— By JUDY SHERIDAN
WILLOW PARK — Citing projected increases in growth, congestion, and air pollution, Tom Shelton, of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, made a convincing case for local commuter rail at a luncheon called Friday by County Judge Mark Riley at Clear Fork Banquet Hall.
Listeners, however, were quick to understand the rub.
“Where does the money come from,” one asked, learning that the federal government decides how much revenue from gasoline taxes is set aside for passenger rail — and that the level of those funds is declining.
“What is a donor area,” another asked, pointing to an overhead projection.
“The federal gas tax that goes to Washington is appropriated and returned to the states for transportation needs,” Shelton explained. “Some — lower density states — get back more, but Texas gets less. Just 92 percent of the gas tax we pay in comes back to us.”
Declaring there is no such thing as federal funding, local resident Jack Cavenah proposed rail corridors be built between lanes on the interstate to save right-of-way costs.
“The federal government doesn’t have any money,” he said. “They give us money back that we send up there, and depending on how good we are, and how we jump to their tune, is how much we get back.
“Why can we not build like the northwest does, right down the middle of the interstate,” he said. “We’ve already got the right-of-way; you don’t have to buy anything.”
About 50 local officials and others gathered to listen to Shelton’s presentation Friday, which centered on commuter rail plans for the 12-county North Texas area NCTCOG is responsible for.
Parker is the westernmost county; others are Wise, Denton, Collin, Hunt, Tarrant, Dallas, Rockwall, Kaufman, Hood, Johnson and Ellis.
“We have a lot of federal responsibilities to develop long-range transportation plans to match up with the growth in the region,” Shelton explained. “We also manage and appropriate a lot of the federal funding that comes to our region.”
Growth in North Texas has averaged 100,000 people per year over the last 10 years, he said, and a current population of 6.3 million is projected to reach 10 million by 2035.
Congestion levels will increase, too, he said, and burning more fuel will worsen EPA non-attainment areas — most of the region.
Shelton said NCTCOG believes the region has a growing need for a robust and sufficient transportation system that will allow people to move around quickly and conveniently.
“We believe strongly in a multi-modal approach,” he said, “not just highways and tollways.”
Shelton pointed to the area’s only commuter rail project, the Trinity Railway Express, which links downtown Dallas Union Station or downtown Fort Worth’s T&P Station with CentrePort/DFW Airport Station.
“It averages 9,000 to 10,000 riders daily,” he said. “We look at the TRE as an indicator of interest and appetite to have intermodal transportation.”
Shelton said the 37-mile Tex Rail project, which stretches from east of Benbrook Lake to DFW Airport, should start construction this time next year.
The best places to implement commuter rail, Shelton said, are the existing freight railroad corridors, most owned by Union Pacific Railroad or BNSF Railroad.
“We believe by negotiating we will be able to implement passenger rail in those corridors,” he said, noting that their locations would be convenient for commuters.
Passenger rail, Shelton said, will soon have more modern-style equipment.
“They’re getting away from from the old-style locomotives with the coach cabs following them,” he said.
He also said that NCTCOG was beginning to develop a priority plan for the western region, and will be working with leaders in Parker and Tarrant counties to prioritize projects.
A private consortium from Japan approached NCTCOG a year ago, Shelton said, and wants to come to the U.S. and implement high-speed rail — over 200 mph. He said the group determined the best place to do so would be from Dallas/Fort Worth to Houston, a trip that would then take 90 minutes.
Riley asked Shelton to explain why establishing commuter rail can’t be done quickly.
“There are several key steps,” Shelton said. “The corridors are owned by railroads, and we must reach agreements to operate in their right-of-ways. It typically requires very little right-of-way acquisition; a real benefit is their minimial impact on communities. But we have to reach agreements on safety issues.”
Shelton also listed the level of environmental scrutiny required, the design, engineering and construction of the system, and finding the resources.