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Texas seeks private money for rail line

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With transportation funds running short at every level, regional planners for the North Central Texas Council of Governments are seeking permission to lead an unusual partnership with private investors so they can fast-track a 62-mile rail line known as the Cotton Belt corridor, The Dallas Morning News reports.

The plan, already supported
by the two lead transit agencies in Dallas and Fort Worth, would use private
money to build the rail line. And for the first time, the Regional
Transportation Council would be put in charge of negotiating a contract
outlining service levels, fares and other aspects of the new rail line.

DART and The T in Fort
Worth would retain a veto over any final deal, and their staff members would
sit in on the negotiations, explained Michael Morris, transportation director
for the council of governments.

"From our point of
view, we have an obligation to look out for all modes of transportation,"
Morris told the 43-member Regional Transportation Council on Thursday.
"We’ve seen how innovative financing has helped us on the highway side, so
our thought is, why not try to bring some of that same innovation to other
modes and help our transit agencies develop rail lines as well."

The deal would be different
than any of the private toll deals that have dominated discussions of highway
financing for years. Instead of an advisory role, the RTC would be in charge of
selecting the firms to partner with and would negotiate the financing details
for the plan, which could involve about $1 billion. Morris said that if his
approach is approved, the RTC could have a final deal to vote on, and to
forward to the transit agencies, by the end of this year.

The council was poised to
vote April 8, but Dallas County Commissioner Maurine Dickey and Collin County
Commissioner Joe Jaynes asked for more time, and the 43-member RTC tabled the
item for a month.

Tarrant County Judge Glen
Whitley, the council’s chairman, told Morris, however, to proceed with planning
under the assumption that the council eventually will approve the idea.

Dallas City Council member
Ron Natinsky urged colleagues to embrace the idea, and said he was ready to
vote. "There is no downside here," he said. "This simply says
we’re going to solicit bids. Those bids have to be returned, and if they aren’t
to our liking, we can turn them down. And we’re no worse off than we are
now."

No matter who is in charge
of negotiating the deal, a privately-financed rail line will represent a
seismic shift in how passenger rail is built in Texas, just as Gov. Rick
Perry’s pursuit of privatized toll roads has transformed the way those roads
are paid for. As with toll road deals, private partners who invest in rail
lines would insist that every service decision – from ticket costs, to station
locations, to schedules and parking fees – be examined with an eye on how much
revenue they could produce.

Morris’s approach would
also be a rarity. DART knows of no other transit agency in the country that has
opened a passenger rail line paid for by private investors, DART spokesman
Morgan Lyons said. A public-private partnership in Denver is under way, but the
transit agency has made big contributions of tax dollars to keep that project,
already delayed and scaled back, moving forward.

The Cotton Belt plan, by
contrast, would seek private investors to build the system without a penny from
DART or The T.

The plan would most likely
include much steeper fares for the Cotton Belt, paid parking, and the creation
of special tax districts that would capture property tax increases associated
with private development along the rail line.

Indeed, the Cotton Belt is
"all about economic development," Dallas County Commissioner Mike
Cantrell noted before the meeting.

It’s long been seen as a
transportation solution, too. But it has been low on DART’s list of priorities.
Distressed sales tax receipts has DART weighing which of its most important
projects to delay, including how to complete the Orange Line to the airport by
2013 or building a second downtown Dallas rail line by 2016.

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