Long commute: Why so many people choose to live in Fort Worth but work in Dallas

Grant Senter has a terrific job with a startup health care firm in Dallas, and yet he chooses to live in Fort Worth.

Each day, he spends three hours commuting, making the 43-mile trip to and from his home near Eagle Mountain Lake.

“We lived in Dallas for a year, and hated it. I like to say Dallas is like LA without the beach,” said Senter, 27, who has lived in Fort Worth for four years. “We love Fort Worth. My wife has a family business in Fort Worth, and we like the people and the food.”

Fort Worth is no bedroom community — it’s the largest city in Tarrant County, which has a population of 2 million — yet many residents treat it as one. Nearly 16% of Tarrant County workers commute each day to Dallas, Census Bureau data shows.

From 2012-16, there were 934,000 workers in Tarrant County, according to the most recent Census American Community Survey. Of those, 146,360 workers commuted to Dallas County for their jobs, and an additional 8,100 commuted to neighboring Collin County.

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But Dallas doesn’t reciprocate. Only 6% of Dallas County workers come to Tarrant County for their jobs, Census Bureau data shows.

Some commuters say the western part of the Metroplex is more attractive than Dallas’ east side because of good schools, cheaper housing and access to plenty of entertainment and shopping.

But Fort Worth-area leaders say the daytime migration of the work force into Dallas County and, to a lesser degree, neighboring Collin County, is an alarming trend. A December 2017 Economic Development Strategic Plan warned that Fort Worth was at risk of becoming a “suburb of Dallas” because Fort Worth didn’t have enough high-paying jobs.

Other Tarrant County cities such as Arlington, Grapevine and Keller are in a similar situation, with many of their residents heading east to work each day.

“We’re still somewhat overshadowed by the Dallas region,” said Robert Sturns, Fort Worth economic development director. “We have to do a better job telling the story about the assets we have.”

For roughly the past 15 years, Fort Worth has experienced an imbalance of its growth, with a dramatic tilt toward residential construction, Sturns said. The city’s population, now about 900,000 people, grows by about 20,000 residents per year, according to the strategic plan.

Fort Worth relies far more on residential property taxes to meet the city’s needs, with 61% of the tax base coming from residential development and only 39% from commercial areas. City officials say their goal is to reverse that ratio, so that a solid majority of the city’s property values are commercial.

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City officials have crafted a tax-incentive plan to attract new businesses. The plan features annual wage requirements near $44,000 for workers, as a way to encourage more diverse, Fortune 500-type companies to move to the area.

The city has had success luring some new companies to town — including Stanley Black & Decker, which announced in May that a factory with hundreds of jobs would be opened in the AllianceTexas area of far north Fort Worth — and aims to do more in the coming years, Sturns said.

And, it’s not necessarily a bad thing that housing is more affordable in Fort Worth, they said. The average cost of a home in Fort Worth was $173,000 last month, compared to $215,000 in Dallas, according to Redfin, a real estate listing company.

The average cost of a home in Arlington is $216,000, and in Grapevine it’s $360,000, according to Redfin.

But a large number of Fort Worth residents — nearly 192,000 people — still leaves the city for work, Census data shows. Between 2005-14, the percentage of commuters leaving Fort Worth jumped from 53% to 62%.

Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price and other officials have also said the city needs more jobs in the sector of finance and other professional services, which typically require higher education for job applicants and pay higher salaries. It’s those kind of jobs the city will be trying to lure to its 70,661 acres of undeveloped land, which is far more than any other city in the region has available.

“The outlook is positive if for no other reason than we have so much available land,” Sturns said.

‘We are in proximity of everything’

Several commuters interviewed by the Fort Worth Star-Telegram affirmed that they prefer to live in Tarrant County because of its residential amenities.

Shortly after Prem Babbili moved from Kansas to North Texas in 1991, he moved to the Hurst-Euless-Bedford area. He bought a home in Hurst in 2003 — even though his new job was more than 20 miles away in Dallas.

“My wife and I chose the Mid-Cities area because they had a good school system, in the H-E-B school district,” said Babbili, who today still commutes to Dallas, where he now works as a financial analyst at UT Southwestern Medical Center. “We felt Dallas was too congested. In the Mid-Cities, we are in proximity of everything — shopping malls, theaters, and I have friends who live in the area.”

