Honkin' Mad

Why Fort Worth (probably) can’t have a TEXRail system as large as Dallas’ DART trains

The popularity of Fort Worth’s new TEXRail commuter train system has prompted many residents to call for a comprehensive commuter rail system that takes people to more corners of Tarrant County.

Some North Texans point to Dallas’s extensive DART light-rail system, and wonder why Fort Worth can’t have something like that.

The answer isn’t just about money.

True, Fort Worth’s Trinity Metro transit system operates on a much smaller budget because only a half-cent sales taxes is collected for transit in the Fort Worth area, compared to a full 1 penny sales tax in the Dallas area.

But a more important reason has to do with right-of-way. Fort Worth doesn’t have the space to build new rail lines — not, at least, without tearing down lots of existing private property (which local transit officials say they don’t want to do).

“If you think about it, railroads have to have the right-of-way in order to run,” said Bob Baulsir, Trinity Metro senior vice president. “It limits us to where we can be.”

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit light-rail system now has 93 miles of track, and is one of the largest systems in the western United States.

Here’s why:

From the late 1980s through the 2000s, DART’s board of directors bought up more than 120 miles of freight tracks that were being abandoned by railroads, who had recently been deregulated by the federal government and were going through a period of corporate consolidation.

DART used a combination of cash from sales tax revenue and federal transit grants to buy the railroad right-of-way, DART board member Paul Wageman of Plano said. The DART light-rail system — which opened in 1996 — was able to expand quickly and methodically as additional money became available to build new stations, lay modern tracks and extend overhead electrical lines to power the trains.

“An extensive rail system was always part of the regional vision for DART,” agency spokesman Morgan Lyons said in an email. “As such, DART Boards and executive leadership stayed focused on assembling the resources needed to fulfill the vision.”

For example, in April 1988 DART bought 34.28 miles from Southern Pacific Transportation Co. In September 1990, DART bought 32.01 miles from Union Pacific (for today’s Trinity Railway Express line). In September 1995, DART purchased 11.4 miles from the Atchison, Topeka & Santa Fe Railway Co.

Today, DART’s light rail map looks like a rainbow-colored spider web, with train lines connecting downtown Dallas to the city’s Oak Cliff area, Rowlett, Plano, Richardson and many other places.

Map of DART light-rail stations Courtesy Dallas Area Rapid Transit

Fort Worth also has a spider web-like network of railroad lines, but most of them are extremely busy with freight train traffic operated by Fort Worth-based BNSF Railway Co. and Omaha, Neb.-based Union Pacific Railroad.

Part of the problem was timing. While the freight railroads saw little use for many of the old right-of-way in Dallas, they never stopped using most of the Fort Worth-area tracks.

There are some expansion plans in the Fort Worth area that seem realistic.

For example, Trinity Metro is already working on a plan to extend TEXRail a few miles south to a planned station at the medical district, as well as West Berry Street near Texas Christian University — although that plan requires permission from the Fort Worth & Western Railway, which controls the tracks.

When the first 27-mile portion of TEXRail was being planned, it was stalled for years by negotiations with Fort Worth & Western, Union Pacific and DART. (The latter owns the Cotton Belt line, which runs from the Fort Worth Stockyards to Wylie.)

Trinity Metro also will look to other transit options, such as building park-and-ride lots and bus rapid transit lines to areas where there is demand for public transportation, but not rail right-of-way, Baulsir said.

Jeriat Gillum, a Fort Worth resident who describes himself on Twitter as an architect in training, posted his version of what a TEXRail regional rail network would look like if Trinity Metro had right-of-way on about 10 sets of area freight railroad tracks.

His art work looked just like a subway map, with color-coded rail lines connecting downtown Fort Worth to Denton, Keller, Mansfield, Cleburne and Lake Worth. For many, it’s a vision for what Fort Worth’s transit system could some day look like.

Many others commented on Gillum’s tweet, expressing support for his concept, although some on social media cautioned that rail expansion in Fort Worth is likely years away.

“The waiting (and hoping),” Gillum responded on Twitter, “is the worst part...”

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.