Mahaffey: Challenges, opportunities in transportation

A. Lee Graham

Scott Mahaffey has watched – and ridden – Fort Worth’s transportation evolution. From subway service in the ‘70s to commuter rail planning in the 2000s, the Cowtown native has never taken transportation – public or private – for granted. And as chairman of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority board, Mahaffey realizes that services many depend on cost money. “One of the things is to assure the public that their tax dollars are being wisely used and that we’re getting the most bang for our dollar,” said Mahaffey, 59, who was elected chairman of The T board in March, a month after being appointed to the board. His appointment was part of an overhaul spurred by a Fort Worth City Council decision to reinvigorate the board. It followed comments by Mayor Betsy Price that the Transportation Authority, or The T, had been too slow in moving forward with TEX Rail, a 37-mile planned rail line between southwest Fort Worth, Grapevine and the north end of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. The board’s decision in August to focus on the rail segment between downtown and the airport, while delaying discussion of a medical district station, caught some by surprise, but Mahaffey said a project of such magnitude cannot be executed at once. As president and CEO of Fort Worth pipe supplier Cohn & Gregory Inc., Mahaffey understands leadership and the need to approach projects methodically. He was also chairman and president of the Casa Manana board in 2001-2003 during the rebuilding of Casa Mañana Theater. And while serving as a Colonial Country Club board member, he oversaw renovation of the club’s golf course. Before leading Cohn & Gregory, he worked in the oil and gas industry and held several senior financial management positions in the private sector. Mahaffey grew up in Fort Worth and attended Southwest High School. He has two adult children.

When you were elected T board chairman in March, in what direction did you plan to take the board? What were your primary goals, and have those changed somewhat since then? The mission of The T remains the same: we’re here to provide the best quality transportation, especially for the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County. The board’s restructuring caused quite a stir since it followed Mayor Price’s comments that she was frustrated by The T’s slow speed in moving forward with TEX Rail. Did you feel any pressure to move quicker in finalizing objectives with that rail plan? Not really, because we weren’t involved in any of the problems from the previous board. The thing that I think that’s really been an issue is that the city of Fort Worth and Tarrant County have grown so rapidly. I was at an RTC [Regional Transportation Council] meeting not long ago, and they talked about ridership of people moving into Tarrant County compared to Dallas County. We’re seeing this huge influx of growth, and the [population] projections are staggering in the future. I grew up in Fort Worth and remember how it used to be and see Chisholm Trail Parkway and other projects happening now. The T has to be aware that our main focus is connectivity. Finding ways to get to underutilized areas like southwest Fort Worth – it’s a daunting task that we signed up for.

It is somewhat unusual for a board to be overhauled completely. What challenges does that present? I think there are very good and different situations because it would be nice to have had some history on the board … but in another way it caused it [the new board] to come in and have no preconceived ideas of how things should be in thinking outside the box. In looking at things anew and from a fresh perspective? Yes, but the board has a lot of successful business types on it that look at it more as a business than as a service. What’s the distinction? When you look at a business, it’s profit driven. Transportation service is a service to the community, but it still has to be run in a businesslike manner in looking for the best ways to meet the service needs of citizens. You have to be prudent with money and make the best decisions you can. We’ll have to look at alternative financing. So you have to look at new ways of financing. Yes, even some public-private funding or transit-oriented development around rail stations. A private group might want to come in and share some of those costs. And you can’t forget Alliance [the AllianceTexas development in North Fort Worth] sitting out there. It’s one of the biggest economic jewels in this area. We have not done a lot in helping get transportation out to there. We have a lot of projects on the drawing board. Unless we find a way to fund this, the growth coming into Fort Worth and Tarrant County will just choke us. Some folks were disappointed with The T’s decision to focus more on the segment from downtown to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport than the part serving the medical district and TCU. Did you feel some backlash to that decision? Not really. I think people realize this is a multi-stage process for transit development. It’s an extremely expensive project to do, and there are dwindling federal resources to work with. Transportation to and from the T and P [Texas and Pacific Railroad Station] and the [Intermodal Transportation Center] to the airport, where there are 60,000 jobs … it opens up new opportunities for many people at Tarrant County for new employment. Realistically speaking, when can Fort Worth residents expect to see TEX Rail up and running? There are a lot of frustrated folks out there. Our projection now is the entire process of getting this thing done is huge. I had no idea there were so many pieces and so many organizations and abbreviations they went by. Either late fourth quarter of this year or early first quarter of 2014, we’ll get it scheduled.

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Specifically what will occur at that time? That’s when the Federal Transportation Administration grants its record of decision that you are going to be in the queue for funding. We should have the final decision by then. At that point, we would start acquiring real estate and making actual cash outlays.

What are your goals as board chairman in the coming year? Do you think you can meet those? We need to look at where we need to be 20 or 30 years from now. We all see the need to look at a regional concept as opposed to a local concept.