The Cotton Belt Rail Line Can Still Be Built. Here's How.

The writing had already been on the wall for weeks by the time a Senate committee convened in April to consider John Carona's bill aimed at jump-starting construction of 62 miles of passenger rail along the Cotton Belt Corridor. The city of Fort Worth had scrawled the message in big, bold letters when it publicly withdrew its support for the measure. And so, when Carona didn't bother to show up for the committee hearing, supporters knew the bill was doomed.

A number of things contributed to this outcome. There was the opposition from Fort Worth, which is keen on building its own rail, as well as the Cotton Belt Concerned Citizens Coalition, a small but vocal group of homeowners in Far North Dallas on whose behalf Dallas City Council member Sandy Greyson addressed lawmakers. Then there was the bill itself, a complicated and politically toxic hodgepodge of tax incentives and bureaucracy intended to sweeten the pot for private developers.

"We had a very innovative approach to try to fund this," says Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

Part of the money would have come from property owners -- the Billingsley Co., with its Cypress Waters development, is an example -- who would basically volunteer to be taxed in exchange for increased property values and new development the rail line would bring. Tax financing districts would also be established to help fund rail-side projects. The rest would be cobbled together from a variety of initiatives. As a for instance, Morris said there was talk of mobile-only ticketing that could bring in revenue by forcing riders to look at ads whenever they buy a ticket.

All that required some sort of governance structure, which is what Carona's bill would have created. And that, like we said, is dead. The plan to build a $2 billion rail line between Plano and Fort Worth, on the other hand, is not.

"We have a momentum built up," says former Dallas City Council member Ron Natinsky, who's representing the private consortium that has expressed interest in funding the project. Their business plan has "gotten unfortunately sort of sidelined because of the legislative process," he says, but "we believe we can put together a Plan B that lets us utilize the mechanisms that we intended to use in order to get us to the point we need to be."

And what exactly might Plan B look like? Here are the main possibilities.

The Williamson County Approach: While Caron's bill was dying a quiet death, a measure by Senator Kirk Watson sailed through the Legislature and wound up on Governor Rick Perry's desk. The bill, like Carona's, is arcane, but it essentially frees up regional mobility authorities, which counties or groups of counties can establish to build transportation projects, from geographical constraints. This means that, hypothetically at least, Cotton Belt supporters can go to, say, the Central Texas RMA in Williamson County and ask them to build the Cotton Belt. But that's a long shot.

The TRZ Approach: Equally arcane but more realistic is another bill passed by the Legislature that allows transportation reinvestment zones to be set up for rail projects, not just roads. This basically uses the projected increase in property taxes a project will create to finance the project itself.

The A-Train Approach: The Denton County Transit Authority already runs its A-Train from Denton to Carrollton. It'd be a relatively simple thing to link it to the Cotton Belt tracks, back it the couple of miles east into Addison, then run it west to DFW Airport. This would leave a large portion of the project unbuilt, but it's relatively cheap and easy, doesn't require any convoluted legislative maneuvers, and still manages to link to DFW (the Cotton Belt's Holy Grail) and Addison, the only original DART member city that doesn't have any rail. By getting the linkage to DFW, the thinking goes, getting the line extended will be relatively easy.

The Wait-Til-2015-Approach: Carona, or some other lawmaker, could take another stab at filing the Cotton Belt measure when the Legislature reconvenes in regular session in January 2015. The same obstacles that killed the bill this go-round will still mostly be in place, but it's possible that Fort Worth will have decided against going it alone, since it still may not secure the $400 million needed to actually build its section of track. Then, it would probably be be more amenable to the bill.

Natinsky says the private consortium is considering those options and more, though he won't say if they favor a certain approach, and is confident that one of them will work. So long as the end product is a single, integrated system that running from Plano to Fort Worth, they're confident they can make money.

The Cotton Belt, in other words, is still very much alive.

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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson