Plans, trains and automobiles
Sun, Mar. 12, 2006
By JACK Z. SMITH
Fort Worth Star-Telegram
In the next few decades, the ever-growing Dallas-Fort Worth area could experience striking changes in the way that people and goods move.
North Central Texas' population has been ballooning faster than the transportation infrastructure -- a situation akin to that of a growing middle-schooler whose old jeans don't quite fit anymore.
With the Metroplex expected to add about 4 million people by 2030, it's hard to imagine the hellish traffic jams that we'll face in the future unless we take giant steps to reverse course. New transportation projects and strategies are being hashed out now that might someday save us from the bumper-to-bumper bummer of growing gridlock.
Here are examples of projects already in the works or being contemplated by state, regional and local officials:
The Trans-Texas Corridor's TTC-35 segment is proposed to run from the Oklahoma border to the Metroplex and on to the Mexican border. Its primary goal is to relieve congestion on packed Interstate 35 and in the big cities through which it passes (Fort Worth, Dallas, Austin and San Antonio). Motorists can expect to pay sizable tolls on the new, less clogged, higher-speed route.
Some stretches of TTC-35 might include -- within a broad corridor up to 1,200 feet wide -- separate lanes for passenger vehicles and large freight trucks, freight railways, high-speed passenger rail and conduits for water lines, oil and natural gas pipelines, transmission of electricity and broadband.
A fully developed TTC-35 system in the Metroplex could include a gigantic outer loop with separate corridors for toll-paying autos traveling 65 to 70 miles per hour, freight trains and 18-wheelers.
The outer loop, as envisioned by the North Central Texas Council of Governments (COG), would run through the northern part of Denton and Collin counties, an eastern segment of Wise County, along the Tarrant County-Parker County border, through the northern half of Johnson and Ellis counties and around the eastern edge of Dallas County.
A high-speed rail line could shoot northward between Dallas and Fort Worth to Dallas-Fort Worth Airport. The line might roughly parallel Texas 360, which could be extended southward toward Hillsboro.
Outlying rail corridors could be developed to reroute much of the freight train traffic around Fort Worth and Dallas, enabling local rail freight to move more quickly and reducing bottlenecks that urban motorists face at numerous rail crossings.
Space could be freed up on older central-city rail corridors for use by commuter rail lines. This expanded use of mass transit would help offset expected increases in the number of passenger vehicles clogging our roads as a result of population growth.
Existing railroad tracks could be upgraded and additional sets of tracks installed in long-established rail corridors. This could result in faster movement of freight trains and Amtrak passenger trains traveling to and from Dallas-Fort Worth.
High-speed intercity passenger rail -- perhaps bullet trains going 200 mph -- could connect Dallas-Fort Worth, Austin, San Antonio, Bryan-College Station and Houston. In addition, this high-speed network could be connected with federally designated high-speed rail corridors running through the Southeastern U.S. and on to New England.
A regional authority might be created to foster a greatly expanded Metroplex system of light rail (such as Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, already operates) and commuter rail (such as the Trinity Railway Express jointly operated by DART and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, or The T).
New commuter rail lines might run from Fort Worth to D/FW Airport along the old Cotton Belt Railroad route; from downtown Fort Worth to the city's southwest quadrant; and from Fort Worth eastward through Arlington and Grand Prairie and on to Dallas via Union Pacific Railroad tracks.
Future commuters also could travel by rail from Denton to Carrollton to downtown Dallas. Outlying cities throughout the Metroplex also have expressed interest in commuter rail service. For example, officials in the Johnson County cities of Cleburne, Joshua, Crowley and Burleson have expressed interest in gaining commuter rail service that would link them to Fort Worth and Dallas.
Construction of new roads -- as well as expansions of and improvements to existing ones -- will continue to be an important means of countering gridlock. For example, a $762 million makeover of the Grapevine Funnel will help relieve congestion on the seven highways that converge between D/FW Airport and Lake Grapevine.
Dedicated lanes for 18-wheelers could be established on some major Metroplex roads, in part as a safety measure to separate them from smaller passenger vehicles.
Progressive development strategies are increasingly being embraced by elected officials and planners who have come to realize that taming the region's transportation and air quality problems involves more than merely building more roads or constructing new commuter rail lines.
There's a major push, buttressed by federal grant money, for creation of more "sustainable development" -- development that will remain functional even in the wake of a continued population explosion and increased gridlock.
