FORT WORTH, Texas — Since the horse and buggy days, the East Lancaster Corridor has been a transportation hub in Fort Worth.
In the 1920s, the street was designated as part of the Bankhead Highway, the first all-weather transcontinental highway stretching from Washington, D.C. to San Diego. Today, the TxDOT on-system roadway is listed as a Historic Texas Highway by the Texas Historical Commission.
Until the late 1950s, East Lancaster Avenue was the most direct route between Dallas and Fort Worth. The trip between the cities was slowed by nearly 60 intersections with traffic lights, so the state stepped in to create the Dallas-Fort Worth Turnpike — now known as Interstate 30. When I-30 came online in 1957, the freeway siphoned off roughly 17,000 cars from East Lancaster, and area businesses immediately felt the pinch.
The thoroughfare and its surrounding area fell into a steep decline that nearby residents say the city has yet to address. A swath of East Lancaster transformed into what is now known as the homeless district, a mix of shelters, resource centers and clinics. Three main shelters — the Presbyterian Night Shelter, the Union Gospel Mission and the Salvation Army — are the foundation of the area just southeast of downtown and just a couple of blocks from the city’s main transit center. Over the past several decades, the department and grocery stores and restaurants that once thrived in the area closed, their windows boarded up to keep out intruders.
Thanks to the recent housing market boom and the city’s population explosion, more people are settling down in the traditionally poorer Eastside areas. In every patch of real estate surrounding East Lancaster, old homes are being renovated and new businesses are slowly opening. But, people who live in the neighborhoods along the corridor point out that its main transportation artery hasn’t been fundamentally updated since 1937.
An ambitious new plan to improve transit in the area is giving residents hope that economic development could follow the way it has in other cities that have improved public transportation in a specific zone.
Advancing East Lancaster is, at its core, a transit-oriented development plan. The multi-faceted plan is in its early phases, but its long-term goals include increasing access to public transportation, connecting to transit hubs for pedestrian and bike traffic, fixing the street’s infrastructure issues, and promoting economic development. Proponents of the plan hope to create the kind of Bus Rapid Transit system that will start the cascading effect that beckons independent businesses.
In 2019, the city of Fort Worth initiated a study called “Transit Moves Fort Worth” to examine ways to increase transit's role in the city’s overall transportation system. The study identified priority corridors, such as the East Lancaster Avenue corridor, and recommended high-capacity transit. In early 2020, Trinity Metro (the organization that manages Fort Worth’s transit systems) and the city of Fort Worth applied for a grant to the Federal Transportation Administration for TOD planning of new transit systems. The project was awarded the funds in late 2020 in coordination with local matching funds from the city of Fort Worth and Trinity Metro.
The $600,000 windfall will pay for a transit-oriented design plan for the area, and that phase of the overall plan is expected to be completed by December. Trinity Metro has already hosted several public meetings and will hold at least two more before the project is finished. If funded, the local high-capacity route will connect the East Lancaster Avenue corridor from downtown Fort Worth on East Lancaster Avenue past Handley Drive.
“The implementation of local high-capacity transit can benefit the community with the ability to increase access to opportunities such as reduced commute time, increased walkability, connectivity to other routes and trails,” said Melissa Chrisman, a spokesperson for Trinity Metro. “Retail, restaurants, medical centers, housing, and mixed-use development can increase with economic development, resulting in direct access to additional employment and housing options.”
So far, the drafting of a plan is the only part of the project that’s been funded. Residents are hoping that once the first phase is completed, the city will move forward with the other infrastructure and economic development improvements.
Daniel Haase is the Vice President of the Central Meadowbrook Neighborhood Association, and he’s involved in various other programs designed to spur improvements in his neighborhood. Recently, Haase and others created a public improvement district in the area, which runs from Riverside Drive to Loop 820. The PID works a little like a homeowners association or a tax increment finance district. Local businesses agree to pay a portion of their taxes toward neighborhood improvements. The lion’s share of the East Lancaster PID money funds a private security service that has reduced crime in the area by orders of magnitude. Crime dropped by roughly 30% over the course of the life of the PID, which was created in 2017.
