Friday, September 14, 2012

With Cotton Belt project, huge cultural change could be on the way for North Texas - Fort Worth Star Telegram (blog)


Good morning, transportation world. Thursday was a huge day for those who believe that passenger rail should be a crucial part of North Texas' landscape, now and for many decades to come.

Members of the Regional Transportation Council on Thursday signed non-disclosure agreements, and in return were handed confidential packets giving them a better idea of what to expect over the next few months, when a consortium of private-sector companies is expected to step forward with a formal proposal to build the 62-mile TEX Rail/Cotton Belt line from Fort Worth to Plano. Here's my story on the topic from this morning's Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

This project, it appears, could be just as big as - or perhaps bigger than - some of the humongous road projects that have been moved into construction during the past five years in our area. The rail project itself amounts to about $1.6 billion in construction, but it's the potential for development around train stations up and down the line - from TCU to the Stockyards to Grapevine to Addison - that offers the prospect for a cultural change in the way we live and move about in the Metroplex.

Most of the big road projects approved for construction during the past five years or so in our region are being paid for with one form or another of "alternative" or "innovative" financing. That can mean everything from bonds to federally-backed loans or private-sector investment. Each project has its own recipe (usually concocted by North Texas' resident chef, Michael Morris, the council of governments' transportation director). The list of projects built with alternative financing in recent years includes the Sam Rayburn Tollway in Denton and Collin counties, the President George Bush Turnpike western extension (Texas 161) in Irving and Grand Prairie, the Chisholm Trail Parkway toll project in southwest Fort Worth, the DFW Connector in Grapevine, North Tarrant Express in Northeast Tarrant County, LBJ Express in Dallas and soon-to-be Interstate35E managed lanes in the Lewisville area. As tough as the negotiations for each project were, it's really pretty awesome to take a step back and realize that in a relatively short time they've moved from confusing concept to dirt-moving reality.

In all, about $16 billion worth of work is underway on Metroplex roads as we speak.

So now that effort to build with alternative financing moves to the realm of rail.

It has become a complicated world, this business of building the Metroplex's transportation grid, so that a population expected to grow to 9.5 million people by 2035 can get along without proverbially suffocating each other while just trying to get around. Motor fuels taxes collected by the state and federal government are still the backbone of the funding system - a collective 38.4 cents per gallon combined. But essentially no major road or rail project gets built these days solely with those funds. It's all about combining different piles of funds, leveraging, borrowing, etc.

One important point I should point out. In the text of my story today, I wrote that North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino had recused himself from RTC discussions because his construction company had agreed within the past 30 days to join a development team to make a pitch for the project.

Trevino called this morning to clarify that his company, O. Trevino Construction in Roanoke, is part of a group vying for construction work on the TEX Rail portion of the project in Tarrant County, in response to a request from proposals from the Fort Worth Transportation Authority. TEX Rail includes only the portion of the Cotton Belt line extending to DFW Airport, but nothing east of the Tarrant-Dallas county line.

So that means Trevino's company ISN'T part of the confidential group of companies that will be making a formal proposal to the council of governments over the next couple of months. The identities of those companies remains hush-hush for the moment.

That's an important distinction, and one I will clarify in the text of my story post haste.


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