Late at the Station
Transit may be making a long-delayed stop in Cowtown.
By DAN MCGRAW
Reby Cary is old enough not to care much about political correctness or about the old Fort Worth mantra that you’ll get your deal eventually if you keep quiet and smile in the background. The former Texas legislator, retired real estate broker, and Democrat-turned-Republican, an African-American who has lived through plenty of social change, knows how the system works, but he’s a bit weary of smiling and waiting.
Cary, 85, a board member of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T), shakes his head about how decisions are being made about public transit in Tarrant County these days. “All I know is there are certain areas of town that have been neglected for a long time, and we all know why,” Cary said. “The improvements always go west or to the far north, but never east. The areas that really need it are always the last ones to get anything, if they get anything at all. You can call it racism, or straight rich business interests, or whatever you want. But after a while you just get tired of it all.”
What’s burning Cary up these days are some plans The T is working on. With gas prices hovering around $3 a gallon, I-35W turning into a long-term parking lot, and Fort Worth’s sprawl spawning new traffic headaches every few months, mass transit options are getting more attention around here now than perhaps any other time in the past few decades. First on the list for The T and other government agencies is a commuter rail line that will run from southwest Fort Worth into downtown and then out to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, via the Cotton Belt freight tracks.
Cary has a lot of questions about why this $300 million project has gone to the top of the local list. “Don’t we already have a commuter rail line that goes from downtown out to the airport?” he asked, referring to the Trinity Railway Express, which does not go directly to the airport but does stop a few miles south of the terminals and provides connections to the gates by bus.
Cary would rather see The T (which operates the Trinity Railway Express jointly with Dallas Area Rapid Transit) just put in a short extension of the TRE directly to the airport and use the rest of the $300 million to build a commuter rail line that would run through southeast Fort Worth, stop at Texas Wesleyan University, provide access to the Arlington sports arenas and amusement parks, and then continue on to Dallas. That project, he said, could be a triple threat, enticing Arlington to get on board with mass transit, providing transportation to the people who need it most, and also providing economic development to the part of town that needs that the most.
The arguments over what kind of public transit facilities Fort Worth needs — new bus lines? regional commuter rail? old-fashioned streetcars? light rail? — and where they should go aren’t likely to be solved simply. But the fact that there is serious discussion going on here about new mass transit options is itself a major change for Fort Worth, which has been avoiding the issue for decades. Now, however, excruciatingly high gas prices, filthy air, and clogged freeways are finally forcing city and county political leaders to think about mass transit that consists of something more than buses for poor people.
“You can’t have a world-class city without world-class transportation,” said Fran McCarthy, president of the Fort Worth real estate firm Daedelus Development and chairman of the Fort Worth City Council’s Central City Redevelopment Committee. The panel is working on an advisory study for the city advocating light rail plans.
“The gridlock will become worse and worse,” McCarthy said. “If we don’t start acting now on alternative transportation, we’ll be behind the curve. Actually, we’re already behind the curve.”
That’s an understatement. By this point, Fort Worth is running so far behind in the transit race that the region’s ability to snag federal funding for transit projects may have been seriously hurt. In the past decade, other southern cities that developed in the automobile age have built more and more rail lines and other mass transit options and are standing in front of Fort Worth in a long line. When DART began applying for federal funds for its light rail programs in the early 1990s, there were several dozen cities looking for mass transit money. Now, according to the Federal Transit Administration, 260 cities are in competition for that funding, and the agency is cutting back the percentage of a project that it will pay for.
One of the key criteria in getting federal money for mass transit is the availability of local matching funds. There, too, Fort Worth is hamstrung. The T gets sales tax money from only two cities in Tarrant County, meaning there’s little available for new transit projects. And with most projects taking 10 years or more to complete, it may be well into the next decade before Cowtown sees any mass transit expansion.
Still, Fort Worth really has few other options. The federal government — despite major foot-dragging by Washington — is eventually going to withhold highway funds for those cities that do not clean up their skies. The American Lung Association ranks Dallas-Fort Worth No. 8 on the list of most ozone-polluted metropolitan areas in the United States. If you think that the air quality problem in the Metroplex is all Dallas, think again. The study ranked Tarrant County as the 11th most ozone-polluted county in the country, outranked in Texas only by Harris County. And while things like power plants and cement kilns contribute mightily to the browning of North Texas skies, no one disagrees that automobiles are far and away the largest culprit.
