TEX Rail is moving forward with plans to launch its commuter train service from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport by late 2018 after gaining a commitment for a half-billion dollars in federal money.
Officials announced Thursday that the U.S. government signed off on a long-awaited document known as a full-funding grant agreement with the the Fort Worth Transportation Authority for the proposed passenger rail line. It ensures that $499.39 million in federal grant money — roughly half the estimated $1.034 billion cost of building the 27-mile line — will be spent on the project.
Although the funds will come over several years, it’s unlikely that the change in administrations in Washington will affect the government’s role in the project, Federal Transit Administrator Carolyn Flowers said.
“In the history of these contracts, the federal government has not reneged,” Flowers said after attending a signing ceremony in downtown Fort Worth.
Local money has already been raised to cover the other project costs, mostly from sales taxes collected in Fort Worth and Grapevine. DFW Airport, which plans to build a TEX Rail station at Terminal B, has also contributed.
Flowers congratulated officials from Fort Worth, Grapevine and North Richland Hills for aggressively pursuing the project despite pockets of opposition from neighboring communities such as Colleyville, where many residents continue to oppose the rail route.
The trains are expected to operate about every half-hour during peak periods — 44 trains per day — and carry about 9,000 daily passengers by the end of its first year, and 14,000 by 2035.
“Those who lacked the vision will want to know when they can get a station in the future,” Flowers said, drawing laughs from about 200 people who attended the ceremony on the second floor of the Burnett Plaza building downtown. “We’ve seen it time and time again.”
Once TEX Rail is up and running, it will essentially double the amount of commuter rail service available in the Dallas-Fort Worth region. A similar service, the Trinity Railway Express, opened in 1996 and now connects the downtowns of Fort Worth and Dallas, with the route roughly following the Trinity River through Northeast Tarrant County and west and south Irving.
Dallas Area Rapid Transit also operates a comprehensive light-rail system in its service area.
All those services combined form the backbone of a regional transit system that supporters say will encourage future residents to live closer to urban centers, rather than continuing to move farther and farther to the fringes.
“Ten years ago, people said you’ll never get Bubba out of his pickup,” said North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino, a longtime TEX Rail advocate. “Well, the people coming here aren’t coming from Monahans and Pecos, Texas. They know about rail. They want rail.”
North Richland Hills is planning a mix of transit-oriented development around two stations at Iron Horse and Smithfield.
Long time coming
Thursday was a moment more than a decade in the making for officials at the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, the lead agency building the project. The organization’s president, Paul Ballard, who was brought in from Nashville nearly three years ago to ensure that TEX Rail got built, was quick to thank the project’s partners.
In particular, he gave a shout-out to officials at DART, whose predecessors beginning in the late 1980s spent millions of dollars buying up abandoned freight railroad right of way in North Texas to preserve the corridors for future passenger service.
“TEX Rail and other rail projects would not be possible without their foresight,” Ballard said.
Ballard’s board president, Scott Mahaffey, added: “This is a historic day for us. Great regions and great cities have great transportation.”
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said “the excitement in the air is palpable,” and she thanked Flowers for the federal agency’s work.
“Carolyn, you brought us a half-billion dollars,” Price quipped. “You’re a great Santa Claus.”
Others attending the ceremony included long-time Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate, whose city is already planning to build a downtown depot, boutique hotel and observation tower at its Main Street station.
Although the federal funding is now committed, North Texas won’t have immediate access to all the money. Funds will be reimbursed gradually, as local officials issue contracts for construction of new train stations and platforms, replacement of old railroad tracks and ties, a maintenance facility and other improvements.
In all, the money likely will be spread over about four years, Flowers said. The $499.39 million is a good chunk of the Federal Transit Administration’s capital investment grant program, which totals about $2.1 billion annually and provides cities nationwide with funding for heavy rail, light rail, streetcars, rapid buses and other transit services.
Although the full funding grant agreement ensures that the federal government will pay its share of the project, the money is subject to the whims of Congress on a year-to-year basis. It is possible that portions of the funding could be delayed by weeks or months or even a couple of years, depending upon what happens in Washington.
But locally, Fort Worth Transportation Authority officials said they have created a virtual safety net for their finances that makes it possible to borrow money if necessary to ensure that construction doesn’t stop.
Work has begun on portions of the project, using mostly local funds from Fort Worth and Grapevine, cities where residents have been dedicating sales tax revenue to the project for about a decade.
Self-propelled diesel cars made by Switzerland-based Stadler and assembled at a new U.S. plant in Salt Lake City, are expected to arrive by January 2018. The shells and other parts of those cars are expected to arrive at a port in Houston in the next few days and then will be shipped to Utah for final assembly, Ballard said.
Despite all those efforts, supporters acknowledge that it will take a mammoth effort to get the project open by Dec. 31, 2018, or sooner, although they have pledged to finish on time.
At the ceremony Thursday, Price invited everyone in attendance to return in two years for a repeat celebration. But instead of using a corporate meeting room, she said, the next party will be on the railroad tracks.