DALLAS - A key player in a transportation plan in north Texas aims to keep its inaugural rail project on track with funding from the area's Regional Transportation Council.

The Denton County Transportation Authority, which operates bus lines from the county seat of Denton, north of Dallas and Fort Worth, hopes to have its first line running by 2010. To speed the project, DCTA is bypassing federal funds and the need for federal approval of its environmental impact statement. The DCTA board approved the EIS in April after a period of public comment.

The Regional Transportation Council, a consortium of local governments that disburses state and federal money for road and mass-transit projects, approved $57 million of regional toll revenues for the project in January and will consider additional funding today.

DCTA added $14 million to the toll revenues to buy 12 light-rail new technology vehicles to operate on the first segment between the Denton County town of Lewisville and the Dallas County suburb of Carrollton.

In Carrollton, the DCTA rail line will link with the Dallas Area Rapid Transit Authority's Green Line that is under construction. Ultimately, passengers will be able to travel to downtown Denton from downtown Dallas, with stops at Lake Lewisville and the University of North Texas, among others.

Instead of running on electric power, the DCTA trains will be powered by clean diesel engines.

"These state-of-the-art vehicles could change the way rail projects are developed in this region and the nation by making light-rail technology available for commuter rail service," said DCTA board chairman Charles Emery.

One of the motivators for the rail line is to take traffic off the heavily traveled Interstate 35E, which hits a choke point on a bridge over Lake Lewisville, about halfway between Dallas and Denton.

As plans for the rail line advanced this week, U.S. Rep. Michael Burgess, R-Lewisville, said he would push for $2.9 billion in federal funds to expand 28 miles of Interstate 35E, focusing mainly on the Lake Lewisville Bridge.

At a press conference this week at the lake, Thomas Barrett, deputy U.S. secretary of transportation, promised to make the proposed expansion a national priority because I-35 is the major artery for North American Free Trade Agreement-related freight traffic between Mexico and the U.S.

Burgess is calling for expansion of the six-lane interstate to eight toll-free lanes, four toll/carpool lanes, and continuous frontage roads.

Such a project would have to clear numerous hurdles in addition to achieving federal funding. A lengthy environmental review would be needed. A decision would also be needed on whether the toll project would be managed by the North Texas Tollway Authority or a private developer.

The NTTA is already building a 1.7-mile east-west toll bridge over Lake Lewisville that will connect the so-called Lewisville Corridor to the north-south I-35. The project links I-35 to NTTA's flagship North Dallas Tollway to the east.

NTTA recently tripled its debt by issuing $3.2 billion of bonds for an up-front payment to the RTC for the right to build State Highway 121, a toll project that arcs across Dallas' northern suburbs.

The up-front payment provides toll revenue that can be distributed by the RTC to other projects, including DCTA's rail line.

Regional rail is the centerpiece of DCTA's service plan, which was approved by Denton County voters in 2002 and 2003. The plan's initial concept was to launch rail service from Lewisville to Carrollton by 2010-2011, with continuation of service to Denton by 2012-2013.

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