Wesley Gentle was multitasking during the recent Tarrant Transit Alliance’s Fort Worth mayoral forum streamed on Facebook until the moderator asked the candidates how they’d increase funding for Trinity Metro to keep pace with the area’s population increase.

“I stopped what I was doing,” said Gentle, who is originally from Florida but has lived in Fort Worth for about a decade, first as a student and now as a nonprofit employee. “I definitely get that there’s a pie and that pie gets cut a lot of different ways, but public transit is one of those things we’re behind on, and if we don’t get it right, it’s really going to snowball for our city.”

Fort Worth already allocates the least amount of its sales tax to public transportation compared with other major cities in Texas. The COVID-19 pandemic is expected to lessen that allocation even more.

Houston Metro1%
Dallas Dart1%
Austin Capital Metro1%
San Antonio Via0.5-0.75%
Trinity Metro0.5%
The largest Texas transit systems’ sales tax rates
Texas Comptroller of Public Accounts

The result is that only 3% of residents live within walking distance of a bus or a train that comes every 15 minutes, said Christof Spieler, a public transportation expert who moderated the forum.

At the forum, two mayoral candidates, Deborah Peoples and Ann Zadeh, said this puts not only less affluent residents at a disadvantage, but the city as a whole.

Peoples estimated that someone might spend between $800-$900 per month to maintain the car they drive to work every day.

“What if we could get that person to get on a great transportation system and spend $80? That’s more disposable income,” she said.

Peoples also suggested a poor transit system hurts Fort Worth’s economic development.

“We only have two Fortune 500 companies. Dallas has 34, and they look at things like transportation and quality of life,” she said.

But the four other candidates who participated in the forum – Mattie Parker, Dr. Brian Byrd, Daniel “DC” Caldwell, and Steve Penate – wouldn’t commit, especially to a plan proposed last year by the city that the Tarrant Transit Alliance supports.

Parker said she was concerned that the plan did not include the perspectives of other groups invested in the area’s public transportation. 

“That’s $2.8 million in capital costs over 25 years and around $236 million in additional operating costs annually, which as articulated is 182% increase. That’s real money. Those are budget decisions. Those are sacrifices,” she said of the plan.

“Public transit is one of those things we’re behind on, and if we don’t get it right, it’s really going to snowball for our city.”

Wesley Gentle, forum attendee

There’s also disagreement on how to increase funding absent increasing the portion of sales tax Fort Worth contributes to Trinity Metro.

Byrd did not support dipping into the general fund for it.

“We’re anticipating our commercial tax base will diminish by about 4%,” he said.

Byrd suggested Fort Worth could instead apply for federal funding. President Joe Biden’s administration has expressed a desire to fund infrastructure projects and transit projects in particular.

Byrd and the others said they’d rather make incremental changes to the system to help the people who need it the most. Byrd said a human trafficking victim his wife worked with was unable to get from one side of the city to another within a reasonable time after her shift ended at a sandwich shop at 10 p.m. using public transportation.

Some candidates went as far as saying it’s not needed. Daniel “DC” Caldwell said he’s seen empty buses while Steve Penate said it would be an uphill battle for the next mayor to get people to use public transportation more often.

“We love our trucks, you know. It’s who we are,” Penate said.

His generalization of Fort Worth residents drew criticism on Facebook, where Tarrant Transit Alliance streamed the forum. 

“He’s right. We should just drive trucks and ride horses,” Charlie Satnam Guajardo commented.

About a minute later, Guajardo added, “What about cows … This is cowtown, after all!”

Zadeh pushed back on the notion that no one wants transit though. She pointed to the Real Estate Council of Greater Fort Worth’s January survey of prospective voters.

According to that survey, prospective voters are slightly more supportive (56%) of a half cent sales tax to fund transit services than they are of a half cent sales tax for road and street maintenance and repair (54%).

Zadeh also said Fort Worth had been offered transit funding in the past that it didn’t take advantage of.

“We had funding available to start a streetcar and we decided not to because we weren’t sure if we had funding available to fund that entire system. And what happened? That funding went away, and it went to Dallas,” Zadeh said.

Trinity Metro also serves Blue Mound, Grapevine and North Richland Hills.

A portion of these cities’ contributions, plus Fort Worth’s sales, makes up 53% of Trinity Metro’s operating budget.

Fort Worth contributes 0.5% of its sales tax to Trinity Metro. 

Fort Worth Cycles
Fort Worth Cycles rack at Tarrant County College Trinity River Campus. (4/2/21 Fort Worth Report Rodger Mallison)

The reason for that is two-fold.

First, the Texas Legislature caps the amount cities can collect in sales tax at 8.25% and takes 6.25% of that, so Fort Worth and other cities only have 1% to play with.

Second, unlike some cities, Fort Worth, dedicates 0.5% of that 1% it has to play with to a crime control and prevention district.

And last year, as Houston, San Antonio and Austin voted to increase funding for public transportation, Fort Worth voted to continue the crime control and prevention district until 2030.

Before the pandemic, Gentle used the TEXRail and the Dash regularly. He said it takes about an hour by bus to get from his home in the Fairmount neighborhood to where he works at the Fort Worth Community Arts Center. It would take him 15 minutes in his 2004 Hyundai Elantra “that probably shouldn’t drive more than a mile ever again” because of its age. He said every month, he and his wife, a substitute teacher, talk about whether they should get rid of his car and buy a house. The problem is they can’t afford a house, at least not a house within a reasonable distance of public transportation.

Gentle declined to say who he’d be voting for May 1, but “one thing I was glad to hear was keeping an eye on what’s happening at the federal level. That can be a way to move us toward that visionary goal,” he said.

This story was changed on Tuesday, April 13 to correct the entity who proposed the transportation plan the mayoral candidates discussed.

Jessica Priest is an investigative journalist for the Fort Worth Report. Contact her at jessica.priest@fortworthreport.org or via Twitter.

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Jessica Priest was the Fort Worth Report's government and accountability reporter from March 2021-January 2022. Follow more of her work at www.jessicapriest.me.

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