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U.S. Department of Transportation U.S. Department of Transportation Icon United States Department of Transportation United States Department of Transportation
September/October 2005
Issue No:
Vol. 69 No. 2
Publication Number:
Table of Contents

In STEP With Irving

by Linda Harper-Brown

A Texas community takes the bull by the horns to achieve its transportation goals.

(Above) In November 2004, Irving city officials, representatives from the Texas Department of Transportation, and other stakeholders dug their shovels into fresh soil in a ceremony commemorating the groundbreaking for the Highway 161 extension through Irving. With its Strategic Transportation Enhancement Program, or "STEP plan," Irving is helping ensure that its vital transportation projects move forward as smoothly as possible. Photo: City of Irving, TX.

In the late 1990s, as Dallas-Fort Worth (DFW) began experiencing a tremendous population boom, the city of Irving, TX, the population center of the DFW metropolitan area, saw its list of transportation needs growing and funding opportunities shrinking.

With a current population of more than 5 million, the DFW metropolitan area (known locally as the "Metroplex") added 1.2 million residents between 1990 and 2000, fueling a growth rate of 29 percent. Only Los Angeles and New York, with base populations approaching 15 to 20 million, added more residents in the 1990s. The city of Irving is home to nearly 200,000 people.

"About 7 years ago, we had three major freeways and a light-rail line undergoing preliminary design at the same time," says Jim Cline, director of Irving's Department of Public Works and Transportation.

According to Cline, budget concerns were a top priority at all levels of government in Texas, with transportation, education, and health care all needing the scarce dollars. With nearly $5 billion in needed transportation improvements and limited funding, city officials recognized the need for a plan.

In light of the region's continued growth and acknowledgement that a functional transportation infrastructure is necessary for sustained economic development, Irving implemented an innovative strategy to meet its transportation needs without detracting from other important services. Carefully analyzing internal and external influences on project development, funding opportunities, and areas of greatest need, Irving developed a Strategic Transportation Enhancement Program, known as the "STEP plan."

Formally completed in September 2004 and dubbed the Mobility Plan for City of Irving Major Transportation Projects, the Irving Department of Public Works and Transportation's STEP plan outlines a forward-thinking and collaborative approach to tackling important transportation projects and ensuring the safety and mobility of Irving's citizens.

What Is the STEP Plan?

The STEP plan represents several years of ongoing research and analysis to prioritize Irving's transportation needs and to identify prospective funding options, according to the goals of both the city and its neighboring communities.

In October 2002, the city of Irving completed a project to eliminate the grade crossing at Grauwyler Road. The project, which is the result of a cooperative quiet-zoning initiative between Irving and DART, will not only reduce train whistle blowing but also will improve both rail and roadway operations and traffic flow. Here, a train passes over the underpass during construction of the roadway beneath the rail lines.

"The plan sets the framework for what we're going to achieve and identifies who we need to work with on projects," Cline says. "We tried to take a holistic, big-picture approach to streamlining the project development process."

In developing the plan, city officials asked themselves a number of questions. How does a project fit in with other projects that need funding? Does the project represent a local need or a political issue? Do we need to provide matching funds for rights-of-way? The plan is designed to help the city prioritize its projects and establish the political and logistical framework for moving forward once the right pieces are in place.

For example, Cline explains that another line on a proposed light-rail project connecting to Dallas needs to be completed before Irving can build its own segment. "We can holler and scream that this project needs to be finished," Cline says, "but the bottom line is that we can't do it until the other line is complete."

Although the STEP plan is an internal document for the Irving Department of Public Works and Transportation, other agencies and partners, from the Federal to the State and local levels, helped develop the strategy. In addition to providing guidance, these other organizations helped identify funding programs and unique opportunities such as quiet zoning for trains.

Prioritizing Projects

Numerous major transportation projects in Irving are in various phases of development by State, regional, and city of Irving transportation providers. The development of these projects and their funding and construction need to be closely coordinated to maintain mobility both within the boundaries of the city and in the adjacent areas of Dallas. The limited availability of funding for transportation projects makes it essential to prioritize the planning, design, and initiation of construction.