Urban "mixed-use" developments that include higher-density housing, job hubs, retail stores, restaurants, public schools, green space and mass transit stops all in one area can dramatically reduce the amount of driving that people do for work, shopping, education, dining and entertainment.
Some of the contemplated developments in transportation are virtually certain or at least likely to become reality. Others might be only partially realized or never go beyond the scope of brainstorming sessions.
Some projects could be scrapped or pared back as a result of high costs, political opposition, the expense and difficulty of acquiring right of way, or slower-than-expected population growth that diminishes the amount of additional transportation infrastructure needed.One budding trend is likely to continue: Tolls increasingly will be levied on motorists to help pay for major road projects, especially if skittish state elected officials continue to believe that raising the modest state gasoline tax of 20 cents per gallon is political suicide.
The rate of population growth will be a primary factor in determining how many new roads and mass-transit routes are needed. The North Central Texas COG has forecast that the population of a 10-county Metroplex area will explode from fewer than 5.1 million residents in 2000 to more than 9.1 million by 2030.
In terms of transportation developments, Metroplex residents should learn more about the shape of things to come within the next several years, after the likely routes of key segments of the TTC-35 corridor are more solidly established and related transportation projects in the Dallas-Fort Worth area are mapped out more fully.
The Trans-Texas Corridor, fervently backed by Gov. Rick Perry and Texas Transportation Commission Chairman Ric Williamson of Weatherford, is proposed to help relieve gridlock in the state's largest cities by diverting substantial volumes of traffic, freight and utilities around them.
Some segments of the proposed statewide Trans-Texas Corridor system might not be completed for several decades -- or perhaps might never be built, as a result of insufficient funding, discouraging cost-benefit analyses, opposition by rural landowners or other factors. But the initial steps in the corridor's development are being taken.
A new Central Texas highway, Texas 130, running east of Interstate 35 and the Austin area, is under construction and could become part of the TTC-35 system. A portion of Texas 130 is expected to open next year.
Sometime soon, presumably this month or next, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) and the Federal Highway Administration are expected to release a report suggesting a proposed general route for the primary 600-mile TTC-35 corridor from the Oklahoma border to the Metroplex and on to the Mexican border.
Currently, the path that the TTC-35 corridor would take has been restricted to a 50-mile-wide swath.
The new report would narrow the proposed path to a 10-mile-wide "study corridor" that would be discussed beginning in May in more than 50 public hearings in North Central Texas and other areas along the suggested corridor route.
After the hearings, a final 10-mile-wide study corridor could be approved in 2007 for the 600-mile primary corridor. Following that, specific routes for various segments of the corridor would be determined at varying times in coming years. It could take three to five years to determine the specific route for a particular segment .
The Trans-Texas Corridor is to be constructed gradually, as transportation needs dictate. Although some segments could be under construction within five to 10 years, the full statewide corridor system might not be completed for 40 to 50 years -- and some portions might never be built.
Future additions to the TTC-35 system, beyond the 600-mile primary corridor, eventually could be developed in the Metroplex.
Under a plan accepted by the Texas Transportation Commission in December 2004, Madrid-based Cintra and San Antonio-based Zachry Construction are the lead partners in a venture in which they propose to use $6 billion in private investment to build a 316-mile, four-lane toll road segment of the TTC-35 corridor from the Dallas-Fort Worth area to San Antonio and also pay a $1.2 billion concession fee that the state could use to help pay for related transportation projects. In exchange, Cintra-Zachry would collect tolls on the TTC-35 segment for 50 years. But TxDOT has not approved a binding construction contract with Cintra and Zachry.
Cintra-Zachry has proposed that the 600-mile TTC-35 primary corridor run from the Oklahoma border, around the southeast edge of Dallas, southward east of Hillsboro and the existing Interstate 35, then intersect with the new Texas 130 northeast of Georgetown and go on to the San Antonio area and the Mexican border.
A potential secondary route for TTC-35 could go west around Tarrant County to provide a major new traffic artery around the western half of the Metroplex.
But the Cintra-Zachry team has not proposed that TTC-35 include a leg running up the middle of the Metroplex between Fort Worth and Dallas and on to D/FW Airport, as urged by COG's Regional Transportation Council (RTC), which includes elected officials from 16 counties.
