The TEX Rail/Cotton Belt project, a proposed commuter rail line stretching 62 miles from Fort Worth to Plano, may finally be coming to fruition, according to The Star-Telegram:
...the North Central Texas Council of Governments, along with its sister organization, the 43-member Regional Transportation Council, is flexing its muscles like a full-fledged regional government by dreaming up an unusual funding plan that includes state and federal tax revenue, borrowed funds and private investment.
If the council of governments succeeds, the TEX Rail/Cotton Belt project could not only connect distant parts of the Metroplex through public transit up to 30 years ahead of schedule but also bring in a major employer—a rail car and streetcar manufacturer—that could add hundreds of jobs to the region.
This new way of doing business illustrates that the council has evolved into far more than a planning and advisory board for roughly 230 local governments in the 16-county region.
The agency and its staff are no longer just facilitators or moderators in negotiations for big-dollar transportation projects: They are at the head of the table.
“It’s the single most influential government entity in the Metroplex,” said Jeff Ritter, a Richland Hills resident who serves on the Fort Worth Transportation Authority board. “What entity other than the federal or state authorities has as much influence over all aspects of local government? There is none.”
Ritter said he was a bit taken aback to learn that the council’s plan for the commuter rail corridor essentially overlapped much of the work that his agency, also known as the T, was doing on a proposed TEX Rail project connecting southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas/Fort Worth Airport.
The T has been criticized for moving too slowly on the TEX Rail project, which is years behind schedule.
TEX Rail represents the part of the commuter rail line in Tarrant County. The council of governments’ Cotton Belt initiative includes the TEX Rail plan, plus an extension northeast into cities such as Addison, Carrollton and Plano.
Ritter is unsure what the T’s role will be in the project if a private developer is used, although he supports building the rail line as quickly as possible.
“The council of governments is obviously in a position of great influence in the region and in all aspects of local government, whether it’s municipal, public transportation or transit-oriented development,” he said.
This new role for the council of governments has also led to notable changes in the routine of its leaders.
In November, the Regional Transportation Council held its first-ever executive session to brief members on the TEX Rail/Cotton Belt finance plan. Then, this month, after the still-unidentified developer submitted its initial confidential proposal to build the TEX Rail/Cotton Belt project, RTC members were told that they would have to sign nondisclosure agreements to get a glimpse of the details.
Most of the people in the room gladly signed on the dotted line.
In the past decade, as Texas and other states have struggled to find alternative sources of funding for transportation projects because of an ever-shrinking pot of gas tax revenue, metropolitan planning organizations, with the ability to leverage federal and state funds, have taken on the role of a de facto regional government.
“Their involvement is very appropriate because they can facilitate with all these local governments,” said Bill Meadows of Fort Worth, a Texas Transportation Commission member.
Of TEX Rail, he added, “It’s been perceived as a Fort Worth project ... but it’s a project that matters to a number of different transportation partners, all of which are playing an important role in advancing it.”
On paper, the council of governments is the region’s congressionally recognized planning body—a group that maps out plans to deal with issues such as population and job growth, highway construction and air pollution for 20 years and beyond.
The leading figure at the council of governments is Michael Morris, the agency’s longtime transportation director.
He said the development of the TEX Rail/Cotton Belt project is a landmark moment comparable to the creation of Dallas Area Rapid Transit in the early 1980s.
Today, DART has one of the most comprehensive light-rail systems in the western United States. But in its startup days, it was considered a waste of time and money by large swaths of the population in North Texas. Mass-transit supporters endured years of criticism in the Dallas area before their vision began to show results in the late 1990s.
Now that DART is up and running, Morris said, it is time to link the rest of North Texas by rail.
“Today, almost 30 years later, in my opinion this is as big a passenger rail moment as in 1984 when the voters approved rail,” he said.