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Tuesday, August 04, 2009

Residents, businesses oppose rail trench near downtown Fort Worth

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South-side residents and business owners say they don’t want any part of a proposed two-mile-long railroad trench that would run east-west near downtown Fort Worth, saying it would effectively cut them off from downtown, the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram reports.
The nation’s two biggest railroads are proposing to build a 30-foot-deep, 55-foot-wide trench parallel to Vickery Boulevard to alleviate congestion at nearby Tower 55, one of the busiest railroad intersections in the U.S.

But about 100 people attended a public meeting Monday to discuss the proposal by Fort Worth-based BNSF and Union Pacific, and opponents said the project would be too disruptive.

"You’ve got an east-west trench that might as well be an east-west Berlin Wall," said Chris Brassard, owner of Square One Development, which is building and revitalizing several projects on the south side. Brassard said that private companies have invested $1 billion to redevelop the south side during the past decade and that the city has invested tens of millions more — which he believes would go to waste if the trench is built. The trench would allow one set of tracks to pass under the other.

The estimated cost of building the trench is $700 million, but that doesn’t include the price of rebuilding several south Fort Worth streets that would be severed from downtown, planners disclosed Monday, including Henderson, Jennings and Main streets.

"It’s misleading, whether it’s intentional or not," Brassard told planners, referring to the $700-million estimate during the meeting held by the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The project could be under construction in five to 10 years, said Tom Shelton, a council of governments senior planner. But Shelton promised opponents that more public meetings will be held before a decision is made.

Railroad officials say the project may take even longer. Not only is there disagreement about the location of the trench, but also funding for the work has not been identified. The trench proposal is separate from some shorter-term improvements the railroads plan to make to Tower 55 during the next two to three years.

The council of governments is requesting $70 million in federal stimulus money on behalf of the railroads, some of which would pay for a third north-south line through Tower 55.

Neighborhood groups, businesses and city officials would prefer that the railroads build a north-south trench around the east side of downtown — a project that would require minimal new land and could be built mostly on existing railroad right of way. But BNSF and Union Pacific officials say they may not be able to build the north-south trench because it would essentially shut down their rail operations during portions of the construction.

"We don’t know if the north-south trench is even feasible," said Nate Asplund, BNSF’s director of public-private partnerships. "I don’t think anyone has ever attempted to undertake construction of a trench on an active right of way."

Union Pacific has an additional concern: Northbound trains coming out of the trench would have a tougher uphill climb and would need extra locomotive power, said Grant Janke, the railroad’s general director of network planning and operations.

"We have to look at it this way: If a train originates in Fort Worth and goes to Kansas City, what’s the biggest hill that train has to climb? And we base the number of locomotives we need to have to pull the number of rail cars up that highest hill," he said in a phone interview.

Janke added that the trench would "introduce a new ruling grade. It increases the grade about 30 percent for our route between Kansas City and Texas, which has the potential to increase emissions and fuel use. It also has the potential to impact our competitiveness."

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