Fort Worth jammed up in its efforts to support public transit like comparable cities
Updated: Jan 31
Fort Worth resident Caleb Kellan does not own a car. He relies on Trinity Metro’s bus system to get to his job at the Cheesecake Factory downtown every day.
Sometimes, though, that doesn’t cut it for Kellan. He is concerned public transportation in the city does not meet the needs of people like him who rely on this public service.
“Public transportation is not good. It doesn’t go to enough places,” he said.
Many residents’ livelihoods depend on adequate transportation options. Despite their needs, Fort Worth still trails behind other comparable cities in its efforts to fund public transportation.
Officials acknowledge a larger investment is needed, but Trinity Metro, the city of Fort Worth and the North Central Texas Council of Governments are jammed up like rush-hour traffic on Interstate 35N in their efforts to fund upcoming projects.
In 2019, Trinity Metro had a total operating expense budget of $78.4 million, according to the National Transit Database. Austin and Dallas were spending at least twice that amount that same year.
On average, Fort Worth’s peer cities — Jacksonville, Florida, and Cincinnati, Ohio, to name a couple — spent almost $22 million more on transit in that year alone.
The federal government’s trillion-dollar infrastructure bill could be another way to help improve Fort Worth’s transit system – if local matching funds are found. The Dallas-Fort Worth-Arlington area is expected to receive at least $32.4 million from the federal government’s $1.2 trillion infrastructure bill in the first half of fiscal year 2022.
But until matching funds are found, some federally allocated money won’t be released.
Paul Ballard, interim president and CEO of Trinity Metro, the city’s transit agency, said the organization is working to clarify needs and find more funding. Trinity Metro reported needing $101.5 million in local funds as of March 2.
“We are significantly behind really all the other cities in the state of Texas as far as local support, and that has pretty much restricted our ability to grow the transit system,” Ballard said.
City officials say they are investing their limited transit dollars wisely. Fort Worth allocated around $1.5 million from PAYGO annually since 2020, which includes Trinity Metro. There were no funding allocations for Trinity Metro between 2015 and 2018.
Trinity Metro receives funding from the city through Fort Worth’s half-cent sales tax. The city’s funding for Trinity Metro is currently maxed out, with the second half-penny dedicated to the Crime Control and Prevention District. The police funding was approved for another 10 years by voters in 2020. Blue Mound is the only other Tarrant County city that partially funds the agency. Grapevine and North Richland Hills provide some funding too for the use of the TEXRail line.
“Different council members, over the years, have had different priorities,” said assistant city manager Dana Burghdoff. “City Council prioritized the Crime Control and Prevention District, and the voters reflected that.”
Cities like Dallas and Austin allocate a whole penny to transit, which provides them with more revenue to invest in public transportation.
“There have been some small amounts from time to time and partnering on different projects,” Ballard said. “But other than the half-cent sales tax, we don’t get any ongoing support from the city of Fort Worth.”
While Trinity Metro seeks local funding sources, Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said some projects available can be funded purely with federal money.
“We have lots of flexibility where they don’t have to pay the local match,” he said. “We have half a dozen tools, and I’m anxious to talk to Trinity Metro to find out what they really want so I can offer the right tool for the right job and implement a greater transit vision.”
Ballard said Trinity Metro is on weekly calls with NCTCOG.
“My impression is that the communication was going back and forth,” Ballard said. “The ball is back in (the council of governments’) court because we sent them an outline pointing out how we need assistance with the local funds.”
NCTCOG also has its Mobility 2045 policy, which allows participating agencies to receive an offset of local funds for transit projects if they voluntarily adopt 50% of the proposed policies in the plan. Those policies deal with air quality, the environment, sustainability and safety.
Federal money also will flow to Fort Worth through the American Rescue Plan. U.S. Rep. Mark Veasey, D-Fort Worth, announced on March 7 an additional $33.8 million in funding for Trinity Metro to help with the system’s pandemic recovery.
Ballard said this additional money will be of some help for upcoming capital projects and will be presented to the board of directors March 21. The money will help address the $101.5 million in funding the agency still needs, he said.
Public transit advocates say current city funding is not enough and is resulting in economic development losses. When Amazon was looking to open a second headquarters in 2018, Fort Worth was one of many cities placing bids to lure in the e-commerce giant. A lack of strong transit options was seen as one of the reasons the city ended up not being considered.
“In a region that’s growing at a million people every eight years, you’re not going to solve the transportation needs of the future on the back of the roadway system alone,” Morris said.
Fort Worth Council member Michael Crain, who also sits on the Trinity Metro Board, said he supports public transit but funding roadways is also part of doing that.
“You can’t keep up with the growth, and if you don’t have the roads for cars, then you certainly don’t have them for buses or other kinds of transit,” Crain said.
Onyinye Akujuo, chairwoman of the Tarrant Transit Alliance, said improving the area’s transit system requires participation from the Tarrant County government and other cities in the area.
“Fort Worth can’t only bear the brunt for all of Tarrant County when there are other cities that benefit,” Akujuo said. “It’s not a sustainable model for just one city to fund.”
She, along with city staff, also said it’s important to consider population density versus city size and how that is one of many factors that also impact available local funding.
Transit advocates argue that creating a robust transit system will help Fort Worth attract more young professionals and additional Fortune 500 companies.
“All these other communities have been able to understand the importance (of robust transit) — all of them,” Trinity Metro Board of Director Chair Jeff Davis said. “And that’s one reason why they’re leaps and bounds ahead of us in their economic development.”
Fort Worth Report fellow Sandra Sadek may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org or via Twitter. At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here.