Traffic volume on the various highways, streets, and roads classified as arterial facilities in Irving exceeds 1 million vehicles per day. In creating the STEP plan, the city selected as priorities those projects deemed important in terms of moving people and vehicles into, out of, and through the city. The schedule of priorities took into account a number of criteria. First is the relative importance of each project or segment. Naturally, certain projects demanded a greater sense of urgency due to heavy traffic volumes or safety concerns.

Next, city officials needed to assess the availability of funding to pay for the cross section of priority projects. "When approaching the council of governments and other partners for funding, you have to strike a balance between an unreasonably high request and shooting too low," Cline says.

Another factor was construction time. To sustain mobility for residents and commuters, city officials looked at projects that would not hinder existing traffic flow or at least would minimize disruptions. The city attempted to avoid circumstances in which simultaneous projects might place an unnecessary burden on motorists.

External projects and influences also factored into the prioritization process. Irving officials looked at two scenarios under which projects outside Irving might affect mobility within the city limits. One scenario involved the inability of external transportation providers (those outside the city) to improve a transportation facility that connected with a proposed or existing facility in Irving. Increased traffic on the Irving road would create a real or virtual blockage on the external facility. In the second scenario, an external transportation provider constructs a facility up to the Irving city boundary without a corresponding improvement made within the city to accommodate the increased capacity. The increased traffic from outside the city would cause a significant increase in congestion on the Irving facility.

Based on these criteria, and in coordination with the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG, acting as the metropolitan planning organization for the DFW Metroplex) and other partners, Irving developed a table listing nine major transportation projects with estimated dates for letting the construction contracts and beginning construction. The STEP plan outlined the characteristics and planning details unique to each of the projects, such as public policy issues, key agencies involved, key assumptions, political actions required, impacts on mobility, design and construction issues, and the components for which the city will be responsible (building codes, design review, utility relocation, and construction phasing).

This artist's rendering shows a proposed highway facility in Irving that combines both toll lanes and free lanes. Adding a toll component through a comprehensive development agreement with a concessionaire will facilitate designing, constructing, and opening the facility 10 years sooner than might have been possible otherwise.

Identifying the Key Players

An important line item in the development of the STEP plan was identifying the agencies and organizations that would be the key partners in moving each of the proposed transportation projects forward. Given that Federal, State, and local organizations represent decisionmaking authorities and stakeholders in the planning process as well as potential sources of funding, Irving took the initiative to involve them from the beginning by inviting them to attend planning meetings to discuss the initiation of new projects.

Irving identified the primary transportation providers in the DFW Metroplex as the following: the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), NCTCOG, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), Fort Worth Transportation Authority (known locally as the "T"), North Texas Tollway Authority, Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, Dallas Love Field Airport, and nearby city and county governments.

At the national level, the Federal Highway Administration, Federal Transit Administration, Federal Railroad Administration, and U.S. Army Corps of Engineers also play a role in approving and funding projects. In addition, other State and Federal agencies, such as the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality, Texas Historical Commission, U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, U.S. Coast Guard, and Federal Emergency Management Agency, weigh in on transportation decisions as they relate to the respective missions and responsibilities of these organizations.

Traffic is shown backed up on State Highway 183 near Texas Stadium during the morning commute. Irving's STEP plan aims to address congestion like this and improve mobility in and around the city.

To avoid delays, the STEP plan acknowledged that the city will need to monitor the decisionmaking and approval processes and ensure that the appropriate level of authority approves project decisions through long-range plans, preliminary engineering and environmental documentation, right-of-way acquisition, authorization of contracting, and construction. City officials may need to exercise public policy actions, such as ordinance changes, to avoid lapses between authorizations, minimize delays between steps, and ensure that funding is available when required. Close cooperation with stakeholders also may prove essential to overcome reluctance to using innovative strategies, sharing costs, or selecting aesthetic treatments.