Michael Morris, the North Central Texas Council of Government’s director of transportation, said the region must plan and carry out new mass transit project to reduce car emissions — or face the loss of $400 million in federal funding.
“People will use mass transit if it is reliable and gets them to where they want to go” without major complications, Morris said. “What we are finding in our transportation plans is that mass transit options are more cost-effective than building a freeway lane. What this region has to do is get public support [for transit]. Because if we don’t, everything will get much worse.”
But choosing a program and a place to put it are tough political decisions. The biggest question is who benefits — and how to get the affluent as well as the poor to take the bus or the train or the streetcar. The existing bus system is designed mostly to get poor people where they need to go, not to get people from all over town to jobs all over town. Is Fort Worth’s greatest need a light-rail line running from downtown to the Cultural District or a commuter freight line going through southeast Fort Worth?
Cary and others want the city and county to make mass transit a top priority and get a new system built as quickly as possible. Cary is forming a task force of political and business leaders and will bring the issues to the table at this week’s T board meeting. “It shouldn’t take 10 years to get any of these programs running,” he said. “I am getting congressional leaders and local politicians on board.”
Fort Worth has to slice through all the “government layers that just study things,” he said. “It is obvious we need to make some investment in mass transit, and it needs to get moving now. If The T doesn’t want to do it, we’ll do it ourselves.”
At one time, Fort Worth had lots of light-rail lines and buses running through the city. In 1877, the city’s first mule-drawn rail car began hauling people around, but the Fort Worth Daily Democrat opined that the city was already behind the times. “Fort Worth has hardly a mile of street railway for its 8,000 inhabitants,” the paper noted. By the early 1900s, electricity had replaced the mule, and the Fort Worth Record and Register noted in 1907 that 56 streetcars passed by Third and Main streets downtown every hour.
By the 1930s, buses were replacing the trains, and the city’s growth was following a different pattern from northern cities with established public transportation systems. In places like Chicago and Boston, mass transit was built on the hub-and-spoke system centered on downtown. As southern cities like Fort Worth grew in the ’70s and ’80s, downtown ceased to be the hub, and highways became the more efficient way of negotiating the sprawl.
But now, with more dense, inner-city growth taking place, many cities are re-evaluating old systems of mass transit. Electric streetcars are being looked on as urban development tools, while commuter rail like the TRE is seen as an efficient way to use freight lines. Rapid bus service, with fewer stops and a dedicated bus lane, is being used as a cheaper version of rail, but with many of the same results.
Dallas jumped on the transit wagon in the 1990s, and the public transportation system there is now startlingly different from Fort Worth’s. About 22,000 people ride The T’s buses each day. DART’s light-rail system, which serves a much larger population area, has a daily ridership of 218,000. The T receives funding from a half-cent sales tax in just two of the 42 cities in Tarrant County (Fort Worth and Richland Hills) and has an annual budget of $47 million. DART, with a one-cent sales tax in 13 cities, has a budget of $753 million. In effect, DART has the matching money required to get major federal grants and The T doesn’t. What’s more, major developments are now occurring along light-rail lines, as a more urbanized population begins to make accessibility to mass transit a factor in choosing housing, jobs, and entertainment.
DART just received a $700 million federal grant to build a new light-rail line from the southeast part of the city through the Fair Park area and west to Irving and DFW Airport. The T’s $31.5 million in federal grant requests this year would pay for bus shelters, a transit plaza downtown, park-and-ride lots, rail maintenance, and disability transportation.
At the Intermodal Transportation Center in downtown Fort Worth, it’s quite obvious that — except for nights when trainloads of fans head for Dallas Stars or Mavericks games on the TRE — most of those using The T are doing so because they have to. Harold Johnson, who lives in the Evans-Rosedale area and works at a restaurant on the near West Side, said it takes him about an hour to get to work. With a car, it would take 15 minutes or less.
