Ballard plans big for Fort Worth transit agency

A. Lee Graham

Paul Ballard knows the drill. As president and CEO of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T), Ballard has implemented, overseen and ridden the rails of more than a few public transit projects. But Fort Worth presents new challenges, namely, ensuring TEX Rail’s timely construction and implementation after months of public criticism for what many believe is a project too slow in coming and stalled by bureaucracy. “It is a challenging project,” said Ballard, 64, who succeeded Dick Ruddell in February to lead the agency that oversees Tarrant County public transit.

Extending from downtown Fort Worth, across Northeast Tarrant County and into Grapevine and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport at Terminal B, the planned 37-mile TEX Rail commuter line is expected to serve more than 10,000 daily riders using eight stations when service begins in 2018. Criticism of slow implementation of TEX Rail, including comments by Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price, prompted The T board to elect Scott Mahaffey as its chairman in March 2013, a month after he was appointed to the board. His appointment was part of a board overhaul spurred by a City Council decision to reinvigorate the board. More than a year after Mahaffey took the reins, Ballard vows to do his best in a city that he considers not dissimilar to Nashville, where he was CEO of the Nashville Metropolitan Transit Authority and the Regional Transportation Authority of Middle Tennessee. With comparable populations – Fort Worth, 797,727; Nashville, 634,464, according to 2013 U.S Census estimates – both communities need quality transit service, said Ballard, who helped secure the latest victory for TEX Rail. What’s known as the record of decision came in September. The go-ahead, given by the Federal Transit Administration and the Federal Aviation Administration, allows officials to begin engineering work for the rail line. Construction could begin in 2016. Ballard recently sat down with the Fort Worth Business Press to discuss that project, as well as goals for a city he considers his new hometown.

First things first. Congratulations on getting the record of decision. What does this mean for getting TEX Rail up and running? It was a team effort that started before I got here. It means they have accepted our environmental work on the alignment and station location and said, from an environmental perspective, we are clear. It allows us to now go forward with final engineering, which will be the final design from downtown to D/FW [Airport], purchase rail cars on that line, and begin acquiring any necessary [property] we need along the right-of-way for stations. It’s a step that allows us to do some serious activity in getting this open by 2018.

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Speaking of TEX Rail, I’m sure you know that a desire to speed up the planning process in part led to your hiring. Do you feel that you’ve helped push the project to fruition? Fruition is still four years away. What I do is focus every day on those things we can get done toward opening TEX Rail in 2018. Just like in baseball, the runs you score in the first inning count as much as the runs you score in the ninth inning.

Your experience in supervising transit systems is well known. What qualities do you bring to the table as The T’s new president and CEO that have helped speed service to Fort Worth? I think that when The T started talking to me, they were looking for two characteristics: someone who had actually built and placed into service a commuter rail system and someone who had built ridership on transit, or a bus system. In my 12 years in Nashville, I had success with starting a commuter rail system and also built increased ridership on the overall system from 6.5 million to 10.5 million annual trips. Those were two key qualities they were looking for.

Aside from TEX Rail, what do you consider the most important transportation priority or priorities facing Fort Worth, and how will those be addressed? My two major efforts are TEX Rail by 2018 and developing a master plan over the next 12 months in taking a fresh look at how public transportation is provided in Fort Worth and Tarrant County and how we can change, improve and expand our network of bus services. And also look at where we have excellent potential for corridor services like the Spur (referring to signal, priority, urban, route buses able to carry 50 percent more passengers than standard buses), which has been successful. We will look for other opportunities in this corridor, too.

By “corridor,” are you referring to East Lancaster? Yes, East Lancaster.

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Let’s go back a few months. What was your reaction when you learned that you’d been hired? Was there any trepidation in moving from Nashville to Fort Worth? No, I really didn’t feel that. First of all, the members of The T board and several members of the City Council had met with me and my wife to make us feel comfortable, and people in Fort Worth are very, very friendly just like in Nashville. We didn’t feel any culture shock; we felt like we fit right in.

Are there any similarities between Nashville and Fort Worth? In Nashville, the rail project was a difficult project to get organized and get moving and TEX Rail has had it challenges, but we’re on track. I think the bus system side, we really don’t have a network that’s robust enough to serve the city and are working to see how we can expand the network [in Fort Worth].

The T recently saw two of its top officials resign [Tony Johnson, executive vice president; Sylvia Hartless, general counsel]. Did those stem from any disagreement with your new leadership, or were they unrelated? Are there plans to hire successors? There was no issue with leadership. That had to do with … all organizations are dynamic and people join organizations and people move on to other posts. That’s a sign of a healthy organization.

Would you say that their departures occurring at the same time was a coincidence? Some people chose to take different paths and I respect that.

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Are there any successors under consideration? We have completed a job description and should be advertising these positions within the next two weeks.

What strengths do you bring to the table as president and CEO? What weaknesses would you like to strengthen? The strengths are what I’ve discussed: an educational background and working in both private and public sectors and with all modes of transportation, from bus to rail to aviation to marine. I’ve done all these functions and have a good working knowledge of transportation. I’ve been fortunate to work with some good people in the past and have worked on a number of transportation projects over the years. Part of it is learning the history of all of the individuals, so the board’s been helpful in giving guidance in that area.

What are your goals for the coming year? The master plan: identifying that, and that will be a 12-month process and we are just now getting started. We will have a great deal of community input.