The level of participation from outside agencies and organizations depends on the project and "a whole lot of common sense," Cline says. "On one project, we're rebuilding a highway to put light rail under it. That will involve DART and nearby property owners because we'll need to determine where we're going to put the stations."

Identifying Sources Of Funding

After identifying and prioritizing the projects, Irving's next step was to explore the best possible means of completing them. For each project, the city identified the Metroplex's primary transportation providers and all local, State, and Federal agencies that might serve as sources of funding..

Depending on the nature and location of the project, potential sources of funding may include NCTCOG, DART, the "T," TxDOT's Dallas District and State office, the U.S. Congress (through the Federal-Aid Highway Program), and the Texas Transportation Commission (TTC). Because pooling funds from different agencies is an ongoing and dynamic process, Irving needs to work continuously with the various stakeholder agencies.

In times of tight budgets, establishing partnerships and working together can mean the difference between striking out and hitting a home run. According to the TxDOT publication Texas Transportation Priorities: 1st Session of the 108th Congress, the department estimates that it has only about 30 percent of the funding necessary to address the mobility needs of the State highway system in Texas. Scarce funding can mean intense competition for funding, not just between transportation projects, but between agencies responsible for all public services.

"We're in competition for funding with larger cities like Dallas and Fort Worth," Cline says. "We need to look at how we can address multiple projects successfully and do things in a manner that fits the region. If there is only a certain amount of money to go around, we need to figure out how you can raise the tide for all ships."

The STEP plan is Irving's approach to understanding the questions it will need to ask of potential partners. "The key is communication as much as anything," Cline says. "The goal is to approach these other agencies and deal with them on policy and project issues to get the best for your community."

In creating the plan, Irving did its homework to develop a strategy for how to interface with NCTCOG because the metropolitan planning organization is an important source of funding for local transportation projects. "NCTCOG now serves as an implementation partner," says Mike Sims, senior program manager with the NCTCOG. "It's a cooperative process, where we look at funding schedules and revenue streams to determine the best way to piece together a project."

Sims describes a proposed project that involves placing a transit rail line through the Los Colinas area. Irving officials sought to convince DART to opt for a different alignment that would maximize economic development for the city. To seal the deal, DART needed assurances from Irving that funds would be available when the time came to build the project. "NCTCOG worked with Irving to award funds and then delay their use to meet the DART implementation schedule," Sims says.

Transportation Summit

An important venue for exchanging information with partner agencies as well as other experts in the transportation industry is the Texas Transportation Summit, held annually in Irving. Topics covered at the 2005 event included tolling, multimodal travel forecasting, international freight movement, transit-oriented development, intelligent transportation systems, regional mobility, and surface transportation safety.

U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas) chats with Collin County Judge Ron Harris at the 2004 Texas Transportation Summit in Irving. The city held its first summit in 1998 as a means to share information on transportation- related topics of interest to local, regional, State, and Federal stakeholders.

To address the backlog of transportation projects, U.S. Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Texas) suggested hosting the first summit, which took place in 1998. The goal was to raise awareness of important transportation projects and identify issues that would need to be addressed in order to get the projects underway.

"Doing a transportation summit is part of [the Department of Public Works and Transportation's] strategy," Cline says, "because there's only so much money to go around. There's only so many ways you can keep carving up the same pie. We found that by raising awareness we can focus more on the specific projects and issues. The summit opens up new opportunities."

Irving officials are working with TxDOT and other stakeholders to develop future uses for Texas Stadium when the Dallas Cowboys move out after 2008. One proposed use is an eco-community, shown here in this artist's rendering, with an abundance of green and public spaces.

One such opportunity was the chance to participate in a pilot project involving environmental streamlining, sponsored by FHWA and the American Association of State Highway and Transportation Officials (AASHTO). In fact, Irving's Loop 12/Interstate Highway 35 East project played a pioneering role in the development and evaluation of environmental streamlining for transportation projects, which is a process that expedites completion of environmental clearances. The $1 billion, 21.7-kilometer (13.5-mile) Loop 12 project will include a mix of widened highways, reversible high-occupancy vehicle lanes, commuter or light-rail lines, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.

