Could Fort Worth's Opposition Derail the Cotton Belt?

In September, transportation planners revealed that they had finally found a way to finance the $2.7 billion Cotton Belt, the 62-mile commuter rail line they hope someday will connect Richardson and Fort Worth.

A private consortium, the members of which are still being kept under wraps, had agreed to take on the project. All, then, that was standing in the way were the minor tasks of getting buy-in from the 13 cities and three counties and convincing the state legislature to create a special taxing district to help fund the project.

It was all progressing quite nicely until this week, when the Fort Worth City Council passed a resolution opposing the project.

The council isn't opposed to turning the Cotton Belt rail corridor into a commuter line. They just want it done on their terms. The Fort Worth Transportation Authority was already planning for years to use the 37 miles of the corridor under its control for the TEX Rail project, which it hopes to have operating by 2016, according to the Fort Worth Star-Telegram.

But the decision has the effect of casting doubt on the Cotton Belt's future at a critical moment, since the deadline for filing the bill to create the special taxing district is tomorrow.

Former Dallas City Councilman Ron Natinsky, who's serving as a consultant for the Cotton Belt project, said the decision "came very much as a surprise to us." It isn't quite clear to him what Fort Worth council members are objecting to, since it's been made apparent that any taxing district would maintain cities' jurisdiction over their property. But he said it won't kill the project.

As a matter of fact, the bill to create the taxing district is undergoing some "last-minute tweaks" and will be filed by tomorrow, though he declined to say by whom.

"From an overall team perspective, we're continuing to work," Natinsky said this morning. "We want to see the project through to fruition."

But Fort Worth is one of 13 cities involved in the project and the westernmost one at that. Natinsky can envision a scenario in which the commuter line simply stops before it reaches the city, but "we'd hate to see the Cotton Belt not include Fort Worth."

Natinsky's optimistic, though. The private consortium has had "good conversations" with the city. "We are continuing to work with them to address whatever the issues are."

So stay tuned.

Update on March 8: Republican state Senator John Carona of Dallas filed a bill to create the Cotton Belt Rail Improvement District yesterday afternoon. Now rail proponents just have to get it passed.

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