GRAPEVINE, Texas, Jan. 10 (UPI) -- A new passenger line connecting downtown Fort Worth, Texas to one of the world's busiest airports will begin service Thursday after being delayed for nearly a week by the federal government shutdown.
The Federal Railroad Administration completed its final inspection of the 27-mile TEX Rail track Monday despite being short-staffed -- a problem plaguing many state- and city-level agencies nationwide in the third week of the shutdown.
"We greatly appreciate all of the efforts to move TEX Rail from the testing phase to full service by all of the personnel at FRA," said Paul Ballard, president and CEO of Trinity Metro, the transportation authority in Fort Worth.
Roughly 800,000 federal workers are furloughed because government funding for nine agencies ran out Dec. 22 without a new spending bill. Congress is in a stalemate with President Donald Trump because lawmakers won't appropriate money for construction of a wall along the border with Mexico.
The new TEX Rail will stop at nine stations in Fort Worth, North Richland Hills and Grapevine before reaching Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, which is the world's fourth-busiest by aircraft movements and 12th-busiest by passenger traffic.
"TEX Rail becomes the spine of a new transit system not only for Fort Worth but Tarrant County and the region," said Scott Mahaffey, chairman of the Trinity Metro board of directors. "We have people who are demanding different forms of transit, new ways to live."
The $1 billion project got underway in earnest in December 2016 when TEX Rail received a $499.3 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation's Federal Transit Administration under the Obama administration.
The Trump administration has also been supportive of public transit projects. A new crop of 17 public transit projects nationwide received a total of $281 million in funds from the Transportation Department last fall. They will impact cities like Dallas, Los Angeles, San Diego, Minneapolis and Phoenix.
Arizona will add a new street-car service that will connect downtown Tempe to Arizona State University. Los Angeles will extend a line to a Veterans Affairs hospital, adding two new stations and 16 new trains. San Diego will build a light-rail extension from downtown to University City. Minneapolis will add a 17-mile line linking several corporate headquarters with shopping and downtown districts. Dallas will extend platforms on existing lines to accommodate longer trains and more passengers.
Trains in a car-loving state
Transportation planners hope that by expanding rail, it will push more commuters off the clogged streets and into public transportation -- in a state where people have a love affair with the personal vehicle.
Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price took her grandsons on a VIP tour and grand opening of the new line on New Year's Eve. She said they represent the future riders of TEX Rail.
"Contrary to what's popular in Texas, they may not even own a car when they're our age," she said. "They may really get around on transit. My hope is that we take the momentum we've got going today and take it to the next level and go south or wherever the next piece needs to be."
North Richland Hills Mayor Oscar Trevino said the new commuter stations will become magnets for transit-oriented development where people -- especially millennials -- will want to live, work and play. North Richland Hills is capitalizing on TEX Rail's Iron Horse Station with the 100-acre Iron Horse Village project that will include hundreds of apartments, retail and restaurants.
This is the way of the future, Trevino said.
"Those who are tied to the old ways of doing things and refuse to innovate and think beyond their city limits will have a hard time prospering," Trevino told a crowd at the grand opening. "There are so many more who embrace TEX Rail and cannot wait to get aboard. The positive impact that TEX Rail will have on our community and the next generation is going to be tremendous."
While North Richland Hills took a modern approach with its development, Grapevine will honor the past with a 19th-century-inspired train station and hotel. The five-story station, including a 150-foot observation tower, is under construction and expected to open late this year. Businesses in downtown Grapevine are expecting an immediate boost when TEX Rail goes into service as it brings in people from all over North Texas and possibly the world as travelers kill time on long layovers at the nearby airport.
"We're just so excited and we feel like it brings a great opportunity to showcase Grapevine," Cynthia Blakenship, who sits on the board of directors for the Grapevine Convention and Visitors Bureau, told UPI. "It gives travelers an alternative to sitting at the airport all day."
Betting on the future
TEX Rail's high-tech, Swiss-designed trains are the first of their kind in the United States. The Flirt diesel multiple-unit trains have center-mounted motors in cars commuters can walk through. The car bodies were built in Switzerland with final assembly in North Salt Lake, Utah.
Planners are getting ready for the next phase of the project -- an extension south to Texas Christian University and southwest Fort Worth. The timing on that project is contingent on funding. Northeast, the Cotton Belt rail line, will continue into Dallas and Collin counties where DART plans its own connection to the airport -- a 26-mile line passing through seven cities and connecting to existing DART lines. It will also link with TEX Rail and Terminal A and B at the airport.
Design work will start this year and take six to eight months. The project will cost about $1.13 billion and could start service by 2022.
DART also plans a new $1.4 billion underground route through downtown Dallas. Known as the D2 subway, this project will split train traffic into two different lines. Right now, all four train routes funnel through the same above-ground corridor in downtown Dallas, which causes congestion during rush hour. The D2 Subway will take some lines underground with three new subway stations.