DART officials' latest plans for the Orange Line leave intact a much-lauded direct connection from Irving's planned Belt Line station to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

But the plans also pave the way for a looped track that would eventually connect the Orange Line to the Cotton Belt Rail Line just north of the airport.

"To us, this seems like a way to deliver the service to the terminals, which is what Irving's interested in, and not preclude a connection from the Orange Line" to the Cotton Belt, Dallas Area Rapid Transit spokesman Morgan Lyons said.

Still, Irving officials aren't celebrating the proposal that comes on the heels of weeks of tension between Irving and the transit authority over DART's last-minute look at the Orange Line's alignment.

Irving City Council member Rick Stopfer said a $1 billion DART budgeting shortfall in 2007 and recent talk of last-minute changes to the line make him wary.

"I don't have confidence, based on everything we've been jumping through these past four months, that this is really where we're at," he said.

But some Irving leaders said a cursory glance at DART's latest idea for the line is a sign that things are moving in a positive direction.

'Reasonable solution'

"I think it's a reasonable solution, but the Irving leadership needs time to properly vet it," said Chris Wallace, president and CEO of the Greater Irving-Las Colinas Chamber of Commerce.

Lyons said the connector will not affect the funding or timetable for the rest of the Orange Line. Once everything is operational, Lyons said, every third Orange Line train will run along the connector. The other two-thirds of trains will bypass the connector and run the initial Orange Line route.

The DART board must decide by next month how to align the third and final leg of Irving's Orange Line to get service running by December 2013, as promised. Lyons said the most recent plan is what DART staffers will recommend to the board.

Because there's no current funding secured for the Cotton Belt, it's up in the air when that line would start seeing passengers. DART also is $120 million to $190 million short for the $350 million to $400 million needed for the last leg of Irving's Orange Line. Lyons said funding needed for the Orange Line-Cotton Belt connecter will be rolled into the overall Cotton Belt project.

The Cotton Belt is expected to run across Tarrant, Dallas and Collin counties. It also will intersect rail lines that run north and south from Dallas County to Collin and Denton counties. An Orange Line connection to the Cotton Belt would further tie Irving's line and the airport into that planned North Texas rail network.

"This connects people in a number of significant ways," Lyons said.

Irving officials said they have not been selfishly ignoring what's good for the region. But, they said, some of DART's possible changes could have threatened billions of dollars' worth of development in what has historically been one of the agency's largest and most loyal member cities.

$834 million

Irving has poured more than $834 million into the transit agency. The city has stuck with DART, even when voters effectively had to choose between the agency and a chance to keep the Dallas Cowboys. Irving officials have spent years putting together more than $4 billion worth of transit-oriented development projects along the line. The projects are thought to comprise the largest collection of planned transit-oriented developments in the nation.

Much of the work that has gone into those projects was predicated on a direct rail-line connection to the airport. The city's Chamber of Commerce commissioned a study released last week that looked at the economic impact of possible Orange Line changes.

More than Irving

Bernard Weinstein, director of the University of North Texas' Center for Economic Development and Research, co-wrote the report. In it, he surmises that delaying the Orange Line for a new alignment or eliminating the airport connection would affect more than Irving.

He estimated that Dallas County, Dallas, the airport and DART would suffer from stalled or canceled development along the line.

Weinstein's study did not include the new plan because it had not been devised before his review. On Thursday, Weinstein said DART's new plan probably would not have a negative economic effect.

"Politically, that may be a smart way to do it," he said. "The timetables for the Cotton Belt are so ephemeral right now."

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