Is adequate public transit just a pipe dream in Tarrant County? Riders have this to say

When North Richland Hills resident Christian Munoz lost his car in March, his commute became a relay consisting of a mile walk to the train station, a bus ride and a mile walk to his work.

For five months, Munoz woke up at 4:30 a.m. to walk a mile to the train station so he could catch the 5:12 a.m. train to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport which is near where he worked. From the airport he took a bus that dropped him off at his stop at 6:30 a.m. and then he walked a mile to get to work, arriving by 7 a.m.

Tarrant County is the third largest county in Texas with one of the highest growth rates in the United States. However, it differs from other urban areas when it comes to regional public transportation⁠ — it lacks it.

While other densely populated areas have subways, expanded railways and regional bus routes, North Texas cities do not have public transportation to connect each other.

Munoz endured the reality of Tarrant County’s sparse public transportation system, trapped in its inadequacy for months.

“It was really an eye-opener cause I had to switch up a lot,” he said. “With a vehicle I can leave at 6:30 [a.m.] and get to my job at 7 [a.m.] when I start. But with public transportation, I really had to learn the routes and how to get from point A to point B.”

Richard Andreski, Trinity Metro President and Chief Executive Officer, said because Tarrant County is still growing, there’s an opportunity to develop a public transportation system to support its growth.

“When we look at Fort Worth and Tarrant County, and we compare ourselves to other regions — Nashville, Charlotte, other places in the country — we’re not keeping pace,” he said. “We’re not keeping pace with investment in public transportation.”

The North Richland Hills/Smithfield Station on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in North Richland Hills.
The North Richland Hills/Smithfield Station on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in North Richland Hills.

How did we get here?

Historical and regional context is necessary to understand why North Texas approaches transportation differently than other metropolitan areas.

Brian Guenzel, Center for Transportation, Equity, Decisions & Dollars Program Manager, said how an area’s transportation system is modeled depends on whether the city developed around public transit or whether public transit is catching up to a city’s growth.

“It seems like for North Texas, it’s the latter and in a place like San Francisco or Boston or New York City, it’s the former,” he said.

Cities like San Francisco were platted out for the most part by the late 1800s and early 1900s⁠ — by the end of 1912 the San Francisco Municipal Railway was open, operated by the first publicly-owned transit agency in a major American city.

City planners benefited from San Francisco’s distinct geographical features — the city is confined between bodies of water and a mountain. It served as natural boundaries.

By contrast, the wide open expanse of North Texas seemed limitless but daunting. However, it did not preclude ambitions for a public transit system.

As early as 1876, the Fort Worth Street Railway Company introduced its first mule-pulled streetcar to the city. By 1889 it had expanded its streetcar system and it became one of the first to be electrified in the Southwest. According to Trinity Metro’s reference guide, the streetcar system was a magnet for private development in the city.

The streetcar lines thrived until 1938 when the North Texas Traction Company declared bankruptcy due to hits the company was taking in the Great Depression. The streetcar operator reorganized as the Fort Worth Transit Company, and by 1950 had replaced the streetcars with a bus system.

This evolution coincided with population booms in Texas in the mid 1900s — growing by over 1.29 million people between 1940 to 1950 and over 1.86 million people between 1950 and 1960, according to the Texas State Library and Archives Commission.

A nationwide trend in automobile ownership paired with suburban expansion shifted priorities away from public transportation, said Guenzel, who has a background in land use, public health and economic development.

“It was just the times; everybody was moving out to the suburbs and buying cars and we had the [Federal-Aid Highway Act of 1956] program under [President Dwight D.] Eisenhower post World War II, so I mean that was what everybody was doing,” he said. “It would just seem odd to say like ‘Why would you go do it the way people did something 50-80 years ago?’”

Current public transit options & ridership

North Texas is not completely bereft of a public transit system. Trinity Metro, created in 1983, offers a variety of services to get around Fort Worth including a bus system, ZipZones and Fort Worth Bike Sharing. TEXRail and TRE are two rail services also offered by Trinity metro for commuters coming in and out of the city.

