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Dallas-to-D/FW rail line ready to make historic link

Commuter trains will begin rolling from Dallas to DFW Airport and almost to Fort Worth next month, becoming the nation''s first rail line to eventually connect two major downtowns and an international airport.

When the first trains make the 27-mile trek from downtown Dallas to Richland Hills, leaders on both sides of a historical barrier at the Tarrant County line hope the eagerly anticipated rail service brings closer ties.

"This will benefit Fort Worth, Dallas and all those in between," said U.S. Rep. Kay Granger, R-Fort Worth. "Dallas and Fort Worth may have had their disagreements over the years, but everyone agrees on this one."

A fanfare-filled day will open the line, which runs south of State Highway 183, on Sept. 16. Two days later, it opens for weekday commuters.

Trains are expected to travel the final miles to downtown Fort Worth when construction is completed by October 2001.

Seventeen trains a day will make the round trip from downtown Dallas to just south of Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport for a $2 one-way fare, the first time rail service reaches the airport. Shuttle buses will transport passengers to the nearby terminals.

The project is unique because, unlike other major lines in other cities, it won''t just transport riders to the center city in the morning and back home at night, Fort Worth Mayor Kenneth Barr said. In addition to airport service, the red, white and blue trains painted with lone star motifs should draw tourists via proposed shuttle buses from Six Flags Over Texas, Lone Star Park at Grand Prairie and other sites along Interstate 30.

"Dallas'' success with rail shows that if you provide the right kind of service, people will ride it," Mr. Barr said. "This is a multidestination route and a major mode of transportation. It''s a new undertaking for this area."

Roger Snoble, president and executive director of DART, which co-owns the line, touted its regional significance.

"Symbolically, this ties the two cities together," he said. "We''re in the same region, but now we have more than just Interstate 30 tying us together."

John Bartosiewicz, general manager of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, commonly called The T, has worked on the railway project since 1983. He said the start-up of another form of transportation, in an area that favors automobiles, heralds a new age for North Texas transportation.

"People are ready," he said. "They''ll be making a comparison to their car, and we have to make it as convenient as possible."

Growing use predicted

Co-owned by Dallas Area Rapid Transit and The T, the line should carry 6,000 people a day to stations from Richland Hills to downtown Dallas. By 2010, it is expected to carry 11,000 riders.

Since 1996, the line has operated between Dallas and south Irving and carries 2,400 people daily. It runs on diesel-powered engines, while Dallas'' light rail uses overhead electric lines.

Trains will travel along the former Chicago, Rock Island and Pacific Railway. Fort Worth and Dallas bought the line in the early 1980s for $34 million. Building the entire 34-mile line is expected to cost $254 million.

Although trains will stop only in member cities of DART and The T, riders are expected from neighboring mid-cities. Nine cities have agreed to pay a share of a $775,000 annual contribution to the line''s operating costs.

Payments are based on the percentage of rail riders who live in the cities of Arlington, Bedford, Colleyville, Euless, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Haltom City, Hurst and North Richland Hills.

Arlington will pay $140,000 a year, and Grand Prairie which is across the street from the west Irving station could pay a similar amount after further ridership studies.

"It''s not going to help Grand Prairie much directly," Mayor Charles England said, adding that the line isn''t close enough to the city''s population base around Interstate 20. "But we have to look to the long run for transportation in the future. I don''t think Grand Prairie needs to be the only one of nine cities who is not doing its share."

Still, contributing now might help his city later when it seeks other transportation financing, he added.

Symbol of cooperation

Trains also will chug alongside the greatest symbol of cooperation between Dallas and Fort Worth: D/FW International Airport. Planners expect the CentrePort station, a mile or two south of D/FW''s south entrance, to eventually attract the most users.

After a half-hour trip, train patrons can board one of four free shuttle buses that connect to each of the four airport terminals. The buses, run by the airport, provide a quick ride and should be waiting for all trains.

Lisa Hinson, an Oak Lawn resident, said she eagerly awaited the railway''s service to D/FW Airport.

"If I have the choice between driving to the airport and having someone drop me off at Union Station so I can take the train, I''ll take the train," she said. "We need more alternatives to driving."

A stronger ridership draw could be rail access to 70,000 jobs at the airport, a location that demographers call the future downtown of North Texas. And that employment figure doesn''t include the estimated 4,800 construction jobs related to the airport''s $2.5 billion expansion plan. Workers will be shuttled from the station to a second bus circulator that link to most major employers.

Airport officials say D/FW will join only a few airports in the country that have rail connections. The recent successful DART bond election means light-rail trains will reach the northern edge of D/FW Airport by 2010.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments also has applied for a federal grant that would pay for buses to connect rail stations and major suburban employment areas such as North East Mall and Grapevine Mills mall. Arlington city officials also are considering starting bus service to major entertainment venues near the railway.

"This rail line has a lot of potential," said Michael Morris, the council''s director of transportation. "We''ve been working over 10 years to get this done."

The opening date has approached faster than workers might have liked. Patrons will notice that many stations are unfinished, but work should not affect commuters, officials said.

In addition, the Tarrant County and CentrePort stations will not have automatic ticket machines for several months. Customer-service workers will be available for ticket purchases.

The railway''s bilevel train cars, some with restrooms, are ideal for commuter-rail startups, said Lonnie Blaydes, DART vice president for commuter rail.

"People are working on it seven days a week through Sept. 18," he said. "It looks like we''re in good shape."

On the west end of the line, officials with The T toiled on the project for years but will have to wait until October 2001 for trains to roll into downtown Fort Worth.

Roadblocks included disputes over the possible demolition of a 1910 warehouse and the design and function of the city''s new Intermodal Transportation Center at Ninth and Jones streets.

City officials say that though the setbacks were frustrating, the overall result will be worth the wait.

"Not yet having trains running into Fort Worth is sort of discouraging," Mayor Barr said. "But when we stopped and took a hard look, we now have a lot better product than we would have otherwise."

Historic delays

Disagreements over plans to tunnel 100 feet through the historic Alarm Supply Building pushed the opening date back a year. Planners have had to consider the design of the transit hub, the role of the stately Texas & Pacific Terminal building and the path of the train.

Continued delays came from community leaders'' efforts to tear down the Alarm Supply warehouse, against vehement protests from preservationists.

"The squabbles have all come from those supportive of the project," said Ms. Granger, a downtown Fort Worth resident and former mayor. "But we couldn''t pass up the opportunity to do this right."

Improvements to the area now include a grander intermodal center, plans for an accompanying outdoor farmers market, a rejuvenated Ninth Street corridor, restoration of the T&P building where the trains will eventually enter as well and new lofts for other early-1900s warehouses nearby.

Fort Worth also has a massive plan to improve Lancaster Avenue after Interstate 30 is demolished for a new freeway mixmaster.

"This project is so complex and the whole environment of downtown changed so much because of it," Mr. Bartosiewicz said.

Libby Willis, president of Historic Fort Worth, a leading critic of plans to harm the Alarm Supply Building, said she was not thrilled about tunneling through it but was happy it had been saved.

"It''s been good to refine, refine, refine," she said. "Once you tear these buildings down, they''re lost forever. That''s why we''ve been tenacious about this."

The Dallas Morning News
Tony Hartzel and Laurie Fox