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Saturday, April 17, 2021

Picking up speed: Passenger rail projects ready to impact transit

Texas Rail Advocates

www.texasrailadvocates.org

A new commuter rail line that will run from downtown Fort Worth to the airport is scheduled to open in December, but it’s hardly the only passenger rail project set to transform Fort Worth and the North Texas area.

That’s the optimistic view of about 200 industry executives, rail transportation supporters, government officials and suppliers at the Southwest Rail Conference in Dallas who were encouraged by updates on new or expanded rail lines that have received federal approvals needed to continue development.

“We’ve never seen so many passenger rail oriented projects blossom in such a short time frame in Texas,” said Texas Rail Advocates’ President, Peter LeCody.

The meeting was the 14th annual event Jan. 18 and 19 hosted by the nonprofit Texas Rail Advocates, which is more accustomed to fighting off attempts by highway boosters or legislators to undermine rail transit. That could still happen as the state’s transportation budget is always a political and financial football when the legislature is in session.

The new lines also could create one of the largest high-speed rail networks anywhere and the expanded rail services are being designed so that all of them will interconnect to offer more travel options and destinations.

In 2016, the Texas Department of Transportation published an update to its rail plan and identified this opportunity: “As the high-speed rail network develops in Texas … combined with existing and proposed conventional rail service, the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex appears to be a potential hub. Hub cities with convenient connections between multiple routes create a large matrix of city-pairs resulting in substantial ridership potential.”

The projects include:

TEXRail

This new commuter rail line will extend from downtown Fort Worth, northeast through North Richland Hills to downtown Grapevine, and then into Dallas Fort Worth International Airport. Construction is underway and Paul Ballard, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, said The-T has taken delivery of its first rail cars and service is scheduled to begin in December.

The 27-mile route will serve nine stations, most with park-and-ride facilities, and is expected to handle 8,000 daily users upon opening and grow to carry about 14,000 daily riders by 2035. At Fort Worth’s Intermodal Transit Center, the project will connect to Amtrak, Trinity Railway Express and much of the The-T’s bus system, as well as intercity bus connections.

Tim McKay, an executive responsible for regional development for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, said development of a similar service connecting Plano to DFW using a 26-mile segment of the Cotton Belt rail corridor through southern Collin County is moving forward with design-build contracts expected to be awarded in May. The DART service will connect to TEXRail when it is completed in 2022 or 2023.

Texas-Oklahoma Passenger Rail Study

Five years in the making, the study shows that service between Oklahoma City to South Texas is feasible along the Interstate 35 corridor and the Federal Railroad Administration gave approval in November for planning to continue. Texas Rail Advocates is eager to promote what it now calls the Empower 35 rail project to gain public support and develop more specifics, such as actual rail alignment, within an FRA-mandated timetable ending in 2021.

“It will take willing elected and appointed officials, business and industry, colleges and universities and all interested stakeholders to move this rail corridor forward,” LeCody said. “It could be through private enterprise, public-private partnerships or wise public investing that will create a rail travel corridor that will serve the coming generations of traveling Texans.”

The addition of passenger rail service is perhaps one of the few options planners have left to ease crippling traffic congestion on Interstate 35 as the state adds more than 1,000 new residents each day. The state crossed the population threshold of 28 million in 2017 and 86 percent of Texans live along the I-35 corridor.

One indicator of the impact of this unbridled growth is the speed that drivers can expect to move along the freeway with a posted limit of 75 mph. Studies show that average speeds on the stretch of I-35 between DFW and San Antonio are expected to drop to 15 mph from 55 mph in just a few years.

The 850-mile route picks up in Fort Worth where Amtrak’s daily Heartland Flyer service from Oklahoma City ends. The train – which is planned to be a high-speed system – would follow I-35 to San Antonio and South Texas with an option to continue across the Mexican border to Monterrey.

Going to Kansas City?

Local business and political leaders in Oklahoma and Kansas are hoping a case can be made for the Fort Worth-to-Oklahoma City line to continue north to Kansas City. Last June, Amtrak ran a special inspection train to evaluate track conditions and possible stops on the route owned by Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railway.

The plan would extend Amtrak’s Heartland Flyer north to Newton, Kansas, where it can connect with Amtrak’s Southwest Chief going to Kansas City. The Southwest Chief runs from Los Angeles to Chicago.

“This inspection train is a preliminary step in potentially restoring a significant gap for passenger rail service that has existed since Amtrak eliminated the line between Oklahoma City and Kansas City in 1979 due to budget cuts,” said Casey Moore, manager of marketing for Edmond, Oklahoma.