While current public transit is an option for some, there are service area limitations.

For many Fort Worth residents wanting to ride one of over 25 bus routes, walking a significant distance or biking to a stop is necessary.

In a survey conducted by the Star-Telegram, 125 out of 145 people said their primary mode of transportation was a personal, gas powered vehicle.

A bus stop without a shelter on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, in North Richland Hills.
A bus stop without a shelter on Friday, Nov. 4, 2022, in North Richland Hills.

Fifty-two respondents said they didn’t use public transit because the options in their area were not time efficient. Inconvenient and inaccessible route stops were the reasons 30 people said they didn’t use public transit.

One respondent said, “Bus stops without benches and overhangs are unsafe. I live a mile from my office downtown yet to take a bus there I’d need to do a bus transfer or walk 15 minutes from one stop to the office.”

Wait times were another issue respondents found. Currently, Trinity Metro does not have a way to track when the next bus will come to a stop. However, a tracking feature is expected to roll out later this year.

Chad Edwards, Vice President of Planning and Development, previously told the Star-Telegram that Trinity Metro is working on a project called Transit Master which will provide data pinpointing the locations of all its buses. The interactive map will be incorporated in the Trinity Metro GoPass smartphone app, which is also where riders can currently plan their trips and buy tickets.

Both TEXRail and TRE have lines in and out of Fort Worth from its many surrounding suburbs in Tarrant County, although the stations are limited as well. Outside of its four Fort Worth area stations, TEXRail has two stations in North Richland Hills, one in Grapevine and two at DFW International Airport. The TRE has two stops in Fort Worth, one in Richland Hills, one in Hurst and another at DFW Airport.

Outside of Fort Worth, none of the cities where rail travel is available have citywide public transportation.

A survey respondent said public transit in Tarrant County was, “Only convenient if you live near a line or route. Otherwise driving is faster.”

In a ridership report presented in March, Trinity Metro recorded a system-wide monthly ridership of over 399,000 in January. In October 2021, it logged over 516,000 riders.

When asked how often they used public transit, 52 of the survey respondents said they never used it and 51 said a few times a year.

Out of the 145 respondents, 63 said they were highly likely to use public transit over their personal vehicle if it was available in their area. The second highest percentage with 54 people said they were likely to use public transit.

Christian Munoz points to the last stop on the TexRail on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in North Richland Hills. Munoz traveled to that stop for five months when he didn’t have a car, only to walk another mile to his job.
Christian Munoz points to the last stop on the TexRail on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in North Richland Hills. Munoz traveled to that stop for five months when he didn’t have a car, only to walk another mile to his job.
Christian Munoz poses for a portrait at the North Richland Hills/Smithfield Station on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in North Richland Hills. There is no direct public transportation to Munoz’s job so he walked miles on top of taking a train to his job when he temporarily didn’t have a car.
Christian Munoz poses for a portrait at the North Richland Hills/Smithfield Station on Tuesday, Nov. 1, 2022, in North Richland Hills. There is no direct public transportation to Munoz’s job so he walked miles on top of taking a train to his job when he temporarily didn’t have a car.

After using public transportation for five months to commute to work, Munoz said he got used to it.

“I started to enjoy it. I avoided traffic,” he said. “Avoiding all that traffic after work was really awesome. I could kind of sit back, listen to music, just kind of chill.”

While his morning commute to work took a couple of hours, Munoz said his evening commute “wasn’t too bad,” taking about 20-30 extra minutes.

In August, Munoz got his car and went back to his routine, finding a job closer and cutting down on commute time. Although he has a personal vehicle, Munoz said he would use public transportation to get groceries or go to the gym if there was a citywide system. He said he would also use public transportation if there was a way to travel from North Richland Hills to the University of North Texas in Denton, about a 40 minute drive, where he goes to school.

