Fort Worth Wins Grant for Streetcar, But Whether It’s Ready Is Another Question

» Federal government commits to funding share for project, but the city isn’t yet ready for full investment. Should Washington be promising money for under-planned programs?

Last week, the U.S. Department of Transportation awarded Fort Worth $25 million to begin work on a new inner-city streetcar line, putting it in the ranks of a small group of lucky cities that received similar funds from Washington, including Charlotte, Cincinnati, and St. Louis. The grant, according to the government, will go to a 2.5-mile one-way rail loop through the center city with 20 to 25 stations, to be served by three vehicles.

The exact route has yet to be defined, because the city is in the midst of a large-scale study of six potential corridors extending from the office district into the surrounding neighborhoods. The routes all connect to the Intermodal Transit Center east of downtown, where streetcars would meet up with Trinity Railroad Express commuter trains, Amtrak, and local buses. In order to receive the federal grant, the city is required to provide at least a 20% local match.

Fort Worth’s luck in receiving funds over a whole host of competing cities hasn’t prevented some local politicians from criticizing the project and questioning whether the city should move ahead with the line. Councilman Jungus Jordan, a long-time streetcar opponent, suggested last week that other infrastructure investments were more critical to the future of the city. The council still must approve a source of local funds — likely to be based in a form of tax-increment financing in the affected districts — to ensure the rail program’s successful implementation.

If opposition is fomented, the current schedule for the program could be pushed aside and a dream for a rail line through the center city could be set aside, just as it has been repeatedly over the past decade. But if all goes well, the city estimates that it will be able to recommend phasing for the system by September; the initial segment could be up and running in four years. The DOT’s claim that it is sponsoring a “streetcar loop” doesn’t mean that a route has been determined; Fort Worth could alter its preferred alignment and still collect the federal grant, presumably as long as the line connects the Intermodal Transit Center with the business district.

The Obama Administration is making a policy of prioritizing streetcar connections between intercity rail stations and office areas, as proven by grants to do so in Detroit, New Orleans, and Tucson. The Fort Worth line would fit well within that effort and encourage the extension of the city’s “livable,” walkable areas — now the stated end goal of the DOT in approving new transportation projects.

But the situation in Fort Worth suggests that the DOT may be putting too much trust in the potential of some local governments to move forward on planning construction projects and to establish revenue sources apart from those provided by the federal government.

Unlike the streetcar lines proposed for Charlotte and Cincinnati, which are basically ready for construction, Fort Worth’s line is under-planned. The fact that the city has yet to settle on a final alignment is problematic since it means that Washington is agreeing to finance a project that has yet to be fully defined. Is that sound policy?

Under the New Starts process, which admittedly funds much larger capital projects, transit authorities must undergo years of studies and public review before receiving money for construction from the federal government. By the time the DOT has signed a full funding grant agreement, ensuring financial support for a defined percentage of costs, transit agencies have had to justify their choice of transportation mode, choose a specific alignments, pick stop locations, establish estimated ridership figures, and guarantee local financial support for the rest of the project’s cost.

Fort Worth, not required to do so under the Urban Circulator program from which it received funding, has done none of that so far. But it will have to go through many of the same steps before it can begin laying tracks in the street.

To some extent, that’s good news, since it means that the federal government won’t be as severe in the future about distributing money to public transportation projects, which have traditionally been forced to submit to a far more rigorous evaluation process than highway projects. On the other hand, there’s a lot of merit to the idea that Washington shouldn’t be throwing money around willy-nilly; why should Fort Worth get funds if it’s years away from using them? Shouldn’t the government wait to award money until when cities are ready to use it for construction?

But the under-preparedness of this Texas city may be a reflection of the federal government’s attempts to speed the grant distribution process beyond the capacity of local governments that had no access to cash for streetcar lines just two years ago. There was little federal planning money available until recently to pay for studies considering these types of projects. I can only hope that in the future that the DOT can be a bit more exacting in allocating construction dollars only to cities that are prepared to take advantage of them.

18 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • NCarlson

    The question is, were there any projects competing for the money that were competitive in terms of whatever the urban ciruclator standards are now? If not, the FTA is left with money that has to go somewhere, and I do see the logic is finalizing grants early. One of the criticisms that is often heard while projects are proceeding through initial studies and grant applications is that federal funds aren’t guaranteed and that the risk is to high to go ahead with that guarantee – if it becomes possible to get grants solidified faster and earlier in the process that will only be for the good.

