Efforts to start the proposed TEX Rail commuter train service by 2018 are gathering steam.
Fort Worth Transportation Authority board members recently approved the purchase of eight self-propelled diesel rail cars to operate on the proposed 27-mile rail line and agreed to enter into several contracts that will help get the project underway. The rail would carry an estimated 10,000 or more passengers per day from downtown Fort Worth to Grapevine and Dallas/ Fort Worth Airport’s Terminal B.
The T agreed to a contract with a firm to handle preparations for TEX Rail construction, which could begin next year, approved the purchase of several properties to make way for the project, and OK’d a final design contract for two stations in North Richland Hills.
“This is really the first major milestone for the project,” said Bob Baulsir, the T’s vice president of TEX Rail and procurement.
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Not all funding in place
The moves, expected to cost a combined $115 million, were made even though TEX Rail hasn’t received the full federal funding to cover the cost of the project. In all, TEX Rail is expected to cost $862 million, with federal money needed for roughly half.
Even without funding, the Federal Transit Administration could give the T the go-ahead to buy the cars by granting its request to “enter into engineering,” a procedural step T officials hope could come as soon as this month. The FTA’s governing rules for new-start passenger rail lines say transit agencies may have “pre-award authority” to make certain purchases that will eventually be reimbursed with federal funds, even if the overall project hasn’t gotten final approval.
The timing of a full-funding grant agreement from the agency depends on how quickly the T completes the remaining steps in the federal application. Under such an agreement, the federal government essentially pledges to provide the full amount of money needed. The appropriations are often spread over many years and can be subject to congressional approval of mass transit funds.
The eight rail cars were by far the largest expenditure authorized last week. They will be ordered from Switzerland-based Stadler Bussnang AG, which has a Stadler Rail U.S. branch in New Jersey. Each car costs $10.775 million. With engineering and other expenses the total tab is expected to be $106.7 million, although the T has options to buy more cars that would increase the cost.
Stadler and three other companies were invited to talk to the T about its needs for TEX Rail. The others are US Railcar, Nippon Sharyo and Bombardier, T officials said. But only Stadler eventually responded to the T’s request for proposals. The other companies said they couldn’t comply with the federal government’s “buy America” requirements for purchases involving federal money.
The T has $25 million on hand to place the order for the cars and has access to state and federal grant funds as well as millions of dollars in its fund balance to cover costs if there are delays in getting the full-funding grant agreement from the transit agency, or new-starts funding from Congress. The T can also issue debt if necessary, Baulsir said.
The rail cars are a type known as diesel multiple units. They are self-propelled, with the engines embedded in the passenger cars, so a locomotive isn’t needed.
The operator rides in a control room at the front of the lead passenger car.
Controversy over the cars
Stadler cars were in the spotlight beginning in 2012, when an electrical problem known as shunting caused a Denton A-train to disappear from a dispatcher’s control panel. Shunting occurs when the electrical signal sent by trains through the metal railroad tracks is interrupted by any of several factors, including dirt or rust on the tracks.
In the case of the Stadler cars, a former Trinity Railway Express chief mechanical officer criticized the T in a 2013 Star-Telegram article, saying he was concerned that the Stadler cars were a safety hazard because they were too light to provide a continuous signal. Shunting could prevent a train from triggering the gates and lights at a railroad crossing, for example.
But Baulsir says the Stadler cars the T wants to buy for TEX Rail have twice as many wheels as those used by the A-train, and he expects no difficulties with shunting. Baulsir also said passengers will be thrilled by the streetcarlike comfort of the Stadler cars, which feature ample standing room, panoramic windows and very little rattling or other noise.
The T board also agreed to enter a $527,590 contract with the Urban Engineers firm to design two TEX Rail stations in North Richland Hills: one at the northwest corner of Loop 820 and Iron Horse Boulevard, the other on Smithfield Road between Mid-Cities Boulevard and Main Street.
TEX Rail would then have 10 stations. The North Richland Hills stations were initially left off the environmental planning document for TEX Rail.
Although North Richland Hills currently doesn’t have sales tax capacity to join the T — Fort Worth, for example, dedicates a half-cent to the T and Grapevine pays 3/8 cent — city officials are in discussions with the T to determine how to help pay for TEX Rail and get the two stations open, City Manager Mark Hindman said.
“We are establishing tax-increment finance districts that will pay a large portion of the costs out of the incremental value that will derive from the transit-oriented developments that we have laid out around the two stations,” Hindman said.
The T board also approved the purchase of several small pieces of property on the northeast end of downtown Fort Worth, where a new stretch of railroad tracks will be needed to get TEX Rail out of the Intermodal Transportation Center and onto the Union Pacific tracks heading toward the Stockyards.
The properties are at 1519 and 1525 E. Belknap St., and 1604 E. Bluff St.
Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796