DALLAS — A $758 million commuter rail line expected to connect Fort Worth to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport has received initial qualification for federal funds to cover early costs, officials said.

A letter of approval from the Federal Transit Administration allows the Fort Worth Transit Authority to advance the project known as the Tarrant Express or “Tex,” to the preliminary engineering stage, said Dick Ruddell, president of the authority.

“This is a major milestone in the development of our commuter rail project that will provide service to thousands of riders across Tarrant County from southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine and into DFW Airport,” Ruddell said in a written statement after an authority board meeting this week.

FTA approval to begin preliminary engineering is a requirement for transit agencies in the federal New Starts grant program, officials said. The Fort Worth Transit Authority, known locally as “The T” has commitments for a 50% local match of the rail’s projected $758 million cost through its funding partner, the city of Grapevine, and funds committed by Tarrant County, Fort Worth, Texas and the North Central Texas Council of Governments, the authority said.

While the funding process has not been fully mapped out, municipal bonds are expected to be part of the mix.

The 37-mile rail line would connect southwest Fort Worth to downtown and the north end of DFW through the city’s northeast suburbs. The T and the Dallas Area Rapid Transit already operate a commuter rail line called the Trinity Railway Express that crosses the southern end of DFW between Dallas and Fort Worth.

As Fort Worth plans for the commuter rail link, DART is extending its light-rail Orange Line from Dallas to DFW’s north end, with completion expected in 2014. Fort Worth officials want to get Tex Rail running by 2016.

With the letter from the FTA, the Fort Worth Transit Authority can apply for federal funds to cover a portion of the anticipated $6 million to $9 million cost for preliminary engineering and design.

In a recent visit to North Texas, FTA administrator Peter Rogoff noted that the authority has not reached agreements with several railroads to use their tracks for the Tex Rail service. Officials plan to use track belonging to DART, Union Pacific Railroad and Fort Worth & Western Railroad.

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