  • AlexB

    The plan for Ft Worth, while not finalized, couldn’t have that much deviation. There is downtown, the stockyards, and the museum area that would need access to the intermodal station. If you go to the stockyards or the museum district, you are going through downtown. It’s all pretty logical. I understand the point of the post that it’s a bit weird to give funds to something undefined, but there are only so many ways this could go forward, and they are all perfectly good.

  • Nicholas

    Why is a city with an anemic plan and a shaky commitment such as Fort Worth being funded by the US Gov’t while larger, more densely populated urban centers like Milwaukee were totally rejected from their grant proposal?? Milwaukee has been working to get a streetcar in its downtown for decades and has a designed and engineered route ready to be built but gets passed up in favour of places like Fort Worth and elsewhere… this is deplorably unfair.

  • Woody

    AlexB has it right. The main corridors for street cars here are so obvious that even a Member of Congress could draw them on the map. Sure, the Devil is in the details, but the fast-growing Cowtown Metropolis is ripe and ready for transformational change with the right transit structure. The city has a small concentrated Downtown, rejuvenated and supported by the Bass Family fortune. That core is surrounded by a vast swath of formerly vibrant neighborhoods very much in need of density and renewal.

    A street car line along North Main to the Stockyards could tie that historic-tourist-nightlife district to the downtown and be a tourist attraction in its own right, bringing more visitors to the city and to the restaurants on Main and in the Stockyards. Transit oriented development could replace block after block of used car dealers, obsolete or shuttered one-story commercial buildings, and parking lots. If lined with apartment buildings, this stretch could offer walk-to-work, bike-to-work, and street-car-ride-to-work housing, relieved by expansive park land along the river, bike paths and all.

    In the other direction, the route from Downtown to the Cultural District (the Kimbell, Amon Carter, Modern Art Museum of Fort Worth, etc.) seems not quite as dreary as North Main, but there’s plenty of space for in-fill development.

    It looks like the feds have put a big hand on the steering wheel by offering the 80% funding for the starter line now. It’s hard to imagine local politicians declining to do what’s needed to get the $25 million, even if it costs them $6 million or so in local money. And this move by the feds could head off another transit dead end into terminal stupidity like the rail line in Austin.

  • Brandon

    @Nicholas, thats been the way of the game for awhile. Older denser cities are going to have to pay their own way, and everybody else’s too. In the end they will actually succeed, too.

    • Nicholas

      Brandon, and please elaborate for me why this has been the “way of the game”, as you say? What exactly is smart and fair about a strategy which robs those in greater need in places like Milwaukee while giving to already over-privleged sprawling places like Fort Worth? how on earth is that a good idea?!

      • Woody

        Sorry about Milwaukee; better luck next round. But here’s another way to look at it. LaHood & team has already given Wisconsin hundreds of millions for higher speed rail between Milwaukee and Madison. The considerably larger state of Texas got less than $50 million, iirc, to install new signaling from Ft Worth to the Oklahoma border to speed up the Heartland Flyer. Looking at those figures for the HSR grants, I’m not sure how you say Ft Worth is over-privileged, however sprawling it may be.

        • Local transit and intercity rail aren’t the same thing. In fact, you could argue it the other way: because of network effects, the places that get the most money for local transit should get the most for intercity rail and vice versa.

          • Woody

            As every politician knows, money in one place is the same thing as money in another place, for whatever purpose. So every Congresscritter took note when one state got $823 million in one round of grants while the second biggest state in the US got a whopping $4 million (sorry, above I misoveremembered Texas’ share of the HSR funds).

            If on the next round of grants, LaHood’s DOT leans over a bit to make the headline cities more geographically diverse, I can forgive them. Especially since from a transportation-planning standpoint, it’s so much better they give the $823 grants to the most deserving projects, and if necessary concede a few of the lousy $25 million grants to be politicized.

            More politics lurking in this matter? The counties containing Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin now go Democratic. Fast-growing Ft Worth’s county is hotly contested. When redistricting follows the Census for the 2012 elections, the Dallas-Ft Worth area is sure to get another US House seat when Texas gains four more.