Although TxDOT and the Federal Highway Administration are the primary government agencies involved with the planning and development of TTC-35, they should give heavy consideration to the opinions of Metroplex political and civic leaders -- most notably COG and the RTC.
In a resolution passed 13 months ago, the RTC endorsed a variety of measures designed to relieve passenger vehicle, freight truck and freight rail congestion in the Metroplex and encourage the expansion of mass transit (especially high-speed rail and urban commuter rail).
In accord with the resolution, COG staffers have formulated general concepts and illustrations of how four transportation modes -- freight rail, auto, truck and passenger rail -- might be developed as components of the TTC-35 system or links to it .
The RTC urges that the proposed TTC-35 corridor proceed northward between Fort Worth and Dallas, running along the general path of an extended Texas 360 and including high-speed rail running to D/FW Airport.
The RTC suggests developing freight corridors -- for both truck and rail freight -- that could be part of the TTC-35 system and run in a general east-west direction south of Fort Worth and Dallas and then around the west edge of Tarrant County and east edge of Dallas County as they extended northward. These "bypass" corridors could become part of the huge outer loop that also would let passenger vehicles travel swiftly around Dallas, Fort Worth and other Metroplex cities.
The outlying freight rail corridor could help relieve congestion at Tower 55, a rail hub on the southeast edge of downtown Fort Worth where the north-south Burlington Northern Santa Fe and east-west Union Pacific tracks meet at grade to form one of the worst train choke points in the nation. ("At grade" means that the tracks intersect on the same level rather than one passing over the other.)
The congestion at Tower 55 is akin to the nightmarish auto and truck gridlock that would occur if there were a traffic stoplight at Interstates 35W and 30 in downtown Fort Worth, said Mike Sims, a COG senior program manager for transportation.
"Most rail people say [Tower 55] is the busiest rail intersection at grade west of the Mississippi," Sims said.
In addition to the proposal to help relieve Tower 55's rail jam by rerouting many freight trains around the Metroplex, there has been talk of digging a deep, subsurface north-south trench through which Burlington Northern trains could travel at a level under the Tower 55 bottleneck.
But a trench running from the north edge of downtown Fort Worth to the city's Medical District might cost more than $800 million.
Diverting more freight trains around the Metroplex also could route potentially hazardous cargo outside heavily populated areas.
Creation of a new state rail relocation fund, authorized by Texas voters with the passage of a constitutional amendment in November, could provide a financing mechanism for some rail projects.
The overarching goal of many transportation planners is to create a much more seamless system that better links different travel modes so that riding a bus or commuter train becomes a convenient and feasible alternative for more North Central Texas residents.
State legislation adopted in recent years has created new financing opportunities for transportation projects, particularly for toll roads developed through newly created regional mobility authorities or public-private partnerships such as TxDOT's proposed coupling with Cintra-Zachry.
Many local elected officials would like a more reliable, ongoing funding source such as a dedicated sales tax to finance expanded regional rail transit. But some statewide elected officials and legislators have balked at supporting legislation to enable that.
Doing nothing could prove disastrous. The average Metroplex motorist already spends 60 hours annually stuck in traffic, the equivalent of one-and-a- half full workweeks, according to the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University.
Unless the transportation system sees major gridlock-busting improvements, congestion could get far worse during the next 20 years, particularly in fast-growing Fort Worth and Tarrant County.
Approximately $100 billion will be needed to effectively address Metroplex transportation needs and keep congestion from getting worse by 2025, the RTC has estimated.
Going forward, local, state and federal officials need to communicate more effectively and strive to get on the same page in formulating solutions for North Central Texas' transportation headaches.
As state and federal officials move toward selecting a more specific proposed route for the TTC-35 system in the Metroplex, they should strongly consider the RTC recommendation that a corridor run up the region's middle between Fort Worth and Dallas.
Even if officials at all levels cooperate fully in coming years, it will be difficult to find effective and affordable means of meeting all the pressing transportation needs of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
Minus such cooperation, it probably will prove impossible.
IN THE KNOW
To learn more
North Central Texas Council of Governments, Transportation Issues: www.nctcog.org/trans
Trans-Texas Corridor: www.keeptexasmoving.org
Texas Department of Transportation: www.txdot.state.tx.us
Jack Z. Smith is a Star-Telegram editorial writer. (817) 390-7724 firstname.lastname@example.org
© 2006 Fort Worth Star-Telegram: www.dfw.com