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TEX Rail gets $50 million in federal funds

After years of delays and controversy, supporters of a proposed TEX Rail commuter line from downtown Fort Worth to Grapevine finally got some good news Wednesday.

The line, which will extend to Terminal B at Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, was awarded a $50 million startup grant by the Federal Transit Administration.

“This is a true reflection of our partnership with the Federal Transit Administration and the diligent work of the T’s staff,” said Scott Mahaffey, chairman of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, also known as the T. “This is an important partnership milestone for the region.”

The money is far from what’s needed to complete the estimated $810 million project, which supporters hope can be running by 2017. Therese McMillan, deputy federal transit administrator, said TEX Rail and a few other public transportation projects are on course to be designated for full federal funding within about a year.

“The [TEX Rail] project sponsor has accomplished quite a bit,” McMillan said during a conference call with the Star-Telegram and other news outlets.

She also cautioned that all funding recommended by the Federal Transit Administration for fiscal 2015, which begins in October, is subject to appropriation by Congress. Lawmakers haven’t had a chance to formally weigh in on President Barack Obama’s proposal to spend $302 billion on transportation over the next four years.

If Congress approved less for transit, projects already underway would get priority over others, such as TEX Rail, she said.

The Transportation Department hopes to spend $2.5 billion next year on new rail and other transit projects nationwide.

“Some of them are new projects and some are nearly complete,” Transportation Secretary Anthony Foxx said. “But all of them will help build ladders of opportunity in communities across our country. Transit has the power to connect people to jobs, education, healthcare and to their communities.”

Although T officials were elated at the grant news, the amount represents only about an eighth of the $405 million in federal funding requested for TEX Rail — half the expected cost of laying new tracks, building stations, buying rail cars and making other improvements.

Critics have doubted for years that the project could qualify for such a large grant, given that dozens of U.S. cities are competing for the same federal money.

But TEX Rail was one of just seven new-start projects recommended Wednesday to begin receiving some level of new funding for a combined total of $578 million. The others are in Los Angeles; Orlando, Fla.; Cambridge, Mass.; and Portland, Ore.

The lion’s share of the federal money, $1.4 billion, was pegged for a few big-dollar projects already underway, including rail and other transit operations in Los Angeles; San Francisco; Denver; Charlotte, N.C.; and New York.

The TEX Rail project has been discussed in North Texas for more than a decade, and elected officials have expressed concern that the T isn’t moving fast enough. A little more than a year ago, the Fort Worth City Council replaced eight of nine T board members, saying it wanted to bring in new blood to speed up TEX Rail.

Tarrant County followed suit by replacing the ninth board member.

A year later, the new members still haven’t signed agreements with the railroads that own the right of way that TEX Rail would use — Dallas Area Rapid Transit, Union Pacific Railroad and Fort Worth & Western Railroad.

Also, a former Trinity Railway Express maintenance officer has gone public with concerns about the use of lighter rail cars for TEX Rail — cars that are known to have trouble making the electrical connection necessary to trigger crossing lights and gates and to help dispatchers track their whereabouts by computer.

Those problems aside, the T has completed several years’ worth of work on its environmental study for TEX Rail, and it is waiting for a federal “record of decision” on that aspect.

The next steps are final station design, new track work and purchase of rail cars, which takes about two years from order to delivery.

The T’s $50 million award is meant to cover TEX Rail construction costs, but it could also be used to reimburse the T or other state and local entities for expenses already incurred, McMillan said.

The T has spent millions on engineering and design but has mostly saved money and cobbled together funding from various sources to make up the local match, roughly $405 million, required to receive the same in federal funds.

The local half would come from a combination of sources, T Chief Financial Officer Rob Harmon said.

It would include roughly $200 million in sales tax contributions from Fort Worth and Grapevine, $120 million in state funds, $60 million in other unspecified federal grants and $20 million from Tarrant County.

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