“We were enthusiastically received all the way up the route,” Amtrak’s Marc Magliari said. “Public support is the key. If the public supports us and helps legislative action take place, this train could be running soon.”

Texas Central Railway

Private investors are opening their checkbooks as the Texas Central Railway is moving forward with its 200-mph bullet train connecting Dallas and Houston that will make the typical four and a half hour drive a quick 90-minute ride.

State legislators put into law a ban on using any state funds to support the project, but the company says it’s prepared to build and operate the $12 billion to $16 billion line with no state or federal support.

The Federal Railroad Administration released a draft environmental impact statement last month after four years of review, which allows Texas Central to begin the project’s planning, design and pre-construction phases. Passenger service is targeted to begin in 2023 or 2024 with hourly trips.

“Thousands of hours have been spent to ensure the Texas bullet train will be constructed and operated in a way that gives Texans a choice for the safest mode of transportation in the world,” said Texas Central CEO Carlos Aguilar in a statement.

The company has hired Irving-based Fluor Corp., a Fortune 500 engineering and construction firm, and Fort Worth’s Lane Construction to design and build the railway; WSP USA, an international consulting firm with high-speed rail experience worldwide will provide engineering services.

One of the hurdles the railroad faces is winning over landowners so the company can acquire the remaining property it will need for its right of way.

The FRA also approved the proposed route that will generally mirror Interstate 45’s path between the two cities. Texas Central President Tim Keith said at last week’s conference that it owns about one-third of the necessary land and hopes to enter into private negotiations to obtain the rest. Some property owners oppose the bullet train’s intrusion across their rural farms and ranches.

Fort Worth-Dallas Core Express

The Core Express is a 32-mile high-speed line connecting Fort Worth, Arlington and Dallas on elevated tracks roughly aligned with Interstate 30. Station locations have been chosen and the cities are working with the North Central Texas Council of Governments to form a Local Government Corporation to run the service.

The $2 billion project is designed to connect the planned high-speed rail lines serving Fort Worth to South Texas and Dallas to Houston to extend their reach and help generate additional ridership. Project leaders say they will also work with the cities and transit agencies to design a ticketing system that would support the connections between railroads. The goal is to enable, for example, a Fort Worth rider to board the Heartland Flyer to downtown, catch the Core Express and continue to Houston on the Texas Central bullet train using one ticket.

Last May, plans moved forward when the Fort Worth City Council agreed to create a local government corporation with Dallas to govern intercity passenger rail service. The earliest a train could travel between the two cities is likely 2023, according to Fort Worth officials, but setting up the multi-jurisdiction agency is the first in a long series of steps to bring the plan to fruition.

The line, called the DFW Core Express, would stretch 30-to-40 miles, likely either along Interstate 30 or along the Trinity Railway Express corridor, at speeds of between 70 and 125 mph. A $15 million environmental impact study of the possible route is underway and should be completed in 2018, according to Fort Worth officials. Funding details for the project have yet to be finalized.

Fort Worth to Atlanta

Amtrak is working with local and state officials from Texas, Louisiana and Mississippi on a plan that would plug a 340-mile gap in passenger rail service from Marshall, across northern Louisiana to Meridian, Mississippi, where the Texas Eagle would connect from Fort Worth with the Crescent from New Orleans and continue to Atlanta. The tracks, used by freight carriers, are still there from when the route was used by passenger trains discontinued 50 years ago.

“This service would greatly improve passenger rail accessibility from Dallas/Fort Worth to other urban centers in the southeastern U.S.,” TxDOT reported. Advocates have pursued this option for several years pointing to the benefit of expanding the rail network by a few hundred miles would open easier access for this region to destinations from Los Angeles to New York.

Richard Anderson, a former Texas senator and county judge from Harrison County, has led the effort that has coalesced support by political and business leaders across the proposed route as a solution to relieving growing pressure on Interstate 20.

While the ridership and ticket revenue of the proposed Fort Worth-Meridian leg of the Crescent was found to be very positive, the initiation of service would require substantial rail capacity expansion, TxDOT concluded. But a new study has also found that the service would not require a state-funded subsidy like those that support other routes such as the Heartland Flyer from Fort Worth to Oklahoma City.

Anderson said at the Southwestern Rail Conference that it is unlikely that the federal government would consider widening the highway through the I-20 corridor.

“Sitting and waiting another 50 years to do something about our problem is not a solution,” he said.

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