Guns or butter? that’s usually an economics question in Washington, pitting defense spending against domestic programs. In North Texas, the comparable debate is between crime-fighting and mass transit, with Fort Worth and Dallas on opposite sides.
Late last year, Fort Worth leaders walked away from a federal grant for a streetcar project in the same week that Dallas opened a $1.8 billion light rail line between Carrollton and Pleasant Grove.
For Fort Worth, streetcars were a chance to move beyond buses—nothing like light rail but a baby step in the right direction. For Dallas, the opening of the green line marked the nation’s largest light rail network, achieved less than 15 years after service began.
If that contrast wasn’t enough, Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan justified his no vote by recalling how Dallas and Fort Worth went different ways in the 1980s. Dallas and a dozen surrounding cities voted to put a full penny of sales tax into Dallas Area Rapid Transit, while Fort Worth ultimately split its allocation. A half-cent later went to buses, the other half to a crime-control district.
“This is somewhat a tale of two cities,” Jordan said, bragging that Fort Worth had become one of the safest places in the country, even though FBI statistics don’t confirm that.
Put another way, Fort Worth dedicated its extra sales tax to services, while Dallas put it into infrastructure. At the moment, leaders in the two cities seem satisfied with their choices. Since 1991, Fort Worth’s violent crime rate has fallen 70 percent, and Dallas’ rate is down almost as much.
The results on transit are another story. And as the region grows and highways stack up, I’m betting that Fort Worth will rue the day that it picked guns over butter. Even a modest 3-mile streetcar line would have given the city something to spin.
Instead, Dallas and most of the eastern side of the metro area will be wearing the green halo of modern transit. By 2014, DART will open another light rail line, and its system will cover 90 miles. Major job centers in downtown, Las Colinas, and Richardson will be linked with Love Field, Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, and area hospitals. More mixed-use developments will be humming by then, feeding into light rail.
What a competitive edge in recruiting employers and newcomers. Played right, this could trigger a sea change in the local balance of power. Until now, most of the differences between Dallas and Fort Worth were superficial, like comparing Billy Bob’s with the Ghostbar. But on transit, the gap is monumental—a natural outcome of one side committing twice as much money.
“In 1983, I argued that Fort Worth should increase the tax to one cent, because everything in transportation depends on having enough resources,” recalls Walter Humann, a famed civic leader who once chaired the transport committees for both the Dallas and Fort Worth chambers of commerce.
“Look at the results,” he adds, ticking off DART’s achievements in rail, buses, even HOV lanes.
Many people are disappointed that DART ridership hasn’t taken off. According to the latest Census survey, 2.7 percent of workers in Dallas County commute on public transit, while the national rate is 5 percent. Then there’s Tarrant County, sitting at 0.9 percent—an embarrassing number for a place with big-league ambitions. Almost 10 times more people use DART than Fort Worth’s Transportation Authority.
The T reported 23,000 bus riders per week in 2009. The same year, DART had 64,500 weekday riders on light rail and 146,000 in buses. The green line adds about 15,000 light-rail passengers each week, and almost 154,000 drivers use DART’s HOV lanes.
DART and the T jointly operate the Trinity Railway Express, a commuter line between the big cities that had 9,900 weekday passengers. Another metric: The T has 196 buses, vans, and cars, compared with 674 vehicles in DART’s fleet.
Fort Worth may compete effectively with Dallas on job growth, office rents, and livability, but not on public transit. Terry Clower, an economist at the University of North Texas, says that employers and residents want that amenity in a big way.
“It’s hard to imagine a world-class city without a good public transit system,” says Clower, who has studied DART and its economic impact.
The value of developments built, planned, or announced around DART rail lines are estimated at $7 billion. The buildout has been uneven so far, slowed by the recession. But Mockingbird Station and Galatyn Park in Richardson offer a glimpse of what’s possible.
Fort Worth, meanwhile, is focused on adding highway lanes. Even its successful downtown is boosted by public money to subsidize parking garages. Those strategies seem dated now, especially in competing for young people.
A Brookings Institution report found that North Texas was No. 2 nationwide in luring 25- to 34-year-olds, trailing only Austin-Round Rock. But the study did not break down results within the region, and Dallas has always had an edge in recruiting young talent. Trust your eyes on this one: Fort Worth has nothing like the Uptown area, teeming with the so-called creative class. It’s not a coincidence that Uptown has light rail, buses, and a trolley.
Humann is hoping the Legislature will let North Texas voters raise taxes and fees, so it can develop a broad transit solution. That’s a heavy lift, with government funding shrinking.
When Fort Worth rejected the $25 million streetcar grant, most of the money went to DART as a reimbursement for the green line.
This tale of two cities isn’t just about separate choices. It’s about the difference between leading and playing catch-up.
Mitchell Schnurman is a business columnist for the Fort Worth Star-Telegram. For the past five years, his column has been named the “Best in Business” by the Society of American Business Editors and Writers.