanes.

The entrance to the tunnel also will feature lighted public art sculptures, including one with a wave of longhorn shapes seeming to emerge from the tunnel like birds.

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In the late 1990s, when Interstate 30 was relocated south of downtown and Lancaster Avenue was freed up for redevelopment, part of the agreement included building this tunnel connection, said Mike Brennan, planning director for the nonprofit Near Southside Inc. That I-30 project was completed in 2003.

Brennan said the Hemphill-Lamar tunnel connection is vital to economic development and transit improvements in the area.

“Hemphill is one of the spine routes for Trinity Metro’s bus system,” he said. “Buses go down Hemphill every 15 minutes.”

Ballooning costs

Overall, the cost of the Hemphill-Lamar tunnel exceeds $53 million, according to Downtown Fort Worth Inc.

The inability to get the project started was a source of embarrassment for the city, where voters in 2004 approved bond funding for it. Originally, the project was expected to cost $26.6 million, but over the years costs ballooned.

In 2015, the city held a groundbreaking ceremony, but the project was again postponed.

Finally, last year the Fort Worth City Council accepted $23 million from Tarrant County and the North Central Texas Council of Governments (the Dallas-Fort Worth region’s official planning body) for the project.

The project also required cooperation from the Union Pacific Railroad, which built temporary tracks known as “shoo-flys” to make way for the project.

“As of earlier this month, we have completed the temporary tracks (or shoo-fly’s) for our four lines that run through this area,” railroad spokesman Jeff DeGraff said in an email. “Currently, we are assisting the city’s contractor while they continue work on the bridge structure itself, by providing rail safety oversight and protection. Per the time lines from the contractor, we anticipate connecting the first two rail lines on the new bridge in the fall, and the remaining two sometime after the first of the year.”

This report includes information from the Star-Telegram archives.

Envision Hemphill members take a walking/cycling tour as part of the project, which aims to revitalize the major south-side street.

Gordon Dickson: 817-390-7796; @gdickson
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