Written by Phil Cerroni
By Jess Paniszczyn
Imagine a commuter rail corridor extending from west Ft. Worth to Plano, winding through several cities with a transfer station at DFW International airport. Along its 62 mile service, the commuter train would also connect with The T (Fort Worth Transportation Authority), DART’s (Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s) Green, Red and Orange Lines, as well as DCTA’s (Denton County Transportation Authority’s) A Train.
If you have enough time to wait, you will not have to imagine this regional rail service. With the support of all three transit authorities, the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) and possibly the federal government, the first seven mile stretch of the corridor from Carrollton to DFW Airport should be open to daily commuter traffic sometime around 2040. Fortunately for the region with its expanding population and congested highways, representatives of the transit authorities and NCTCOG are not content to wait that long.
The Board Chairs and Presidents of DART, The T and DCTA signed a Tri-Party Passenger Rail Alliance on Nov. 16 to formalize their commitment to working together in order to expand mass transit options in the region.
“Today is exciting from the standpoint that the three transit authorities are recommitting to continue to work together to promote transit throughout the North Texas area,” said Garry Thomas, President, Executive Director of DART. “We work to give people choices throughout our region, so they can get out of their cars. We know what they are going to do if we don’t give them a choice.
“DART has the longest light rail system in the United States. DART also has the TRE, which we jointly operate with The T in Ft. Worth. In addition, we have a cooperative agreement with DCTA on the A Train, which meets our Green Line at Trinity Mills. So we all work very closely together to make sure the customers don’t realize that it is one agency or the other. At the end of the day, all they really care about is being able to get from point A to point B safely, physically and effectively.
“There is a lot of conversation in our region right now about the 62 mile Cotton Belt Corridor that goes from south west Ft. Worth, through downtown, across the north side of the DFW Airport, through Carrollton and over to the Red Line between Plano and Richardson.
“The T is working on the western side. They are going through a full funding grant process with the Federal Transit Administration to try to receive funding. DART continues to work with the private sector on a public/private partnership to develop innovative ways to finance this project and move it forward.
“Currently, on the eastern side of the region, the Cotton Belt Corridor is scheduled for passenger rail in 2040. A lot of people would like to figure out how to advance that date to 2016. On the western side, The T is looking at a 2016 revenue service date, but that is predicated on the federal funding.”
Looking to the future, John Danish, DART Board Chair, predicts commuter and passenger rail travel will extend throughout Texas.
“I believe this alliance is potentially the next major step in a whole new era of passenger rail transit for the North Texas region, which is an area that extends across 16 counties,” Danish said. “The Dallas-Ft. Worth region is the nation’s fourth largest metropolitan area, and it is consistently ranked as the fastest growing. In the next 20 years, our region is expected to reach nine million in population. It is also one of the most sprawling, covering an area roughly seven times the state of Rhode Island.
“People from throughout the region are clamoring for transit. Competition for transit projects is much greater these days, and the federal purse-strings are much tighter. Our Tri-Party Passenger Rail Alliance is in a position to further multi-modal transportation in our region. Increasing the scope of transit and having it blend seamlessly with road travel, passenger rail, air traffic and other modes is not just desirable. It is a vital objective.
“Sometime in the future, the near future we hope, you can add the Cotton Belt to that mix. Sometime after that, I envision the Burlington Northern Santa Fe line being developed for passenger rail, extending from south Irving through downtown Carrollton and on to Frisco. Eventually, it could even reach the Red River. And beyond that, a passenger rail network extending to Houston, Austin, San Antonio, Oklahoma, Shreveport and the Rio Grande Valley.”
The Cotton Belt Corridor could provide unique transportation options to the traveling public, according to Jim Cline, President of DCTA.
“The Cotton Belt passenger route would be very significant in that it would provide a circumvential that doesn’t just go north and south, or into and out of the regular routes downtown,” Cline said. “It would provide a tie across the service area. It is a focal point for all three agencies.
“DCTA is proud to be a part of this. We’ve been working together for several years, running trains and dispatching. We are continuing to build those relationships and strengthen them.”
Money and construction would be necessary to make the proposed commuter line a reality, according to Richard Green, Vice President of the Fort Worth & Western Railroad Company.
“The infrastructure of the track will have to be upgraded,” Green said. “The Cotton Belt Corridor is currently class two railroad which is rated for 25 miles per hour (mph.) They are going to want to run 60 mph commuter trains on this line. It will need new ties and rail. On the Ft. Worth side, it would probably cost $700 million for 34 miles of railroad. So overall, it is probably a billion dollar project in today’s dollars.
“I think this is a great project that will really enhance the Metroplex. Opening this track to commuter trains will be a good thing for both Tarrant and Dallas Counties. The master plan is pretty solid.”