“I have to use [The T], because I can’t afford a car right now,” Johnson said. “It takes a lot of time. The worst part is that if I work nights, I have to get a ride home or call a cab, because the buses stop running at 10:30 p.m.”
At a gas station on the West Side, Toby Taylor is filling up his Acura’s tank and ringing up a bill of $37. He has never ridden The T and can’t think of any reason he might. Taylor works in Arlington at a marketing firm, so getting to work via mass transit is out of the question. But even taking the bus from his home in Arlington Heights to downtown doesn’t make much sense.
“I can get downtown in five minutes by car,” Taylor said. “Parking is not a big problem, either. The gas prices are just getting crazy, but I’m not going to ride a bus downtown if it takes me more than a half-hour.” He might consider using a faster light-rail line to go from the Cultural District to downtown, Taylor said, but that still wouldn’t give him the flexibility for running errands that a car does.
Such is the chicken-and-egg conundrum for Fort Worth. Unless The T can convince the working middle class to get out of their cars, the agency may never get community backing for mass transit. But with limited resources, it’s tough to justify building a rail system to serve those middle-class neighborhoods and bid for their support.
Some business leaders are now pushing the city to look at light rail as a transportation option for the increasingly urbanized population moving into Fort Worth. Light rail is far more expensive than buses or a commuter rail system run on existing freight lines. The light-rail tracks and overhead electric lines for these modernized “streetcar” systems cost anywhere from $15 million to $30 million per mile.
Fort Worth had planned a light-rail starter kit in the late 1990s, three lines to connect downtown with Texas Wesleyan, the Cultural District, and the Stockyards. The system would have cost $165 million to build, including federal and city funds.
In June 2002, the city council passed a resolution endorsing the proposal and got a commitment from then-U.S. Rep. Martin Frost to shepherd the federal funding component. But problems arose. Consultants said the absence of confirmed local funding and the fact that the lines couldn’t be shown to reduce travel times made Fort Worth’s proposal unattractive to the feds. The Federal Transit Administration also wanted to see high-density housing and mixed-use developments in the areas being connected by the light rail. Since the downtown housing boom wasn’t very far along and the city hadn’t adopted its mixed-use “urban village” initiative, the obstacles seemed daunting.
The city had spent $1 million on the study, but a new mayor and council elected in 2003 decided not to pursue the project. Mayor Mike Moncrief, who was elected that year, did not return calls for comment on why the city shelved the light-rail plans. Fort Worth City Planning Director Fernando Costa said “there were some financial and zoning issues the city had to deal with, and council just decided to go in a different direction.”
Former city council and T board member Cathy Hirt said the light-rail proposal was driven by former Mayor Kenneth Barr and fizzled after he left. “Mayor Barr had a real interest in studying transportation,” Hirt said. “I don’t think anyone on council has that type of background now. I don’t think they are trying to defeat mass transit, but Mayor Barr had a strong focus on these plans and could see their future importance to the community.”
When Moncrief came in, the emphasis changed from light rail to the much-cheaper commuter rail plans that would use freight lines. The decision was based on the feeling that a system connecting downtown Fort Worth with the airport, Dallas, Denton, Arlington, and the southwest corridor would be a better use of funding. The idea, in other words, was to improve the system of carrying people from other places to Fort Worth — not to help people get around within the city. Fort Worth neighborhoods would have to continue to rely on The T’s buses.
Some city leaders and real estate developers see major flaws with that plan. Train stations on freight lines don’t encourage neighborhood economic development, just parking lots for riders, they believe. And if there is no connecting transit system to get visitors around downtown once they get here, they are less likely to come in the first place.
“The plans are mainly for visitors from Dallas or people coming from the airport,” said Phillip Poole, president of Townsite, Inc., a local real estate development consulting firm. “When they get here, they just see a bus system which doesn’t work very well. And for whatever reasons, these people aren’t going to get on buses. So we must have other mass transit tools in the toolbox, ways to get neighborhood people off the road, and ways to get these people who use the commuter line to keep using the public transit once they get here. Otherwise, they are transit-trapped.”
