Wednesday, July 22, 2009

Union Pacific proposes solution to Tower 55 gridlock

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To relieve the notorious Tower 55 train gridlock in Fort Worth, Texas, one of the nation’s biggest railroads wants to dig a 1.5-mile-long trench and submerge its tracks as they run through a commercial and residential area south of downtown, according to the Ft. Worth Star-Telegram. The east-west trench proposed by Union Pacific would roughly parallel Vickery Boulevard from Eighth Avenue to Martin Luther King Jr. Freeway and require buying of 15 properties, partial purchase of 15 more and moving 16 residences and businesses.

The project, which could be up to 30 feet deep, would require the reconstruction of at least six area streets — including four Interstate 30 underpasses used by motorists to get to and from downtown — temporarily cutting off downtown from the south side during its construction.

Tarrant County commissioners said after a briefing Tuesday that the railroad’s proposal is simply too disruptive. It slices through underpasses at Main and Jennings streets and historic tunnels at Henderson and Pine streets.

"It appears to me to be almost a no-brainer," Tarrant County Judge Glen Whitley said after commissioners were briefed. "The east-west route takes out too many key thoroughfares."

Instead, Whitley, the city of Fort Worth and other elected leaders favor building a north-south railroad trench around the east side of downtown. Only three commercial properties — where the owners are willing to sell — would be needed, said Tom Shelton, a senior planner at the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

But Union Pacific — which owns the landmark Tower 55 near where the railroad intersection occurs — opposes the north-south trench, saying it would slow down coast-to-coast train shipments because it would be built directly under existing tracks. Digging a trench under existing rail lines is comparable to building a highway without giving motorists a detour, said Clint Schelbitzki, Union Pacific’s Fort Worth-based spokesman.

"It would wreak havoc on our operations nationwide," he said.

The trench options will be detailed during public meetings Aug. 3 in downtown Fort Worth.

After the preferred north-south trench was proposed this year, Union Pacific and Fort Worth-based BNSF abruptly asked local officials to look at another option, and Union Pacific unveiled the east-west trench idea.

If and when an option is chosen, the project would then have to undergo an environmental review, officials said.

It’s possible that a trench could be under construction in five to eight years, Shelton told county officials.

In Fort Worth, Tower 55 is considered one of the most congested rail intersections in the country. Freight trains wait an average of 90 minutes for their turn to get through. The trench concept is considered a midrange improvement to the congestion. A trench is expected to cost about $700 million, although no funding sources have been identified.
The long-range solution is to build new tracks going around Dallas-Fort Worth — possibly in 20 to 40 years — so that railroads can divert about a third of their shipments around the metro area. But a rail bypass could cost up to $10 billion.

There are short-term goals in place, too. Local leaders, railroad officials and regional planners hope to add a third at-grade, north-south rail line at Tower 55 and make other improvements within three years, and they’ve applied for $70 million in federal stimulus money to speed up that work.
They’re also negotiating with Amtrak to stop using the Tower 55 interchange for its six daily trains in and out of Fort Worth, and instead start using the adjacent Trinity Railway Express line.
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