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County officials: Transportation No. 1 priority

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JOEY DAUBEN
The Ellis County Press

WAXAHACHIE - The number of households in Ellis County is supposed to jump 332 percent in the next 15 years.

That estimate, from the North Central Texas Council of Governments (COG), is fueling an effort among Ellis County's elected officials to jump on the mass transit bandwagon.

Mayors, city managers, county commissioners and various representatives from in and around Dallas-Fort Worth met Thursday, Nov. 6 at the county courthouse to discuss transportation issues, following behind much of the larger cities and areas to the north in doing so.

'We are growing into a new phase of challenges,' said County Judge Chad Adams.

Make no mistake about it, Ellis County grows and grows with each new subdivision you see on the side of the road, but officials here said the roads, bridges, and overpasses will take the biggest hit.

Solution: rail.

Plans from COG, the area's regional government authority, call for Ellis County running two commuter or light-rail lines from Waxahachie and Midlothian up into Dallas.

They're separated, one line going up Highway 342 through Red Oak and Lancaster on already-existing railroad tracks (called commuter rail), and one going up Highway 67 through Cedar Hill and Duncanville.

Whether this is Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) is not clear, but already, officials are already figuring out ways to meet their growing transportation needs.

'I don't think it'd be stretching it if I said our citizens would support this,' said Midlothian Mayor David Setzer. 'Community support for bond elections have been a positive sign.'

Money, about $40 million for an adequate light rail system (light rail must be built), must be raised, either through a city's sales tax, or bond elections.

The cost drops, however, if cities and local governments have already-existing rail lines.

Counties, according to state law, can issue tax notes to pay for such projects and even create transit agencies.

Ennis is different, said Mayor Russell Thomas, because his city and eastern Ellis County won't see the massive growth Waxahachie, Red Oak, and Midlothian are receiving.

'It'd be difficult to see if community support with something [so different] like this,' he said.

The Trans-Texas Corridor, a plan envisioned by Gov. Rick Perry, calls for major rail-road highways to bypass Ellis County, according to maps of the proposed project, on the outskirts, and Thomas said he'd be interested in trying to possibly hooking up to that.

What's needed more than anything, though, according to Red Oak Mayor Todd Little, is citizen education.

'The average citizen doesn't understand the situation [we are in] right now,' he said.

Eventually, Little said, transportation and air quality issues will 'catch up' and be on the forefront of the debate. He said a possible cooperation/membership with the Best Southwest Chamber of Commerce could help spur the needed education possible. Best Southwest, a lobbying arm consisting of Duncanville, DeSoto, Cedar Hill, and Lancaster officials, has been successful in obtaining transportation funds (Interstate Highway 35 expansion).

'When the landscaping and [city expansion] was done, people have said, ‘Todd, we like what's going on.' More citizens need to be educated.'

Little also went on to say rail - in this case, commuter rail - is vital to air quality.

The more pollution coming out of Ellis County, the better mass transit looks.

But not all would agree to that statement.

'The North Central Texas Council of Governments wants to collect all of the suburbs' tax dollars and send it to DART, that's what all this is about, to support their rail system which fails because it doesn't take care of people it's supposed to take care of,' said Warren Norred, director of DFW Review, a citizen's group charged with opposing regional government and mass transit.

'What they [COG] want you guys to do is give money to their system and they want you to do that by [implementing] a regional transportation authority and a new tax, and then collect your dollars and spend it on their toy trains.'

Norred compares mass transit supporters to the French, and said there shouldn't be any link whatsoever.

'Paris has rail, I hear it all the time, Paris has 70,000 people per square mile, so when you have 70,000 people per square mile, then you, too, can have a rail system,' he said. 'They're like Americans, they like to sprawl out, they don't want to live like bees in a hive, they want a piece of yard with a swing on it so they're kids can have a place to play.'

He said there's been a 30 percent drop in European metropolitan areas because of their more-western attitudes for living.

Any additional money, Norred said, should be spent on more highway lane miles.

'The problem is congestion, and what's the way to alleviate congestion? Add more lanes, keep the traffic moving,' he said. 'This [mass transit] is not about vision, this is about building a toy train so that you can say you're world class.'

Ovilla Mayor Bill Turner agreed.

'If you've ever seen the trucks on [Highway] 287, you see our roads are being torn up. We need help,' he said.

Even Midlothian officials said their next big plans are to oversee a 287 bypass to the south of town, which in turn, would direct all the traffic out of the downtown area. The next plan, according to City Planning Director Don Hastings, would be to extend Highway 360 further south from Mansfield, (FYI: A portion of Mansfield is in Ellis County) past 287, and then have it connect to I-35 West near Hillsboro.

'We'll need stepped-up assistance [for that],' he said.

But, the quote of the day came from Judge Adams, who, knowing where his responsibility lies first, replied to COG's advice for regional cooperation and said, 'we don't want to jump on your [COG] ship until we have support back home.'

Good answer.

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