Light rail is now the fastest-growing mass transit trend in the United States. After San Diego built the first new light-rail system of the 20th century in 1981, another 28 U.S. cities followed suit, largely due to the federal government’s encouragement. Nationwide, light-rail trips have increased by about a third in the last decade, according to the American Public Transit Association. The Bush Administration has earmarked a record $9 billion for mass transit next year.
But critics argue that light rail is “transit for the rich,” costing five to 50 times as much as buses. Ted Balaker, transportation analyst for the Reason Foundation, a libertarian think-tank, wrote last year that, “The chief argument for public transit is that it’s necessary for those who can’t afford cars. But many cities tailor their transit services to those who need them the least. The desire to entice rich people — commonly called “choice” riders — is a big reason why pricey light-rail lines have broken ground in so many cities and why more than two dozen cities are angling for federal funds to build more.”
NCTCOG and The T have several plans to increase transit service in Tarrant County, but none of them include light rail. The Cotton Belt line, to run from southwest Fort Worth out to the airport, has been given the highest priority. A rapid bus line is next on the list, providing service from downtown to Loop 820 on East Lancaster Avenue. A “special event” train out to the Texas Motor Speedway might be developed for race days. Last on the list is the southeast commuter rail line connecting Fort Worth with Arlington and eventually Dallas — the project that Reby Cary thinks should be first in line.
The Cotton Belt line would cost about $300 million, and local leaders are hoping federal programs will pay half. Tarrant County voters approved a bond issue last week that would put $20 million into the Cotton Belt line to pay for new bridges and fix highways the train would cross. The rapid bus line would be much cheaper, though new lanes on East Lancaster might put the cost at $50 million or more. The other commuter trains on freight lines have similar costs to the Cotton Belt — though costs will only go higher the longer these plans sit on the drawing board.
Neither light rail like DART’s nor electric streetcar lines are being considered at this time by The T or NCTCOG due to their high costs. But some think the city should build its own streetcar line and see how it works.
“It doesn’t matter where the [light-rail] starter is,” Southside developer McCarthy said. “But right now, you can’t use mass transit to really go anywhere in the city. We need commuter rail lines, but we also need to connect neighborhoods with downtown and other high-density areas, and light-rail lines can do that. This also fosters a sense of community, because people from all different backgrounds will be using it.”
Paul Paine, president of Fort Worth South, Inc., said the high concentration of people living and working downtown, in the hospital district, and in the Cultural District make those prime areas for streetcar lines. He acknowledged that a streetcar system costs more, but said it also has higher benefits.
Fort Worth “wants to encourage higher-density urban development, but the people who move into the central city also want to use their cars less,” Paine said. “Buses have a stigma attached to them, and I don’t know why this is. And people I talk to say they are more willing to use light rail than buses.
“We have 40,000 people who work downtown and 30,000 in the Hospital District,” he continued. “It would be very efficient for this city to find mass transit alternatives to move people between the two districts without them getting in their cars. It relieves congestion and helps air quality. For the city to just focus on commuter rail doesn’t really address the issue of how to get better mass transit for those people who travel within the city.”
The question is how to pay for these smaller light-rail lines. Portland, Ore., has had Dallas-style light-rail lines for many years, funded with a combination of local and federal dollars. But in 2001, the city started running the Portland Streetcar line through the city’s Pearl District. The three-mile line is owned by the city and operated by the regional transit authority. According to David Knowles, former Portland planning director and now a consultant on mass transit projects, the funding for the streetcar came from a variety of sources: a tax increment finance district, revenue bonds backed by higher parking fees, and miscellaneous federal grants.
Studies commissioned by Portland show that the streetcar line has repaid its $70 million initial costs many times over, sparking $2.1 billion in economic development — retail, office, and housing — in the former warehouse district. Knowles said the development would not have occurred without the line, which connects the district to downtown as well as allowing quick trips within the area.
“It depends on what the community’s objectives are,” Knowles said. “If you just want to move people from Point A to Point B, there are other ways to do it. But when we looked at all the benefits — from traffic congestion to the environment to increased development — the streetcar light rail really worked.”
Finding common ground politically on mass transit can be tougher than staying dry in a hurricane.
