February 23, 2023 - Fort Worth Business Press

As Tarrant County grows, transportation is crucial

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Tarrant County is one of the fastest-growing counties in the United States, making it imperative for transportation systems to keep pace with the continuing swell.

That was the message of the 13th annual Tarrant Transportation Summit hosted by District 3 Tarrant County Commissioner Gary Fickes at the Hurst Convention Center.

From new roads and additional highway lanes to expanded rail capacity more aviation infrastructure, Tarrant County officials have long embraced the challenges to become nationally recognized leaders of cutting-edge solutions to mobility challenges.

This year’s summit was focused on automation and innovation, and provided a look at planned improvements on the horizon to improve mobility through new technologies.

The Feb. 17 event  brought together more than 600 people, including elected officials, municipal administrators and business leaders from the 41 cities within the county.

“There are many needs and so many projects to do and that’s why we all have to come together to get things done for the benefit of the community,” Fickes told the Fort Worth Business Press.

As the fifth-fastest growing county in the United States, Tarrant County’s challenges extend beyond moving people from one point to another. There is also the matter of moving cargo efficiently to reduce backlogs in the supply chain.

While automation is already playing a key role in supporting supply chain operations, plans for a sophisticated “Smart Port” at AllianceTexas were introduced. The port would serve as an “integrated intermodal container yard” and would operate in conjunction with BNSF Railroad, according to Russell Laughlin, executive vice president of strategic development and innovation for Hillwood.

Features of the Smart Port would include a 15-mile “smart” corridor that would incorporate technology to coordinate the arrival of trucks and trains for more efficient transfer of cargo containers. The smart corridor would allow the removal of truck traffic from existing highways, which would reduce highway congestion and air emissions by eliminating the time trucks idle in line waiting to pick up cargo.

Other cutting-edge technology innovations already in use or planned for logistics operations include autonomous vehicles for unloading cargo from trains, visual recognition systems for advance identification of cargo and automated “next-generation” traffic signals, according to Michael Morris, director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

The plan also includes development of a “Texas Connected Freight Corridor” that would integrate with the Alliance Smart Port and support the supply chain nationwide.

“We are located in the shadow of the Port of Long Beach (California.) and the Port of Houston so this is the perfect opportunity for the DFW area,” Morris said.

While Smart Port development is a multimillion-dollar proposition and several years away from reality, Laughlin said the plan would be a game-changer.

“We have the chance to be out-front and have the most advanced inland port in the country in the next few years,” Laughlin said.

Another major traffic-related announcement at the summit involved plans for more lanes to help reduce congestion in the Loop 820/Texas 183 Corridor. A new eastbound lane and a westbound general purpose lane will be added to Loop 820 between Interstate 35W and the Loop 820/State Highway 183 interchange.

Also, new eastbound and westbound TEXPress managed lanes will be added to State Highway 183 between the interchange and FM 157 in Euless.

The expansion was part of the signed agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) for the North Texas Express project, said Robert Hinkle, director of corporate affairs for NTE Mobility Partners, which developed the North Tarrant Express and Interstate 35W reconstruction with managed toll lanes.

The expansion is expected to cost up to $350 million and will be finished by 2030, under the terms of the agreement with the state. The first managed lanes opened in 2014 in the highly congested 183/121 corridor. Funding will come from toll revenue.

The additional lanes should help reduce the cost of using the toll lanes, Hinkle said.

While this project is able to move forward due to prior commitments, TxDOT can no longer participate in public-private partnerships like the North Tarrant Express because public opposition to tolls resulted in a ban by the Texas Legislature, keynote speaker Robert Poole stated.

Poole, director of transportation policy and Searle Freedom Transportation Fellow at the Florida-based Reason Foundation, is an advocate for public-private partnerships and toll-revenue financing.

Texas pioneered public-private partnerships for new highway construction and expansion through public-private partnership agreements.

“Public-private partnerships are a better model for how we select, build and maintain highway projects in the U.S.,” said Poole, who has been an advisor to the Federal Highway Administration and many leading state and national transportation agencies.

Traditional forms of highway funding, typically relying on user fees and fuel tax revenue, have led to chronic congestion, especially in fast-growing states like Texas,  said Poole, who is author of the book, Rethinking America’s Highways: A 21st Century Vision for Better Infrastructure.

A better approach is to treat highways as a utility, he said, with customers paying for what they use. Projects are financed with customer revenues and ongoing maintenance is built into the financing.

Nationwide, more than 60 public-private partnership projects involving express toll lanes, sometimes known as “choice lanes” are in operation. Proven advantages, Poole said, include reducing traffic congestion and vehicle emissions, and a solution for express bus service.

While other states are moving ahead with these types of projects, TxDOT has plans to add tax-funded high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes in Dallas, Houston, Austin and San Antonio, Poole said.

HOV lanes tend to be “too full or too empty” and haven’t lived up to expectations, he said.

The Texas Legislature should reconsider the benefits of resuming public-private partnerships, which have been highly successful in Texas, including Tarrant County, and have an added benefit of freeing up $6.5 billion for TxDOT to spend on projects in smaller cities and rural areas.

In a presentation on progress and investment at Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, John Ackerman, executive vice president of global strategy and development, reported that $2.3 billion will be spent on airport infrastructure improvements through 2032 and another $2.7 billion will be spent on terminal expansion.

Over the past eight years, the airport has undertaken 882 infrastructure projects through an investment of $3.8 billion. The initiative resulted in the creation of 32,000 jobs.

During most of the pandemic, DFW was the busiest airport in the world and now ranks second in the world for number of passengers. In 2022, the airport welcomed 72.2 million passengers, Ackerman said.

Also during the pandemic, the airport broadened its route network to 265 destinations and kept its pledge of no job layoffs, he said.

Perot Field, formerly Alliance Airport, was ranked 20th in 2021 (the latest ranking announced) although many of it competitors are all “major traffic hubs”, according to Christian Childs, president of Alliance Aviation Companies.

In 2018, the airport handled slightly under 1 billion pounds of cargo. Although 2022 data isn’t yet official, the airport’s numbers indicate that cargo weight exceeded 2.5 billion pounds.

“During the pandemic, our cargo load went through the roof,” Childs said.

Caroline Mays, director of planning and modal programs for TxDOT, presented data on how all forms of transportation, including seaports, public transit, freight rail, and aviation fit together and have an enormous impact on economic output, jobs and population growth as well as moving goods and people from point-to-point.

Tarrant County Administrator G.K. Maenius and Lauren Prieur, interim director of transportation and public works for the city of Fort Worth, discussed how funds from county and city bond programs are being used to build or upgrade roads, bridges and traffic signal controls to improve traffic flow and safety.

Funds from federal Infrastructure legislation are also being leveraged through many regional transportation projects. Read More