The Cotton Belt Rail Line Can Still Be Built. Here's How.

Categories: Transportation

Thumbnail image for CottonBeltRender.jpg
Not quite dead yet
The writing had already been on the wall for weeks by the time a Senate committee convened in April to consider John Carona's bill aimed at jump-starting construction of 62 miles of passenger rail along the Cotton Belt Corridor. The city of Fort Worth had scrawled the message in big, bold letters when it publicly withdrew its support for the measure. And so, when Carona didn't bother to show up for the committee hearing, supporters knew the bill was doomed.

A number of things contributed to this outcome. There was the opposition from Fort Worth, which is keen on building its own rail, as well as the Cotton Belt Concerned Citizens Coalition, a small but vocal group of homeowners in Far North Dallas on whose behalf Dallas City Council member Sandy Greyson addressed lawmakers. Then there was the bill itself, a complicated and politically toxic hodgepodge of tax incentives and bureaucracy intended to sweeten the pot for private developers.

"We had a very innovative approach to try to fund this," says Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Part of the money would have come from property owners -- the Billingsley Co., with its Cypress Waters development, is an example -- who would basically volunteer to be taxed in exchange for increased property values and new development the rail line would bring. Tax financing districts would also be established to help fund rail-side projects. The rest would be cobbled together from a variety of initiatives. As a for instance, Morris said there was talk of mobile-only ticketing that could bring in revenue by forcing riders to look at ads whenever they buy a ticket.

All that required some sort of governance structure, which is what Carona's bill would have created. And that, like we said, is dead. The plan to build a $2 billion rail line between Plano and Fort Worth, on the other hand, is not.

"We have a momentum built up," says former Dallas City Council member Ron Natinsky, who's representing the private consortium that has expressed interest in funding the project. Their business plan has "gotten unfortunately sort of sidelined because of the legislative process," he says, but "we believe we can put together a Plan B that lets us utilize the mechanisms that we intended to use in order to get us to the point we need to be."

And what exactly might Plan B look like? Here are the main possibilities.

The Williamson County Approach: While Caron's bill was dying a quiet death, a measure by Senator Kirk Watson sailed through the Legislature and wound up on Governor Rick Perry's desk. The bill, like Carona's, is arcane, but it essentially frees up regional mobility authorities, which counties or groups of counties can establish to build transportation projects, from geographical constraints. This means that, hypothetically at least, Cotton Belt supporters can go to, say, the Central Texas RMA in Williamson County and ask them to build the Cotton Belt. But that's a long shot.

The TRZ Approach: Equally arcane but more realistic is another bill passed by the Legislature that allows transportation reinvestment zones to be set up for rail projects, not just roads. This basically uses the projected increase in property taxes a project will create to finance the project itself.

The A-Train Approach: The Denton County Transit Authority already runs its A-Train from Denton to Carrollton. It'd be a relatively simple thing to link it to the Cotton Belt tracks, back it the couple of miles east into Addison, then run it west to DFW Airport. This would leave a large portion of the project unbuilt, but it's relatively cheap and easy, doesn't require any convoluted legislative maneuvers, and still manages to link to DFW (the Cotton Belt's Holy Grail) and Addison, the only original DART member city that doesn't have any rail. By getting the linkage to DFW, the thinking goes, getting the line extended will be relatively easy.

The Wait-Til-2015-Approach: Carona, or some other lawmaker, could take another stab at filing the Cotton Belt measure when the Legislature reconvenes in regular session in January 2015. The same obstacles that killed the bill this go-round will still mostly be in place, but it's possible that Fort Worth will have decided against going it alone, since it still may not secure the $400 million needed to actually build its section of track. Then, it would probably be be more amenable to the bill.

Natinsky says the private consortium is considering those options and more, though he won't say if they favor a certain approach, and is confident that one of them will work. So long as the end product is a single, integrated system that running from Plano to Fort Worth, they're confident they can make money.

The Cotton Belt, in other words, is still very much alive.


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9 comments
coachbranden
coachbranden

"...and Addison, the only original DART member city that doesn't have any rail."

Glenn Heights and Cockrell Hill are original members without rail service.

roo_ster
roo_ster

I am holding out for the truly environmentally-friendly 19th Century transportation technology of the future: CANALS!  We will solve our transportation needs with WATER!

We'll call it the "Bi-City Gulch" and use it to move very few people relative to automobiles.  Sure, thousands will die from West Nile Virus, what with all that stagnant water, but it will totally be worth it.

[Actually, connecting choo-choo trains between airfields and population centers ought to have been the first thing done by our bone headed gov'ts, if they are hell-bent on choo-choo trains.]

Sharon_Moreanus
Sharon_Moreanus topcommenter

I wonder how many cats Myrna will have by the time it's completed.

RTGolden1
RTGolden1 topcommenter

"The TRZ Approach: Equally arcane but more realistic is another bill passed by the Legislature that allows transportation reinvestment zones to be set up for rail projects, not just roads. This basically uses the projected increase in property taxes a project will create to finance the project itself."

This seems to be the approach most likely to maximize private gains and place the greatest burden on taxpayers, so my guess is, this is the approach Natinsky & Co will be pursuing.

Finn
Finn

I wouldn't trust a word Ron Natinsky speaks about this project.  When he was on the City Council, he was all in favor of protecting the City, and came up with a "plan" to require the rail line to be dropped below grade for safety, traffic and aesthetic reasons.  Now that he has been hired by the "private consortium" (which has failed to provide ANY details of their plan to the general public), his old plan is no longer feasible and he is asking everyone to simply trust him on this project.  This is not a DART project; rather, DART has handed over the reins to private developers who want special taxing districts and other revenue generators to line their pockets.  If this is truly a project that has the capabilities to be profitable, there is no reason why the city, county or region should be handing over any tax revenue to finance this project or help the consortium earn a return on their investment.  Let the project stand on its own without an unnecessary taking of city and county revenue.

Montemalone
Montemalone topcommenter

We'll have banana peel powered flying cars first.

coachbranden
coachbranden

@roo_ster  The internal combustion engine is also 19th century transportation technology.

kduble
kduble

@RTGolden1 It would basically be a TIF. Cities do this all the time. Dallas has a bunch of them, including the one around American Airlines Center.

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