TEX Rail, a 27-mile commuter rail project that would connect downtown Fort Worth, downtown Grapevine, and the north entrance of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, seems like a great deal for North Texas. The feds are footing half of the roughly $800 million price tag, and it will help ease traffic in one of the fastest-growing regions in the country. But not everyone is thrilled about the prospect. Two of the three member cities of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, better known as The T, fear they’ll be responsible for paying for this regional transportation project that won’t benefit their cities that much.
Richland Hills, Blue Mound, and Fort Worth are the three members, but that triumvirate could trim down to just Fort Worth by next year. The smaller two cities have each called for referendums on their membership. Each of The T’s member cities pay the agency money generated from a half-cent sales tax. The two cities fear that The T’s rush to finish the enormous commuter rail project will plunge their small towns into ongoing debt. They’re also not thrilled about losing their seat on The T’s nine-member board.
Some newly amended proposed legislation would raise the number of board members from nine to 11 once Fort Worth reaches a population of 800,000. That same law would also allow The T to keep operating in the two cities if the voters decide to withdraw –– as the law stands now, the agency would have to pull up stakes. More importantly to Richland Hills and Blue Mound, the bill would also absolve the two cities from any debt The T incurs over the next year.
In March the Richland Hills City Council voted unanimously to call a referendum on the city’s membership. The town of about 8,000 people contributes a little less than $1 million a year. The election will be the city’s fourth attempt to sever ties with The T. Last month the Blue Mound City Council followed suit and voted unanimously to allow its citizens to vote on whether that city of roughly 2,500 people will stick with the transportation agency. Blue Mound pays in roughly $100,000 annually. The elections won’t be held until next May because of a state transportation law requiring a one-year waiting period.
Richland Hills city officials are upset that no one from their town holds a seat on the T’s board for the first time since the city voted to join in 1992. Eight of the board’s seats are appointed by the Fort Worth City Council, and one is chosen by Tarrant County commissioners. The county’s current appointee is Jon Franks of Grapevine, a non-member city.
During the last legislative session in 2013, a bill sponsored by Rep. Charlie Geren of River Oaks allows people from non-member cities to be appointed to the board. Proponents of the legislation say that The T’s board should be representative of the cities that are contributing the most money. In 2006 the people of Grapevine voted to pay a temporary 3/8-cent sales tax to help pay for TEX Rail. That city’s contribution amounts to about $9 million a year. A spokesperson from The T said that the cost of the commuter line will be $450 million after federal money is taken into account.
But Grapevine would not be on the hook for any contractual obligations or debt that The T might take on, because it’s not a member and is under contract only with The T.
Richland Hills City Councilman and Mayor Pro Tem Ed Lopez doesn’t think his city should be on the hook for that debt when no one from Richland Hills had any say on the matter.
“What really motivated [the referendum] was lack of representation on the board but also the knowledge of the debt that The T board is about to take on thanks to TEX Rail,” he said. “What didn’t sit well with me and the other council members is that Richland Hills would be taking on debt when we had no voice on it.”
Joan Hunter, a spokesperson for The T, said that her organization doesn’t plan on taking on any debt and that the agency has multiple sources of funding, including bonds, taxes, grants, and money from Grapevine.
“Never in its 30-year history has The T gone into debt,” she said. “The T has other funding and does not intend to finance” TEX Rail.
“We’ve always valued the Richland Hills customers, and they really seem to like the service,” she continued. “They have rider-request [home pick-up] service, service to the airport, a direct route to the new Walmart. … We’ve worked with them, and the upside is that they’ve [designed] the services we provide.”
Current state law requires The T’s board to expand to 15 members once Fort Worth reaches a population of 800,000, which could happen in just a few years. A bill under consideration in the current legislative session would raise the number of board members to 15 once the population reaches 1.1 million.
The bill, sponsored by Rep. Nicole Collier and Sen. Kelly Hancock, both from Fort Worth, has a provision that would not hold either Richland Hills or Blue Mound responsible for any debt or contracts issued by The T from the date those cities called their respective elections to withdraw.
As it stands now, The T could be issuing more than $500 million in contracts before the elections in Richland Hills and Blue Mound next May. That means Richland Hills, for example, would owe The T $5 million in tax revenue once the city withdrew. If the amended bill passes, then the city wouldn’t have to shoulder that share of the burden.
Current law also says The T would have to cease all of its operations within the cities of Richland Hills and Blue Mound should the voters chose to leave. That would theoretically mean the organization would have to close its train station in Richland Hills that is used by more than 700 people a day. Hancock and Collier’s bill would allow the transportation agency to continue operations in those cities at their own discretion.
Observers in The T’s two smaller cities said they’ve watched as neighboring municipalities have used the half-cent sales tax for economic development and other programs that have helped those cities grow.
Lopez said that, should Richland Hill voters chose to leave The T, that half-cent sales tax could be used for a number of things that could benefit his city.
The money will be out there until the voters choose what to do with it. They can leave it out there, too, he said. “They can increase [police funding] if they chose, economic development, parks, and street improvement.”
Lopez and others don’t believe that TEX Rail would benefit Richland Hills the way it would other, non-member cities like Grapevine. Even though the election next May will be the fourth of its kind, Lopez believes that paying for TEX Rail was not what his city’s voters signed up for.
“I don’t feel we’ve been cheated over the years, but it’s time to make a decision based on the new circumstances in front of us now,” he said. “The law has changed and it’s going to change again.
“The direction of The T,” he continued, “is so much different now than it was before.”