            Last, not least. I love network effects, and I think they are an under-appreciated aspect of any effort to improve the conventional and High(er) Speed Amtrak system. And train stations have a great symbolic importance on transit maps. But I thought it was you who schooled me here long ago that the network effects of intercity rail and transit are small. As I recall, you said then that the Amtrak passengers using Penn Station were far fewer than those using anyone of the four subway lines serving the station. Of course. Amtrak has four trains per hour from Philly; a rush hour subway line carries about 12 tph.

            If Milwaukee’s streetcar depends on the H(er)SR line from Madison, or if Ft Worth’s line depends on the hourly TRE from Dallas, they are doomed. Fortunately I think they both will stand on their own, no matter what happens with intercity rail.

          • Nathanael

            “But I thought it was you who schooled me here long ago that the network effects of intercity rail and transit are small.”

            Actually there’s a massive asymmetry. Good local rail connections improve the performance of intercity rail massively. Good intercity rail doesn’t improve the performance of local rail much.

          • Woody, you’re right that if the plan for Milwaukee hinges on the HSR line then it’s doomed. However, there’s another way to look at it: since the money is already committed, a local transit connection would improve the HSR ROI.

            Bear in mind that it’s all on the margins – other issues like average speed, station placement, competing highways, etc. are much more important. But it means that deliberately spreading the money around is definitely not the best strategy.

            The “money is money” rule applies in general. Some places get more money for mass transit, some places get more money for missile launchers. The Appropriations Committees are very good at distributing pork among members in a way they believe is fair. The trick is to choose the balance that best maximizes social ROI. It’s a political version of comparative advantage. And I don’t think Fort Worth has any comparative advantage in transit over Milwaukee.

  • Andrew

    Any streetcar in Fort Worth really ought to (at least in the long term) be designed to hook up with the existing system in Dallas. The Trinity Railway Express is inadequate; no Sunday service is a joke.

  • Woody

    The TRE takes an hour to get from Dallas to Ft Worth, about 32 miles distance. Worse than Amtrak. The Texas Eagle takes 35 minutes ( not counting 20 minutes dwell time in Dallas and another 45 in Ft Worth ). I’ve read about doubletracking and other upgrades to cut the timetable, but nothing lately.

    The demand is there, with 1.5 million passengers a year on the TRE, even at current service levels. Cut the trip time to 30 minutes, with departures every 30 minutes or less, add Sunday trains, and yes, connect to streetcars in Ft Worth. Then you will really have something. Not there yet.

    • Nathanael

      “The TRE takes an hour to get from Dallas to Ft Worth, about 32 miles distance. Worse than Amtrak. ”

      Au contraire; Amtrak takes an amazing hour and 35 minutes to get from Dallas to Fort Worth, though it only takes an hour in the reverse direction! And remember Amtrak has *no stops* between Dallas and Fort Worth.

      So no, NOT worse than Amtrak. Amtrak is trying to move to the TRE tracks in order to speed up.

      • Nathanael

        I’m wondering if you misread the Texas Eagle schedule. (1:35 from Dallas to Fort Worth is pretty impressively awful, and I can see how your brain might have imagined that it was 35 minutes.)

        Anyway, the doubletracking is hoped to both speed up TRE and create capacity to move Amtrak onto the TRE line (cutting at least 35 minutes off the Amtrak schedule).

        • Woody

          No doubt I misread the schedule! But I was also thinking of the typical Amtrak speed, more or less 50 mph, no?

          • Nathanael

            It varies a lot based on route. I don’t know what the average is across the whole system; obviously the NEC runs faster, while the Vermont trains run much, much slower.

          • Off-NEC it’s about 50 mph-ish, but the urban segments are excruciatingly slow. A lot of it isn’t actual slowness as much as schedule padding, but it means you can’t rely on the trains being any faster.

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

Comment preview below as you type. You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>


− two = 6

For help if you have trouble posting or your comment is marked as spam, please email:
info (at) thetransportpolitic.com | Comment Rules

The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark

yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com

  • Le progrès ne vaut que s'il est partagé par tous.

Email newsletter

Network

rss feed
comments feed
twitter feed
email update