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Thursday, January 21, 2021

NCTCOG seeks more input, ideas for Cotton Belt Rail Line plan

The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) met in Arlington Thursday, Aug. 17, to discuss its perspective on the Cotton Belt Rail Line planning and implementation.

The Cotton Belt Corridor passes through portions of Tarrant, Dallas and Collin counties. The area is recommended for passenger rail service to serve the long-term transportation needs for the whole of the Metroplex.

Need for cross-regional transportation like the Cotton Belt rail line has been recognized since the 1986 Mobility 2000 Plan. It is projected that by 2040 the Cotton Belt rail line would be not only the busiest commuter rail in the region at over 21,000 daily ridership, but it would be the fourth-busiest rail line overall in the Metroplex

Michael Morris, director of transportation at the Regional Transportation Council (RTC) led the meeting with a presentation covering the Mobility 2040/45 Plans, innovative funding partnership ideas and more. Citizens were invited to participate and provide input on the rail plans.

The next big development for followers of this plan will be DART’s board meeting at the end of September where the official funding specifics and implementation timeline will be presented.

“I got a lot more commitment that trying to do innovative things [financially] is supported, and that passenger rail is still supported [in this area],” Morris said. “There’s interest to recommit ourselves in the mobility plan with passenger rail systems. I was reassured today that passenger rail has to be a part of our future.”

The RTC is currently working on Mobility 2045, the Metroplex’s next Metropolitan Transportation Plan, though the area still falls under plan 2040 for now. Mobility 2040 includes 150 miles of still unfunded regional rail lines in the Fort Worth area, and as of yet no timeline for implementation is available. That number jumps to 180 miles of rail when one takes into account the rail that will connect Dallas and Fort Worth.

As a community speaker at the event, Karl Ziebarth with Texas Rail Advocates said, “The passenger problem is stated very simply – who pays?”

Speaker from the community Lee Lowery added, “The obvious is that companies will come to Texas if we have better public transit. My contention is the people that benefit the most from public transit are people who drive cars on the roadway. My question is, can we finance the Cotton Belt [rail line] with a gasoline tax?”

Unfortunately, Texas laws do not allow for the use of the gasoline tax in that manner, Morris said. However, RTC has already approved $100 million for the project, though the specifics on where that money will come from remain to be seen.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority (DART) and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T) have requested the RTC and NCTCOG help DART develop innovative financing mechanisms to assist in the implementation of the corridor’s passenger rail service.

Morris presented on six funding partnership options at the Thursday meeting including:

— public-public partnership

— private-private partnership

— capital cost/operating cost synergy

— capital cost/operating cost/ridership synergy

— capital cost/operating cost/revenue risk transfer

— and capital cost economies of scale between multiple projects.

As it stands now. Most of the funding will need to come from the public sector, making the rail more traditionally than innovatively funded. In this situation, the public sector will fund the rail, DART will manage and the private sector will build the rail as a contractor.

The Cotton Belt rail will be an extension of The T’s TEX Rail, combined the rail systems will offer transit service from downtown Fort Worth to the DFW Airport to Plano. Though the system is expected to open late 2018, there is still no timeline available from DART on the specifics of the rail opening.

In presenting the innovative funding ideas, Morris and RTC are exploring possibilities to assist DART in expediting the rail service. The RTC’s Policy Position document (P16-01) states that “Greater and special attention to innovative rail funding and financing is critical to deliver the appropriate balance of transportation investments to a region of 12 million persons by 2040.”

However, both Morris and the policy position stated that if such an expedition cannot be possible, it is recommended that DART provide a rail-to-bus “premium transit service” to reduce the demand for service between regions.

For more information please visit https://www.dart.org/about/expansion/cottonbelt.asp. Additionally, video and audio recordings of Thursday’s meeting are available here http://www.nctcog.org/trans/committees/rtc/video.asp.

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