Fort Worth Star Telegram: Fort Worth gets long-sought funds to unclog rail intersection

Oct 18, 2010

Fort Worth gets long-sought funds to unclog rail intersection

After years of fits and starts, the U.S. Transportation Department awarded Fort Worth a $34 million grant Friday to upgrade the Tower 55 rail intersection near downtown.

Tower 55 is one of the most congested rail intersections in the country. Fort Worth officials had been pushing for years to secure the funding to construct a new north-south rail line there.

"With this transportation grant, Fort Worth will finally see completion of this critical infrastructure safety project," said Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, R-Texas. "This will also help create good local jobs as the final stages of the Tower are being completed."

The intersection now has two rail lines running east-west and two running north-south. About 112 trains pass through each day, more than the intersection can easily handle. Trains are often queued up on side tracks across Tarrant County, their diesel engines idling, while waiting to go through.

Supporters have argued that a third north-south line will reduce diesel emissions, speed up traffic on area roads and make railroad crossings safer.
The federal award comes just short of the $38 million that the Texas Department of Transportation had requested in its application, according to city officials.

Hutchison said securing the funding has been one of her highest priorities in the Senate.

Mayor Mike Moncrief interrupted a presentation during a pension workshop Friday morning to announce that U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth, had just notified him of the news.

City Council members and city staff broke out in applause.

'Sigh of relief'

"I think we can all breathe a collective sigh of relief. ... That was a result of a lot of people making a lot of phone calls, sending a lot of e-mails, making a lot of trips back and forth to Washington," Moncrief said.

The mayor singled out former U.S. House Speaker Jim Wright of Fort Worth as being instrumental in lobbying for the funding.

"Every time you see our former speaker, Jim Wright, I would ask you give him a hug and thank him for what he did," Moncrief said.

Granger praised those who helped convince federal officials that the project is a national problem concentrated in Fort Worth.
"There were so many people involved who explained that this was not just a local issue," Granger said. "The congestion at Tower 55 is not only a local challenge but a national problem with continuing, and escalating, economic repercussions."

Sen. John Cornyn, R-Texas, also touted the news as a big win for Fort Worth.

"This project will dramatically improve freight and passenger traffic along one of North America's most indispensible trade routes and will benefit all of those who live, work, and commute around Fort Worth," he said.

Safety improvements

State Sen. Wendy Davis, D-Fort Worth, said the funding will also provide needed safety improvements to area rail crossings.

"These funds will help to protect schoolchildren on the near-north side, who had to crawl under idling trains, as well as boost our local and national economies by creating jobs and moving commercial freight more efficiently," Davis said.

Supporters say fixing Tower 55's congestion is a critical first step before the commuter rail system can be expanded.
"Right now, all of our commuter rail is planned on existing track, so getting rid of this bottleneck opens up some possibilities for commuter rail that we just currently don't have," City Manager Dale Fisseler said.

Officials with BNSF Railway and Union Pacific Railroad hailed the announcement as significant progress. Matthew Rose, CEO of Fort Worth-based BNSF, called the project a "monumental infrastructure upgrade."

"We are proud to be headquartered here in Fort Worth where such extensive community involvement and collaboration makes these types of projects possible," Rose said. "Improvements to Tower 55 will make this vital rail intersection safer for pedestrians, more efficient for shippers, and more convenient for commuters."

Raquel Espinoza, a spokeswoman for Union Pacific, said "it is promising news for North Texas. This public/private partnership will help increase safety and help us operate more efficiently."