For the pilot project, Irving and TxDOT participated in a working group that facilitated continuous collaboration and coordination to streamline the environmental evaluation and approval process. Particularly, the project faced environmental hurdles relating to air quality impacts and river crossings. As challenges arose, the working group provided a forum for achieving interagency cooperation and community consensus. For example, one segment of the project required access to frontage roads from public streets. A new TxDOT policy would not have provided adequate access to the frontage roads from adjacent properties, but because of participation in the working group, Irving was able to secure approval from TTC in a timely manner.

"AASHTO identified 10 projects to streamline," Cline says, "and we had the most significant project in terms of cost. We shaved off about 40 percent of the time that it usually takes to complete the environmental assessment."

Although the agencies still perform the same number of environmental analyses, the reviews are now completed concurrently to prevent long delays for priority projects. "We didn't skip any steps," he says. "We just did them smarter."

With projects in various stages of progress, ranging from planning and environmental documentation to construction design, city officials credit the STEP plan for expediting its transportation goals. "As a result of Irving's diligence and involvement in innovative practices such as the environmental streamlining initiative," says Irving City Manager Steve McCullough, "many of the city's priority projects are moving along more quickly."

Tips for Developing Strategic Plans

Mike Sims from NCTCOG recommends that municipalities think more strategically about their long-term goals and how to achieve them. "Often city officials tend to focus on the problem in front of their noses, like a pothole that needs to be fixed," he says. "They don't look at developing a long-term vision to implement a whole solution instead of many tiny solutions. If you aren't going to think strategically for your city, then your city will be left behind on something, whether it's transportation, development, or education." Below are some tips to help local governments develop implementation plans for their transportation projects.

  • Secure the support of elected officials.
  • Identify all key players that can influence local transportation projects, including Federal, State, and local departments of transportation, metropolitan planning organizations, and resource agencies.
  • Secure the involvement of sponsor agencies.
  • Organize a coalition of local entities, including county and city officials.
  • Set regular meeting times.
  • Establish a list of priority projects and research both internal and external factors that might influence implementation.
  • Enlist the support of interested citizens who are well respected in their communities.
  • Do not shy away from those with whom you disagree. Aggressively seek out problem areas early.
  • Conduct parallel reviews of project submittals by resource agencies.

Being Proactive

Integral to the STEP plan is the concept of being proactive. "Look for trouble and address it as you go," Cline says. "We actively look for potential problem issues. If we think a project might affect [U.S. Department of Housing and Urban Development] Section 8 housing outside Irving, instead of waiting to see if residents show up at a public meeting, we go to them. If you do everything early, the public hearings at the end are almost nonevents and you avoid trouble or having to redesign a project."

Sometimes being proactive can pay off in unexpected ways. For decades Irving has been home to the Dallas Cowboys football team. But Irving recently learned that after 2008 the team will move out of Texas Stadium. Typically this kind of news would be a negative thing for a municipality, Cline says, but something positive may come out of it. "Because of all the work we've been doing on the Loop 12 interchange and the three highways surrounding the stadium," he says, "we are in a position to work with the State to incorporate a few changes to the project to enhance our ability to redevelop the stadium down the road."

Environmental impact statements, utilities, and right-of-way acquisitions are the top three things that slow down projects, he adds. "Because we've been proactive, we are in a position to start looking at providing access for light rail, and we've been working with property owners on right-of-way issues."

According to Sims from NCTCOG, many local governments are passive about participating in State and Federal transportation projects that are being constructed in their cities. "Irving has not made that mistake," he says. "The city jumps into design and planning issues, spends its own money on analyzing potential situations upfront, and is able to look at roadways not as stand-alone issues but considering how it might promote different styles of development. Irving identifies transportation as well as land use and zoning goals to devise a coordinated strategy."

Improved Communications

Another example of Irving's involvement with innovative strategies to improve transportation policy is the city's participation in monthly meetings with TxDOT to discuss progress on major projects. By coordinating with Federal and State agencies, Irving is improving communication and facilitating a more fluid project development process. "The meetings provide a forum for ongoing review of plans with real-time issue resolution," Cline says.