Though area residents and business owners have shown a willingness to take matters into their own hands, Haase said that the city has been less receptive to shell out the cash for more improvements. In the past, the City Council has shown a very “lukewarm response” to the idea of Advancing Lancaster. With a new, younger City Council, Haase said he’s more optimistic.
“They're thinking like baby boomers, instead of trying to think like millennials,” he said of the past Council. “Millennials embrace public transportation if it's convenient, reliable, safe and frequent. Baby boomers view anything that's bus related as just slightly above walking. If you try to sell this on ridership increases only, it’s a no-go — it's dead in the water. What needs to be understood by everybody involved in this thing is there's an economic development component.”
For a model of what the Advancing Lancaster advocates are hoping to accomplish, Haase and others say the city should look to Cleveland, Ohio’s Healthline, a Bus Rapid-Transit plan with the same humble beginnings as Advancing Lancaster. The once-economically-depressed corridor it serves delivered more than $9.5 billion in development along the Euclid Corridor — a staggering $190 gained for every dollar spent on creating and launching the service. Bus ridership increased by 48% over the first year of the project and by as much as 60% in subsequent years.
“It's kind of a no-brainer that wherever these [BRTs] go, if they're done right, they do generate economic activity,” Haase said. “Now, we're not going to see $9.5 billion on East Lancaster, but if we had $9.5 million dollars, that would be great.”
One of the major components of the plan is to narrow the street, slow down traffic, and make the corridor more pedestrian-friendly. The BRT would have its own lane if the current iteration of the plan is completed. East Lancaster Avenue has become one of the deadliest streets in the city for people on foot. Since 2012, according to data from the Fort Worth Police Department, 66 pedestrians have been struck by cars on the street, and 25 of those people died from their injuries.
One major hurdle facing proponents of Advancing Lancaster is that the city doesn’t own the street — TxDot does. Besides needing to be re-striped, East Lancaster would also need water drains. Flooding is a problem on the nearly 100-year-old street. In the past, City Council members and city officials have been reluctant to take on the added financial burden of maintaining the street. TxDot has historically sold or, in many cases, given away streets in cities across Texas in an effort to reduce cost. If the city wanted East Lancaster, Haase speculated, it’s just a matter of asking.
“That street is not going to be reconfigured in any kind of logical way without the city taking it over,” he said. “And if the city took it over, it's not actually that much additional lane miles for Transportation and Public works to manage. By my account, it would add about six-tenths of 1% to what they're already maintaining. If they narrowed it all to two lanes, then it would be even fewer lane miles.”
The North Central Texas Council of Governments has also set its sights on improving East Lancaster Avenue. The coalition of government officials has applied for a federal grant to apply the “complete streets” model to the area. The project would be funded by money from a federal Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant, the city of Fort Worth, Tarrant County, and various state and regional sources. The project application was submitted in 2017. The Advancing Lancaster Project and the Complete Streets proposal share a lot of the same goals, including narrowing the streets and stimulating economic development.
Chrisman, the Trinity Metro spokesperson, said her organization is the planning phase and residents can still influence the final outcome of the plan.
“Residents can provide feedback related to what improvements they would like to see along the corridor, such as trails, housing, businesses, and entertainment, and identify some of the current barriers to riding transit,” she said. “The primary avenues residents can provide feedback include commenting on the interactive map, completing a community survey, requesting a stakeholder meeting, and attending public meetings."
All residents like Haase can do now is wait — for the TOD plan to be completed, the city to decide whether or not they want to fund other parts of the Advancing Lancaster plan, to see if the federal complete streets grant is accepted, and if the cost of the project is rolled into a bond package.
“I'm anxious to see if that [money] was put in the bond package for 2022,” he said. “Because if it didn't, I don't know when it's going to happen. This could just die on the vine.”