Cotton Belt Regional Rail Project Now Has Someone Who Wants to Pay For It

For a few years now, DART and its neighboring transit agencies have been drafting plans for the Cotton Belt Corridor project, a 62-mile passenger rail line that will, if things go according to plan, someday stretch Wylie to Fort Worth. The only thing standing in the way? Just the small task of finding $1.9 billion or so to pay for it.

It was clear from the get-go that this wasn't going to be the typical public transit project, paid for with federal grants and local tax money. The federal faucet had slowed to a drip with the recession and cash simply wasn't there. So DART and partners looked to fund the project in a more "innovative" way, namely by getting private interests to dump in their own money.

That someone would want to do that, particularly for a project that didn't serve a dense urban core but far-flung, car-dependent northern suburbs, was a stretch. Or so it seemed. Last month, the North Central Texas Council of Governments received a "confidential Business Approach letter from a private sector consortium team expressing their interest in implementing the entire 62-mile Cotton Belt Corridor project," per a briefing item on the agenda for Thursday's meeting of the Regional Transportation Council. Other details, like who makes up this private consortium, are scarce seeing as the the thing is being treated as confidential, but as a NCTCOG transportation planner told me a couple of months ago, you need only do some Googling on regional rail providers around the world to get an idea of who some of the players are.

Thursday's RTC meeting will also provide answers to some of DART's unanswered Cotton Belt questions on project sequencing (not sure, but the goal is to begin revenue service by the end of 2016), financing ("The approach is to create a special purpose entity that can issue tax exempt debt which leverages all of the public sector assets, including cash, land, TIFs, toll revenues, 4a/4b sales tax, assessments and farebox into investment grade debt structure."), and DART's role (project oversight).

An actual rail system is still a long ways off, but it's considerably closer now than it was in July.

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