Nasser Askari, project manager with the TxDOT Dallas District, adds that Irving played a major role in assisting TxDOT in the development of the schematic design and public involvement process for two major transportation projects within the city: the Loop 12/Interstate Highway 35 East project and State Highway 183. "At the beginning of each project, we established a project coordination work group for the purpose of meeting at monthly or quarterly intervals to review progress, advise the project team, share ideas, and coordinate efforts," Askari says. "Staff from Irving's Department of Public Works and Transportation participated in all of the meetings and provided TxDOT with their comments and input throughout project development. The city of Irving's cooperation and involvement in early project development resulted in on-time completion of these projects."

State Representative Linda Harper- Brown and a local contractor discuss the details of work on State Highway 183 and MacArthur Boulevard in Irving.

One example of a project that developed through improved communication with outside agencies is a recent citywide effort to create railroad quiet zones. A new Federal law requires trains to sound their horns when approaching and traveling on public highway rail crossings unless the crossing is located in a quiet zone and approved safety measures are in place. The city of Irving recently passed an ordinance to create quiet zones, required under Texas law.

Trinity Railway Express equipped four of the city's busiest rail crossings with four-quadrant gates, which block the entire crossing and prevent vehicles from driving around the gate arms. The exit gate management system can detect a vehicle stuck on the tracks as a train approaches. If a vehicle is present, one exit gate on each side of the four-quad gate will remain upright, allowing a motorist to exit. An automated horn system lets motorists approaching the crossing know that a train is coming. The automated trackside horn will sound only if it detects a failure in the gate system.

According to Cline, Irving is one of the first cities in the country with a plan to become completely "quiet zoned" at all major railroad crossings. "Installation of the four-quadrant system is safer than conventional two-gate crossings and means the trains will no longer have to blow their whistles as they approach these intersections."

Communicating with the public also is essential for success. During implementation of the STEP plan, Irving created the Irving Citizens Advisory Committee (ICAC), which assists the city in determining the most appropriate design features of projects, including points of entry and exit, within the city limits. The ICAC provides a sounding board for ideas and a forum to discuss project issues-such as potential impacts on communities or neighborhoods-well in advance of the traditional public involvement process.

The Irving Department of Public Works and Transportation is installing four-quadrant gate systems like this one that block an entire railroad crossing and prevent vehicles from driving around the lowered gate arms. This safety measure enables Irving to create railroad quiet zones in the city, where trains are not required to sound their horns when crossing public highway rail crossings. An automated trackside horn will sound only if it detects a failure in the gate system. Here, a motorist waits behind the lowered gates for a train to pass.

A Blueprint for Success

City officials have been working on the STEP plan for the past several years but only recently put it together formally in a binder. The selection of a binder as the means to organize the plan implicitly reflects the document's formal yet flexible nature. Section 1 concludes by stating that the plan represents a guide for scheduling projects but recognizes that variability in key assumptions-such as the availability of funding, ability of lead agencies to secure reviews and approvals in a timely manner, and public acceptance of project designs-could affect the timelines for projects and their completion.

According to the plan, "These projects are considered essential to the development of employment opportunities and economic development in this portion of Dallas County. The prioritization of . . . projects is based on the issues identified in the various sections of the discussion presented in this development plan, with the understanding that key assumptions can and will change over time. For this reason, this document is considered a 'living document' [that] must be updated when circumstances and events occur [that] may change the . . . assumptions."

Irving's STEP plan enabled the city to better focus its efforts on the areas of greatest need as opposed to those that seemed most likely to receive earlier funding. By emphasizing the needs and aggressively pursuing the means for meeting them, Irving has taken a significant "STEP" toward creating a safer, more efficient transportation system for its citizens.

Linda Harper-Brown, a former Irving city councilwoman, is in her second term as a State representative in the Texas House of Representatives for District 105. She serves on the Higher Education Committee and the Local and Consent Calendars Committee. She is the vice chairperson of the House Committee on Land and Resource Management.