DALLAS - When the Texas Legislature opens in January, North Texas transportation planners will seek authority to create a tax base that could extend the region's growing network of passenger rail lines beyond existing transit districts and allow for the issuance of debt.
The plan, known as Rail North Texas, recently won approval from the Regional Transportation Council that manages state and federal money for projects for 16 counties in the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
If approved, the plan would enlarge the potential for rail lines throughout the greater metro area - not only in the suburban fringe, but in cities like Arlington in the heart of the urban cluster known as the Metroplex.
Some planners consider it ironic that Arlington, home of the RTC and the North Central Texas Council of Governments, sits in a mass-transit void. In fact, with a population of 371,038, Arlington is the largest city in the United States without its own mass-transit service.
"It is kind of funny," said Rail North Texas program manager Chad Edwards. "We press and push for rail service, and we don't have it here."
One potential Rail North Texas corridor could run through Arlington along the Union Pacific line connecting Dallas and Fort Worth. The busy freight line is seen as the best option for passenger rail, Edwards said, though myriad details would have to be worked out even if voters were to authorize a transit tax. The UP corridor is one of several that might someday connect to existing or planned commuter and light-rail lines, according to Edwards.
"Rail North Texas is the mechanism we're trying to get to the Texas Legislature," he said. "We'd like to work with the systems we have already. Those transit agencies can collect taxes and fees within their boundaries but not outside."
Mass transit has proven a particularly hard sell in Arlington, home to the commuter-oriented University of Texas at Arlington and a General Motors assembly plant served by the Union Pacific freight line. In 2002 voters rejected for the third time a quarter-cent sales tax to support a mass transit system.
The Fort Worth Transit Authority did open the door slightly in September with its first commuter-bus pilot program, for which Arlington paid $70,000. The park-and-ride system takes passengers from two lots in Arlington to Fort Worth's downtown transit hub.
Some transit advocates hope that voters might warm up to rail when the new Dallas Cowboys Stadium opens next year. With 100,000 seats, the stadium is expected to create major traffic jams just a few blocks away from the Texas Rangers baseball stadium, the Six Flags Over Texas amusement park, and other attractions.
Also cool to the idea of the North Texas Rail plan have been two major transit agencies in the area, Dallas Area Rapid Transit and the Denton County Transportation Authority.
Charles Emery, chairman of the DCTA, has worked on Rail North Texas for five years but voted against the plan at the Nov. 6 meeting of the Regional Transportation Council. Emery and DART board member Mark Enoch noted that their agencies already have the power to levy taxes and issue debt.
The Fort Worth Transit Authority supports the Rail North Texas plan. To win passage in the Legislature, however, virtually all local officials will need to be on board, said Amanda Wilson, a Rail North Texas project manager who deals with policy issues.
"If a legislator were to call leaders of his or her local government to find out where they stand on this, there is no way they would vote for it if the local government leaders didn't support it," Wilson said.
To build support in the next two months, Wilson and others will seek to clarify issues that are troubling some of the 43 members of the RTC board who split 26 to 13 in favor of the plan. Wilson and her staff are compiling a list of answers to 30 questions that have come up in discussions.
"Board members who have been working on the Rail North Texas subcommittee are pretty comfortable with this concept," Wilson said. "The ones who were just learning about it at the board meeting were not sure about the concept. What we're trying to do is step back and see where people need more information."
The toughest issue, by far, is taxes. Instead of proposing a single sales tax or other levy, the rail plan provides a menu of options that leaders could consider. Among the possibilities are raising vehicle registration fees to as much as $150 per year, increasing the gasoline tax by 10 cents per gallon, levying a mileage fee for up to one cent per vehicle-mile driven, adding five cents per $100 in property tax, boosting drivers license fees up to $50 per renewal, or imposing a new resident impact fee of up to $250 on new vehicle registrations.
While falling pump prices and a collapsing economy have made the idea of any new tax exponentially more challenging, many politicians still see strong support for rail. In California, voters narrowly approved a $10 billion plan to build an 800-mile high-speed rail line while rejecting other costly initiatives. Conservative Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Tex., fought strenuously to keep Amtrak's two rail lines operating in her state last year.
Opponents say that rail benefits are overstated and that the cost is excessive compared to highways.
But supporters continue to press for more. In Austin, the first commuter rail line is preparing to start service next year, and city officials are considering another attempt to win passage of a light-rail system.
Throughout the state, the Rail North Texas plan serves as a possible template for other systems, Wilson said.
Meanwhile, other advocates are urging the Texas Department of Transportation to carve out a special funding mechanism for rail projects in the state. The Regional Transportation Council works with TxDOT on project planning, with final approval from the department's supervisory board, the Texas Transportation Commission.
At last month's meeting of the TTC in Dallas, Peter LeCody, executive administrator of the nonprofit group Texas Rail Advocates, noted that Congress' passage last month of HR 2095 - known as the Railroad Safety Enhancement Act - calls for development of the South Central and Gulf Coast rail corridors, which have been designated by the U.S. Department of Transportation as key rail transportation corridors.
"Texas will be competing with other rail corridors around the country for future funding," LeCody said. "In order to meet the transportation challenges of tomorrow, Texas Rail Advocates also calls for the commission to establish a rail division within TxDOT, as other states have done, including Oklahoma and New Mexico."