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Upcoming passenger rail line would run from Fort Worth to Georgia

By Glenn Evans
Feb. 9, 2016 at 11:02 p.m.

Editor's Note: A previous version of this story incorrectly referred to the Georgia governor. This version has been corrected.

GILMER — The regional mobility authority for Northeast Texas will open bids next week on a Toll 49 segment that will take traffic from north of Lindale to South Tyler.

That was the report by North East Texas Regional Mobility Authority Director Everett Owen before the panel retroactively agreed Tuesday to release bid packages on the estimated $120 million project to potential contractors.

The mobility authority, established by state lawmakers in 2001 to shape transportation networks in a 12-county region, also heard Tuesday that a passenger rail line linking Fort Worth with Atlanta, Georgia, is on track to begin boarding in as few as three years.

"Essentially, it re-establishes passenger rail across the southern portion of the United States," said Richard Anderson, chairman of the Ark-La-Tex Corridor Council. "This will allow passenger rail not experienced for 50 years."

Anderson, a former Harrison County judge, stressed the 815-mile route is a 79 mph line — not a high-speed rail that previously had been publicly discussed.

The multi-state corridor committee has secured memoranda of understanding with elected officials in all 48 counties and parishes the route crosses, from Fort Worth east.

Anderson said Mississippi Gov. Phil Bryant has said he would like to see it up and running before he leaves office in three years.

The line would link East Texas with Amtrak's northeast corridor lines at Atlanta, creating a more direct route from Texas to New York.

Anderson also pointed to the potential congestion relief for Interstate 20 through East Texas.

"They anticipate an increase in I-20 traffic by 70 percent over the next three years," he said. "That trip to DFW that takes two hours could take four hours in the near future."

His wife, Christina Anderson, said the corridor council also has met with casino operators in Shreveport/Bossier City about the potential new avenue to western Louisiana's gambling houses.

She also applauded the line as doubling Amtrak traffic through East Texas.

"This will mean we literally have four trains a day in Marshall to Mineola and Dallas," she said. "Two trains going east and two trains going west."

The mobility authority is governed by 19 trustees appointed from 12 Northeast Texas counties. It is led by Chairwoman Linda Thomas of Longview.

Authority spokeswoman Colleen Colby said right-of-way purchases are included in the $120 million estimate for the next Toll 49 segment, linking U.S. 69 north of Lindale south to Interstate 20 and the existing toll loop lanes.

The stretch will comprise Segment 4 of the so-called Northeast Texas Hourglass, a long-range half-figure eight linking Tyler's loop to the north tips of Longview and Marshall.

Owen said it is hoped construction on Segment 4 could start by July. He placed a best-case completion date at November 2017 but indicated June 2018 is more realistic.

The interim director also said six bidders are expressing interest in the 6.7-mile, two-lane project.

Bids will be opened in Tyler on Feb. 19, he said. That leaves the potential for the authority to award the project during a March 1 meeting in Mineola.

As is planned for all segments of the hourglass, toll revenue is expected to fund construction and right-of-way purchases.

The authority's 2015 financial report, distributed Tuesday, indicates actual revenue from Toll 49 exceeded what was anticipated.

The authority budgeted slightly more than $6.9 million in toll revenue, but climbing monthly traffic averages hit their highest mark in December 2015, topping 37,000 vehicles.

Those daily averages have ebbed with weather, holiday and school calendars, but have climbed steadily from about 22,000 in April 2013 to almost 32,400 in January 2014.

Authority Treasurer Robert Messer of Kaufman County recommended the panel vote next month on whether to issue private or public bonds backed by Toll 49 revenue.



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