Fort Worth Misplaces its Streetcar Money.

Fort Worth is playing fast and loose with its transit future.
0
Posted May 5, 2010 by DAN MCGRAW in News

Two years ago, Fort Worth Mayor Mike Moncrief, along with city council members and dozens of business leaders, traveled to the Pacific Northwest to look at modern streetcar systems in Tacoma, Portland, and Vancouver. They were impressed by the accessibility of the systems, connectivity of the lines, and nearby economic development.

It seemed that the time was right to build such a system here, initially to link downtown with the near south and west sides of town. Business leaders were on board, and surveys showed widespread popular support.

metro_1More recently, however, members of council seem to have changed their tune. Twice in recent months, according to sources, some council members have worked behind the scenes to divert federal grant money specified for streetcars to other transportation projects.

Last fall, the North Central Texas Council of Governments obtained a $1.6 million federal grant to hire an engineering firm for a Fort Worth streetcar study, looking at things like routes and funding options.

But at a council meeting last month, some members tried to get that money switched over to a study of the Tower 55 problem on downtown’s southeast edge, where slow-moving freight trains are causing a major transportation snarl.

When officials of the North Central Texas Council of Governments told city officials the money couldn’t be switched wholesale, the council still cut the funding for the streetcar study in half and told the engineering firm to reduce its scope.

In February, Fort Worth officials learned that an earlier attempt to divert funds from streetcars to other projects had backfired. Fort Worth and Dallas had collaborated on an application for a Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) federal grant last fall to fund streetcar systems in both cities. But included in Fort Worth’s portion of the application was a request for $17 million for two bridges in the Trinity River Vision project — which had nothing to do with the proposed streetcar project. Federal officials approved the requested money for Dallas but denied Fort Worth’s request, in part because of the bridges item.

Part of the council’s attempts to change direction of federal funds and Fort Worth’s transit future may be due to intense lobbying by other interest groups. Rail companies like Burlington Northern Santa Fe and Union Pacific want to get Tower 55 fixed. Citizen groups — especially in north Fort Worth — want the bottleneck on I-35W cleaned up. And some advocates of a commuter rail expansion think the streetcars might compete with it for federal dollars.

“We have gotten behind on the road projects that voters approved in the 2004 bond vote,” said council member Danny Scarth. ”We don’t want to put streetcars ahead of that.” Scarth said the projects are behind schedule because of a lack of state transportation funding.

As far as using only half of the federal grant money for the streetcar study at this time, Scarth said, “If we decide to proceed after the first part of the study is done, the rest of the grant money will still be there for us.”

But the cuts also mean the city has pushed back completion of the study by six months to a year. And some city hall observers — and streetcar supporters — believe that delay may threaten future funding for the system by causing federal officials to question the city’s commitment to the project.

“There is greater and greater competition among cities to get these transportation funds, and the feds will be likely to only fund those projects where the cities have committed local funding and have full support,” said Michael Hennig, president of Civtech Solutions, a local consulting firm that works with governments to obtain federal grants.

“In all honesty, I think what we are seeing in Fort Worth is [an attempt] to reframe the debate, meaning the city’s leadership is essentially saying we can do one thing or another but not both,” Hennig said. “But as fast as Fort Worth is growing, it is beyond the state of [choosing just] one thing or another. [The streetcar] project is very important for the city, with benefit to the urban village program” and  to economic development.

In the study’s first phase, Omaha-based HDR Engineering Inc. will identify the best routes and economic impact analysis. Phase two will recommend a plan to fund the project. If council decides to proceed, phase three would study preliminary engineering plans and environmental assessments.

Council member Jungus Jordan said approving only part of the study now is a smart move because “the engineering portion of the study makes the assumption that streetcars are the solution to the transportation problems we have.

“But we don’t have gridlock in and around downtown Fort Worth,” Jordan said. “Our first priority should be to alleviate the traffic congestion on I-35W north of town. One of the ways to do that will be the southwest-to-northeast commuter rail line. We have to find ways to get people to their jobs with an alternative to concrete roads. I don’t think streetcars do much of that.”

The commuter rail line from southwest Fort Worth to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport is expected to cost $500 million. Rerouting freight trains in trenches through the Tower 55 rail yard is expected to cost $600 million. Jordan said that project will help free up tracks for the commuter rail line.

While the commuter rail and Tower 55 projects are expected to be mostly federally funded, the streetcar lines would be paid for largely with local tax money. Still, Jordan said, “If we are seeking federal funds, we need to set our priorities.” He said the council realized the limitations on federal funding for local transportation projects earlier this year when he went to Washington to lobby for the Tower 55 projects and the city came away with no federal commitment.

A modern streetcar system has great support among real estate developers, especially those in the Hospital and Cultural districts, which could get some of the first routes. But public support is also there. In a 2009 survey done for the city, 48 percent of the citizenry was “very supportive” of implementing a streetcar system, with 25 percent “somewhat supportive.” Only eight percent indicated they were “not supportive.”

This year, in his state of the city address, Moncrief emphasized the need for more mass transit options. “Commuter rail, streetcars, and other alternative modes of transportation also remain a priority for me and this city council,” he said. “Unfortunately, Fort Worth and other major metropolitan areas are finding out the hard way what a mistake it was to design and build cities around automobiles years ago.”

Streetcar supporters are regrouping and trying to make the issues clear to local residents. “There is a lot of misinformation out there on streetcars right now,” said Southside developer Fran McCarthy, who has served on both streetcar study panels and chairs the council-appointed Central City Redevelopment Committee.

McCarthy said the central city committee is going to add more information to an influential white paper on streetcars that it published several years ago and reissue it to political and business leaders. A Facebook page for streetcar supporters has also been established and now has more than 900 “friends.”

“After that West Coast trip, everyone was on board, and I’m not sure what has happened since then,” McCarthy said. “They are holding streetcars to a much higher standard, and we have done so many more studies on streetcars than they have for commuter rail.

“They say [the streetcar system] doesn’t pay for itself from the fare box, but neither does any mass transit system, including commuter rail,” the developer said. But studies show that modern streetcar systems go far beyond paying for themselves in the long run “because of the economic development and increased tax revenue associated with them,” he said.

Hennig agrees. “There are many mass transit options in the toolbox, and streetcar lines are a part of that,” he said. “It is not a fancy toy for rich people to use. It is an efficient way to move people around in urban areas. Fort Worth needs to solve some of its transportation problems, and road construction and commuter rail are part of that. But so are modern, urban streetcars.”


0 Comments



Be the first to comment!


Leave a Response

(required)


− 6 = one