Fort Worth wants East Lancaster to be world-class, but some say plan is third-rate

dfwnewsa | January 7, 2024 | 2 | Fort Worth , Fort Worth News

Fort Worth wants East Lancaster to be world-class, but some say plan is third-rate

East Lancaster Avenue has been the subject of several studies to revitalize the corridor and bring economic development opportunities and better transit options to the residents there. (Courtesy photo | Trinity Metro)
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A final decision about East Lancaster Avenue’s redevelopment is up for City Council approval this month. 

But for some East Fort Worth residents, the plan leaves them overlooked. 

“It’s not a very aspirational, inventive solution, quite frankly,” East Fort Worth resident Daniel Haase said. 

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Since 2016, four studies on the East Lancaster corridor have been done, exploring ways to revitalize the once-vibrant area and use transit to steer economic growth. With construction expected to start in 2027, Fort Worth City Council is expected to receive a report on a proposed plan at its Jan. 9 work session and take a vote on Jan. 23. 

Staff will highlight recommendations, including improvements to the transit route, as well as the roadway itself. 

The project received $45 million in funds in summer 2023 from federal and state sources, which means the clock is ticking for construction to begin soon. In total, $150 million has been secured for the overhaul of East Lancaster Avenue, which has a price tag of $182 million. 

“The big ideas out of this are going to move forward,” said Kelly Porter, Fort Worth Transportation and Public Works assistant director for Regional Transportation and Innovation Division. “This feeds into the environmental process, which is the final … before you go to construction. So this is different than just a vision document. This is really the implementation.”

Roadway improvements

The redesign of East Lancaster from I-35W to Dottie Lynn Parkway is expected to improve safety by consolidating driveways along the avenue while enhancing traffic signals and making pedestrian and bicycle accommodations. Plans also will tackle open space and improve flooding issues.

These improvements were most recently brought to the public through the city of Fort Worth’s Eastside Transportation Plan. 

Michael Morris, transportation director for the Central Texas Council of Governments, one of the partner agencies of the project, said some of the infrastructure improvements made on East Lancaster between downtown and Interstate 820 would be reminiscent of the work done along East Rosedale Street. 

The Council of Governments has been working on redeveloping East Lancaster for 10 years, Morris said. 

“We redid Rosedale. We wanted to send life into Texas Wesleyan University, which I think we accomplished, and see other economic development occur on East Rosedale,” Morris said. “We’re taking a similar more aggressive position on East Lancaster.”

Storefronts along Rosedale Street were improved after Texas Wesleyan University bought them. (Courtesy | Texas Wesleyan University)

The city is also recommending adding frontage roads or on/off ramps from I-30 to Bridge Street and Brentwood Stair Road. This is part of the Texas Department of Transportation’s future I-30 rebuild. While one of the options will keep the two roads at four lanes, the other option looks to reduce the roads to two lanes — one lane in each direction. 

As part of the East Lancaster redevelopment, one of the city’s recommendations is to add two lanes on the section of Lancaster in the Handley Wedding District. The idea sparked some pushback from tenants of the historical shopping district who worry about the impact on the area. 

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Jamie Holder, owner of Creme De La Creme Cake Company in the district, said people already speed through the area and have caused many accidents, some directly impacting the local businesses in the area. Adding more lanes would worsen this issue, she said.

“We really, really don’t want a six-lane highway going through our business district,” Holder said. “It’s basically going to turn into Cooper Street… it’s already bad.”

One of the businesses in the district, located at an intersection of East Lancaster, was hit by a speeding car, causing foundation damage to his building, Holder said. 

In another incident, Holder’s bakery was barely spared. 

“My shop windows, they missed me by — I mean, this is jumping a curb and hitting two light posts — maybe by just six inches,” Holder said.

The wedding district also worries about how the widening of the road will affect proposed plans for an urban village in Handley, Holder said.

“We want the traffic to slow down. We want people to be able to stop at our businesses and feel safe,” Holder said. “That’s what we’ve been hearing for 15 years: an urban village, we’re going to do an urban village. And Handley is the perfect spot for restaurants and coffee shops and mom-and-pop shops … Do I think businesses are going to stay open? No, if there’s no parking  and people don’t feel safe.”

Morris of the Council of Governments also disagreed with the addition of lanes in the Handley District, calling it “a ludicrous conversation.”

Porter, of the city transportation department, said the enlarging of East Lancaster to six lanes in Handley is not final and is instead contingent on TxDOT approval. 

He encourages residents to remain engaged throughout the process to let TxDOT know as more public meetings are expected from the state agency in the spring.

“What we’re stressing though is regardless of what (TxDOT) do out there, this needs to be a high-quality, pedestrian-friendly, well-designed facility that creates a ‘to place’ and not a ‘through place’ for Handley that allows for that additional development on the southern part,” Porter said. 

However, the Handley District tenants say they feel they don’t have much say in the matter.

“As a group, we kind of feel like it’s a chessboard, and everybody’s trying to move their pieces,” Holder said.

High-capacity transit

For years, the idea of a bus rapid transit system was touted as the next-generation transit mode along the center of the avenue. However, those plans have taken on a new approach.

