Monday, June 4, 2007

Don't count on the Legislature to do what a community can do for itself

By Faith Chatham
One of the best op-ed pieces I've read recently was by O.K. Carter.
Arlington voters dedicated most of the sales tax to building the Dallas Cowboys a new stadium. North Tarrant County voters moved forward independent of the State Legislature on rail initatives. Citizens in Arlington are hearing about plans to run rail through Arlington for the Super Bowl game but Arlington citizens needing to leave their gas guzzling cars parked and commute to work on mass transit see no train in the near future for them to ride. Air Quality continues to be dismal and City and County and NCTCOG leaders have failed to deliver transit solutions other than toll roads and more concrete. Most Arlington citizens favor rail more than buses yet there are no firm plans for either in Arlington except for tourists.

In North Tarrant County rail initatives are moving forward and there are expectations that they will be funded, partially with surplus toll revenue from CDAs. Arlington citizens will soon be paying toll fees to avoid congestion on I-30 and probably HW360. The City of Arlington has only until the end of this month to submit applications for transit and air quality projects to be funded with part of the regions up-front concession payments. Michael Morris of the NCTCOG said that the CDA concession money can be spent on rail in this region. "If Arlington wants rail, and wants part of the concession payments to help fund it, the City must submit applications to the NCTCOG by the end of this month." Morris continued: "The NCTCOG has worked out an agreement with BNSF railroad to bring passengers through the center of Arlington for the Super Bowl game." Other than that one weekendm there are no plans for passenger rail in Arlington at this time. The NCTCOG has been holding workshops for city and county leaders, providing training on submitting grants for funding for transportation and air quality projects in Tarrant, Collin, Denton and Dallas counties. The CDA concession funds can be spent on rail projects.

"If the City of Arlington were to submit a proposal for rail to the NCTCOG," Mike Morris said: "It would be considered but the City must decide on a rail or mass transit solution and submit the application." He continued:
"If they don't by the deadline (the end of June), then we'll (the NCTCOG Staff) will continue to work with them encouraging them to choose passenger rail. We think Arlington needs it."

If Arlington wants a rail solution - other than the one weekend train to the Super Bowl - the initiative must come from the City. Citizens of Arlington, whether they want it or not, will be paying tolls to avoid congestion on HW360 and I-30. The City must move swiftly to insure that some of the surplus toll revenue returns to solve commuter and air quality problems in Arlington.

Smart rail move may be genius
By O.K. CARTER - Star-Telegram staff writer - Sun, Jun. 03, 2007
Before the Legislature met, the decision by Grapevine's leadership and voters to fund the Cotton Belt passenger rail line merely looked like a reasonably intelligent, environmentally responsible act.

Now that the legislative session has concluded, the quality of that move has to be upgraded.

Maybe genius would be the right word.

Recollect that, during the 2005 session, a delegation from North Texas pitched the idea of a voter-approved supplemental sales tax to fund regional rail and the Legislature gave some support to the idea.

But lawmakers put off a decision, suggesting that a voter-attitudes survey would be necessary.

That survey, conducted by the Rail Transit Initiative (a coalition of area elected officials), between legislative sessions showed considerable support for passenger rail.

The idea of a sales tax not counting against the current cap went to the Legislature again.

Grapevine leaders -- in particular Mayor William D. Tate -- were certainly aware of the possibility of the enabling legislation.

The safe course would have been to wait.

But they didn't wait for the Legislature.

Grapevine voters were instead asked to approve an increase of three-eighths of a cent in the sales tax to fund a rail-only project via the Fort Worth Transportation Authority.

The idea was to extend the 21-mile stretch of Cotton Belt line from Fort Worth through Grapevine to Dallas/Fort Worth Airport, ultimately ending up with 40 miles of rail.

It will link Grapevine, Colleyville, North Richland Hills and the Fort Worth Stockyards.

It will also pass by Haltom City, Richland Hills and Southlake.

With proposed extensions, the southernmost stop would be near Texas Christian University at Berry Street in Fort Worth, with other stops in the Medical District, downtown and near Interstate 35W north of 28th Street.

A Colleyville stop may eventually be included.

From Grapevine, the line will go to D/FW Airport and connect with a future DART line. Very cool.

The idea had so much appeal that county voters kicked in $25 million more.

And it appears that the North Central Texas Council of Governments will eventually contribute as much as $60 million.

The rail line should be running by 2012.

What happened with the half-cent regional sales tax idea in the legislative session that just ended?

It received only the most perfunctory hearing and then disappeared.

That leaves Grapevine sitting pretty -- its transportation accessibility and regional identity about to be considerably enhanced -- and cities like Arlington, frankly, feeling pretty glum. And looking for Plan B.

"The short answer is that we don't have a Plan B, though I'm really looking for one," concedes Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck. "Our own surveys show an enormous amount of support in Arlington for rail transit, but our remaining quarter-cent [sales tax availability] simply won't get the job done."

In the end, Arlington -- and maybe a big chunk of the rest of Tarrant County -- will have to look for a workable substitute for rail, probably something like bus rapid transit: buses linked together, possibly with dedicated lanes and traffic-signal control to ensure that there's never a red light.

But that's not as appealing as passenger rail, is it?

Grapevine gets a major boost because economic development is often about velocity.

The city now has a substantial head start in what urban planners term "transit-oriented development."

This will be particularly true of new urbanism style: mixed-use development with quick access to passenger rail. It's potentially a bonanza.

Maybe there's another message in this as well: Don't count on the Legislature to do what a community can do for itself.

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