“Driving’s no fun,” he said. “That’s one thing I don’t like doing now, is driving. There’s a lot of crazy stuff that happens on the road. It would be nice to just sit back and relax, be able to get your groceries and be able to stop in the more heavily populated areas.”

What would it take to expand public transit in Tarrant County?

There are always discussions happening between Trinity Metro and Tarrant County cities about expanding its services, Edwards said, but it’s not a one-size-fits-all proposition.

“Most of the cities west of the Mississippi developed after World War II in the advent of the personal automobile,” he said. “We’re trying to take that development pattern that has occurred over so many years and apply transit to it.”

Areas with high density nodes would be more likely to see a fixed route system than one where its population is spread out, which would likely get an on-demand system until a fixed route was necessary, Edwards said.

Trinity Metro expanded its ZIPZONE service in June adding a new zone in Southeast Fort Worth, which includes Tarrant County College South Campus, Tarrant County Resource Connection and the Fort Worth VA Clinic along with shopping and dining options. Edwards said adding the new ZIPZONE area took about six months.

ZIPZONE is a transportation option for riders to skip the preset route bus stops and get to a destination within specific service boundaries. The service operates similar to ride share options.

Arlington uses a similar on-demand service called Via, which covers its city limits.

Onyinye Akujuo, Tarrant Transit Alliance Board Chair, said Arlington is seen as the elephant in the room when it comes to expanding public transit due to its entertainment district, which is home to the Dallas Cowboys, Texas Rangers, Six Flags Over Texas and Hurricane Harbor to name a few.

Tarrant Transit Alliance is an advocacy organization working to expand public transit in Tarrant County. Its members work to educate city stakeholders, especially those who may not use public transit, on its importance.

Although Arlington has potential for rail transit, trams and a bus system, Akujuo said taxpayers have not been sold on its benefits.

“They’re voting it down constantly because they’re trying to see more bang for their buck in their wallet rather than seeing that the public good can also [gain] more economic development which can also benefit them,” she said.

But the answer to making public transportation a regional effort does not solely lie with Fort Worth or Arlington. More than one funding source is needed to help expand public transportation countywide — surrounding cities have to be willing to contribute as well, Akujuo said.

There are federal grants available to supplement a city’s investment in public transit, although they don’t completely cover costs. And while a city could use a bond program to go toward a transit project, it has to be approved by voters.

A half-cent sales tax goes toward Trinity Metro, but the agency does not solely rely on sales tax revenue. Edwards said they also receive federal grants, such as from the Federal Transit Administration, which is allocated based on ridership numbers reported to the National Transit Database. Trinity Metro also tries to partner with Fort Worth for project-specific funding through a “pay-as-you-go” program to help build sidewalks and bus pads.

Akujuo said there are also competitive grants, such as local match grants, which requires leveraging local partnerships within the city.

“If I want a project and I want to see it federally funded, there has to be public will out there showing that there is collaboration and partnerships happening,” she said. “That’s what allows you to win.”

Who’s working to get expanded transit? How can it happen?

Every city can benefit from expanded regional transportation, Akujuo said, but Tarrant County’s culture is different from other areas, even its neighbor Dallas County.

“We are the modern west over here,” she said. “It’s more important to own a horse or to be in a pickup truck than it is to ride transit.”

Despite the status symbol of personal vehicles in its culture, Tarrant County cities have to compete for economic development with other Texas cities such as Austin which has an extensive bus and rail system.

Public transportation is a key consideration for companies when assessing economic vitality, Akujuo said.

Within the last fifteen years companies like Google, Amazon and Tesla have settled in Austin for some of their offices. When Amazon was scouting its second headquarters location in 2017, access to mass transit was one of its requirements.

Trinity Metro CEO Richard Andreski said it’s important to serve the local community while also making a transit system that’s attractive for companies to consider moving in.

“We’re competing with not only Charlotte and Nashville, we’re competing with Austin and Houston and Dallas,” he said. “Are we making it attractive to people from outside the area?”