Cities like Grapevine and Arlington, which are not part of The T, would have to pay $200,000 or more per year to have one stop on a commuter line running through their towns. But overall, commuter lines — in part because they serve so many more people — are more cost-efficient than light rail ($50-60 million per mile, compared to $10-12 million for commuter).
“At the end of the day, we have to figure out the demographic projections and the cost-effectiveness,” said Morris, the council of governments’ transportation chief. “Light rail from downtown to the Cultural District might not have the ridership to justify the cost. And I don’t think we could justify spending $500 million on light rail out on Lancaster out to Loop 820.”
The state has been debating whether to allow jurisdictions to pass a half-cent sales tax for mass transit even if that move pushes cities beyond Texas’ 8.25 percent sales tax rate cap. State Rep. Charlie Geren doesn’t support that — or more funding for The T in general. “I don’t want my people being taxed for services they are not going to get,” the Fort Worth Republican said. The T “doesn’t even look out our way in northwest Tarrant County, and I don’t think people in Saginaw want to pay for something they don’t want to use.”
His House colleague, Democrat Lon Burnam, believes mass transit is needed now more than ever, especially to reduce air pollution. “This is an infrastructure issue, and cities are built on transportation infrastructure.” Burnam said. “We are choking on our own air, and our roads are clogged as soon as they are built, but the Republican leadership has abject ignorance when it comes to mass transit. They will spend billions of publicly funded road programs but will not look to spend more money on publicly funded mass transit. We are so frigging far behind we will never get ahead.”
Support for transit among an area’s congressional representatives is also very important. DART board members have said that U.S. Rep Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Dallas) has been very important in shepherding grants for DART. Fort Worth’s U.S. Rep Kay Granger, however, did not return calls asking for comments on her commitment to federal funds for Tarrant County mass transit projects. Her main focus seems to be the Trinity River Vision project, and carrying the $125 million in federal funding for that Trinity project might not leave room in the bucket for mass transit.
For now, the North Central Texas Council of Governments is taking the lead role in working with government agencies to devise workable mass transit options. Paul Geisel, professor emeritus at the University of Texas at Arlington and chair of The T’s board of directors, thinks the Cotton Belt line could stimulate other projects down the road. He said the Cotton belt commuter line can be done more quickly than a southeast Fort Worth line because acquiring right of way will be easier — and that that’s why The T has it higher on the priority list. “We look at every option, trying to find whatever technique we can to get this show going,” Geisel said. “We are at a very good moment right now. The buses are getting more full, but we need to expand right now.”
The plan for commuter lines is to have buses linked to the stops on the line, Geisel said, thus increasing ridership. But he acknowledged that the bus component makes it a tougher sell, given the perception that buses are for the poor. “If you don’t want to be near poor people,” Geisel said, “this might not be the way for you to go.”
Fort Worth Mayor Pro Tem Kathleen Hicks said her city needs to take the lead in bringing better public transportation to this part of North Texas.
“I think we are missing opportunities,” she said. “The powers that be here have to start realizing that we need to be aggressive on the mass transit issue and go after funding. Funding is being done in Dallas, and why we can’t get the funding over here? And the funding needs to be going to where people use mass transit to start with. Some of the business leaders in Fort Worth don’t realize we are playing a different game over here in southeast Fort Worth today. We don’t want to take small bits of dollars anymore that do nothing for the community.
“The lessons have shown us that more and more roads are not the answer,” Hicks said, “but we have to have alternative ways to get people around and not just for the rich yuppies.”
Fellow council member Carter Burdette agrees that the timing is right to pursue mass transit. “No one wants to get out of their car until they have to,” he said. “But with gas prices the way they are and the city getting a denser population, we really need to look at mass transit options more closely.
“We have to get moving because of the time it takes to get any plan up and running,” he said. “We have been behind on this issue in some respects, and we have some catching up to do. We need to select an area, start a program, and see how it works.”
The decisions that local and federal leaders make on transit now will determine more than just whether you catch a bus or a train to work. A transit system, or the lack of one, will play a major part in determining what Fort Worth looks like in 10 or 20 years. Catching up with the rest of country will take cultural change, political will, and a lot of money. Whether Fort Worth can marshal all three resources is unclear. But it is pretty clear what will happen if the city doesn’t.
You can reach Dan McGraw at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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