For years, Babbili made the hour-long drive from Northeast Tarrant County to Dallas, where he worked as a financial analyst for another employer. Even though the drive was grueling, he said it was worth it because he loved his Tarrant County neighborhood.

About 10 years ago, Babbili got his current job at UT Southwestern, and colleagues encouraged him to try riding the Trinity Railway Express, which has a stop near Bell’s helicopter plant on the Fort Worth-Hurst border, a few blocks from his home.

Babbili’s commute is now only about 45 minutes each way, and he enjoys riding the train and making new friends. Even though his children have gone on to college, Babbili said he has no plans to move from Hurst.

The TRE trains are full of Tarrant County residents who make the daily trek to Dallas, Babbili said.

“When I’m going back home (in the afternoons), there are hardly any seats available,” he said. “Sometimes I have to stand.”

Another commuter, Michael Buster, lives in the Ridglea Hills neighborhood of west Fort Worth, and works about an hour and 15 minutes to the east as a commercial real estate underwriter. His office is near Central Expressway and Lover’s Lane in Dallas.

Buster had worked in Southlake, when his brother mentioned that a firm in Dallas was hiring for accounting positions. Buster took the new job, and for a few months drove back and forth to Dallas before he and his wife decided to move east.

But their relocation didn’t last long.

“I could walk to work, but, long-term, me and my wife weren’t really Dallas people,” Buster said. “We decided to move back to Fort Worth.”

Buster laments that there aren’t more job opportunities in real estate, banking and underwriting in Fort Worth. He would rather work and live in Tarrant County.

“There’s a lot less bank flow in Fort Worth, as opposed to Dallas,” he said.

But he is happy that his employer allows him to occasionally work from home.

Changing commuter habits

Despite the concerns expressed by Fort Worth leaders, Tarrant County is in a good position to benefit from commuters’ changing habits, said Walter Bialas, vice president of research for JLL real estate company.

A growing number of workers — especially young professionals — are drawn to living in traditional downtown areas and commuting to jobs in the suburbs. Such an arrangement allows those workers to enjoy light traffic during a “reverse commute” — in other words, traveling the opposite direction of traditional rush-hour traffic.

Fort Worth neighborhoods including downtown, the West 7th corridor and Near Southside are good examples of places where workers can enjoy the benefits of urban living, and commute to jobs in the suburbs, Bialas said. Having an educated, highly-paid work force in those neighborhoods, Bialas said, the city could then enjoy better success recruiting more high-paying jobs to town.

From 2011-15, the number of workers “reverse commuting” jumped 12.6% in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, according to a JLL Smart Cities report published last year.

That study also found that more than half the Dallas work force that had obtained at least a college bachelor’s degree already commutes to the suburbs. (The report didn’t provide a similar number for Fort Worth.)

“When I came here seven years ago, people tended to move in one direction,” Bialas said. “In Fort Worth, it’s not just one direction that’s busy in the mornings. It’s both directions.”

Grapevine Mayor William D. Tate agrees that traffic, which for decades moved primarily to the east in the morning, is now almost as likely to head west. Tate’s city is directly north of DFW Airport, and has seen tremendous retail and restaurant growth, as well as several corporate re-locations.

Tate downplays the importance of DFW Airport in luring jobs to Northeast Tarrant County. Instead, Tate believes Fort Worth’s emphasis on creating high-paying jobs within its boundaries is working.

Tate says that much of his city’s work force now travels toward Fort Worth in the mornings, and he expects that trend to continue.

“I would say a majority goes to the east, without a doubt,” Tate said. “I think you can tell by the highways. But it wasn’t that long ago that everyone was going one way in the morning, and now the morning traffic is going to Alliance, going west. It’s pretty significant now. There’s been a lot of jobs created there in the last 10 years.”

This story was originally published October 3, 2019 5:30 AM.

Gordon Dickson joined the Fort Worth Star-Telegram in 1997. He is passionate about hard news reporting, and his beats include transportation, growth, urban planning, aviation, real estate, jobs, business trends. He is originally from El Paso, and loves food, soccer and long drives.
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