Mike Norman

No shortage of challenges for new Fort Worth city manager

On behalf of the estimated 792,727 residents of Fort Worth, I offer a hearty welcome to David Cooke.

When he and city officials finish working out the details of his contract (“just a couple of little things” still to be finalized on it, says Mayor Betsy Price), Cooke will become Fort Worth’s new city manager, the City Council decided on Tuesday.

He’ll have 792,727 (the city’s population estimate released by the U.S. Census Bureau on Thursday) new bosses. Fortunately for Cooke, only nine of them (Price and the eight council members) will be filling out his annual performance review.

Still, there probably are at least 792,727 people who want to give him advice on what he should do as soon as he takes over.

Count me among that group. My biggest concern for Fort Worth is its weakness in public transportation.

In releasing that population estimate Thursday, the Census Bureau also said Fort Worth had the 13th-largest population growth among big U.S. cities from 2012 to 2013.

We can’t keep adding residents at this pace and expect them to get around with today’s limited public transit.

Cooke has some experience in the transit arena. As county manager in Wake County, N.C., for 13 years and deputy manager for four years, he was a valued part of the planning process to connect Raleigh, the county seat and state capital, with nearby Durham by rail.

That planning also included mapping out additional bus and rail service throughout the three-county area.

He’ll need to draw on what he learned.

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But Fort Worth’s public transit weakness is not on the planning side. Thanks to the North Central Texas Council of Governments and the Regional Transportation Council, that base is covered.

The Fort Worth Transportation Authority, the T, encouraged during the past couple of years by some boots to the backside by Price and the council, knows what needs to be done and a lot about how to do it.

The T recently hired a new president and CEO, Paul Ballard. He led Nashville’s Metropolitan Transit Authority for 12 years.

The problem is not in knowing what to do. It’s how to pay for it.

The T gets its operating money from a half-cent sales tax that brings in about $60 million a year.

That’s a lot of money, but it will take much more to meet the city’s needs.

The long-proposed TEX Rail commuter line from downtown to the DFW Airport north entrance is expected to cost $810 million, and the T is hoping federal grants will cover half the cost.

In 2010, Fort Worth had a $25 million federal grant in hand to build a streetcar route from downtown to the hospital district, but the city didn’t have the remaining $30 million or so to cover its share of the cost.

So that’s my challenge for the new city manager: Help us figure this out.

Can state officials help?

Should we take the half-cent sales tax that currently supports crime control and prevention efforts and devote at least part of it to transit instead?

It won’t be easy. But I doubt he expected things to be easy when he applied for the job.

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