Trinity’s Metro’s Route 89, also known as the Spur, is the agency’s busiest bus corridor and rides down Lancaster from downtown to Eastchase Parkway. 

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The bus route will continue to run along the curb and alongside the regular traffic as opposed to the median of the road in a dedicated lane. Instead, bus efficiency will be addressed using technology that times signals for maximum efficiency – similar to emergency vehicles. 

“People are waiting for their transit, not at a bus stop but in air-conditioned businesses. They’re sitting in a coffee shop. They’re sitting in a lunch place. There’s technology in the coffee shop that says, ‘Next transit vehicle in three minutes,’” Morris said. 

Other technological upgrades include better broadband or WiFi access along the corridor and improved bus platforms. Ultimately, the city and its project partners are hopeful that these improvements will help spur much-needed economic development in the area. 

“Those are permanent improvements that signal to the market that these investments aren’t going anywhere,” Porter said. “We think that the type of world-class service we’re going to be putting out there and the experience for people in the infrastructure to support it — we want to show the market that there’s permanence.”

At an East Fort Worth Business Association meeting Jan. 4, Fort Worth Mayor Mattie Parker said she thought this curbside approach was the best alternative and described it as “a completely transformative project.”

“A lot of people in Texas focus on what we don’t have in transit, and that’s understandable,” Parker said. “But we have an advantage to learn from the mistakes of other large metro areas and create a transit system that works for a sprawling city.”

However, some residents worry this marks a missed opportunity.

“We’re taking the least objectionable path, and we’ll probably get some economic benefit out of it, but there are all kinds of studies to show how Bus Rapid Transit can be transformative,” Haase said. 

Trinity Metro’s Chad Edward, executive vice president of strategy, planning and development, said the agency is looking forward to working with the city and TxDOT to see how the corridor will develop. 

Porter emphasized the improvements made to the transit line in East Lancaster will still make the route more “metro-like.”

“Although we’re calling it tech-based rapid transit, (Bus Rapid Transit) comes under many names, and it can run at the curb,” Porter said. “This is still considered a form of rapid, premium transit.”

The proposal put forth for East Lancaster also looks at extending the current line to Dottie Lynn, allowing for eventual connections to Arlington’s VIA on-demand system. A future extension to the new Trinity Lakes Station is also a possibility.

Porter said this option, compared to another one that considered taking the route up to Handley-Ederville, will be easier to construct and be less disruptive to existing communities. 

“This creates a really first-of-its-kind regional system and connectivity for Fort Worth to get to other places in the region,” Porter said. 

TxDOT’s legacy

East Lancaster Avenue, also known as State Highway 180, used to be the main thoroughfare connecting Fort Worth to Dallas. It ran from Washington, D.C., to Los Angeles. 

The construction of I-30 in 1975 siphoned a majority of the traffic from that road and, with it, business to the local restaurants, motels and shops along the avenue. 

Many former highways in Texas found themselves in a similar situation — struggling to bring in new life and purpose to its corridor. 

However, because several of these roads are still owned by TxDOT, major changes made to the road must be approved by the Texas Transportation Commission, which governs TxDOT.

In 2012, the city of San Antonio was looking to take control of the Broadway corridor. A voter-approved project in 2014 would have widened sidewalks, removed a traffic lane in each direction, created bike lanes and upgraded landscaping in the area. 

However, a 2022 3-1 vote by the Texas Transportation Commission stopped the city from acquiring the roadway despite a signed letter beginning the transfer process in 2014. TxDOT said that reducing lanes there would not help address congestion. Redevelopment plans there have stalled.  

While Fort Worth is not looking to acquire East Lancaster from TxDOT, the San Antonio case has underscored what could happen if Fort Worth asks to remove too many lanes along the corridor. 

“I’m not going to waste two years of my life debating this with a commission,” Morris said. “It’s not critical. We can build a very nice six-lane thoroughfare street that exists today, that has destination and so on and so forth. There’s no reason to get into a convoluted debate with the commission.”

A resolution supporting the four proposed alternatives will be up for a vote at the Jan. 23 City Council meeting. A complete Eastside Transportation Plan that includes economic and land-use components will be presented to council for adoption in the summer of 2024. 

“The council will approve (these proposals) and say we’re giving this to TxDOT as part of our locally preferred alternative so they can take and consider it in their full design,” Porter said.

As a new vision nears for the historic corridor, Morris said he believes all those involved with the decade-long plan have delivered what was sold to residents years ago.

“It always was this comprehensive transportation vision, and I don’t think those elements have changed,” he said.

For residents like Haase, the plan may fall short of some promises, but he remains optimistic that the new changes coming to East Lancaster will improve the area regardless. 

“It never hurts to get a new and improved roadway with contiguous sidewalks and the other improvements that we’ll see,” Haase said. “There’s no question we will benefit. We just could benefit so much more.”

At the Fort Worth Report, news decisions are made independently of our board members and financial supporters. Read more about our editorial independence policy here. 

Sandra Sadek is a Report for America corps member, covering growth for the Fort Worth Report. You can contact her at sandra.sadek@fortworthreport.org or @ssadek19.

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