This month, we will be faced with many critical choices related to public transportation in Dallas. Routes, funding, and priorities will be discussed and debated, ultimately making decisions that will have generational impact. Among these is the proposed next phase of Dallas’ modern streetcar system, currently operating from Oak Cliff to the southwestern edge of Downtown. Continuing to expand today’s system is a top priority for Downtown Dallas Inc. (DDI) as we plan for the future of our center city and its connectivity to all of Dallas.
The current modern streetcar line, the “Dallas Streetcar,” was envisioned to be the bud of a comprehensive system that would better connect the urban neighborhoods of our city. Modeled after many great cities with aspirational qualities for our future, it also evokes Dallas’ past, a time when streetcar added to the depth, density, commerce, and experience in downtown—growing and connecting neighborhoods in Oak Cliff, Fair Park, South Dallas, East Dallas, and what is now Uptown and Knox-Henderson.
Today, an immediate opportunity exists to take the next step toward recreating that fully expanded system by connecting the Oak Cliff line of Dallas Streetcar through the core of downtown to the McKinney Avenue Trolley. Called the Central Dallas Link, the proposed line provides the necessary connections for further extensions, and with a $90M price tag comes a sooner-rather-than-later (est. 2019-2020) funding potential from the Federal Transit Administration and matching funds from DART. This is in addition to the benefit of expanded transit access to some of the highest job and housing concentrations in Dallas in the midst of unprecedented growth, catalytic development potential, and opportunity to enhance a sense of place in downtown.
The Central Dallas Link has four potential alignments undergoing study [see graphic] with ultimate decisions made by the Dallas City Council and DART Board. Of the four, DDI has previously supported the “Elm-Commerce” alignment, but with the recent emergence of a stakeholder-supported preference for a Commerce Street subway for the DART second light rail alignment (D2), factors related to construction, service coverage, and ridership are important to consider. Comprehensive planning is imperative with the many unique opportunities in front of us, from highway tear-outs to bike plans, however regardless of the specific route of the Central Dallas Link, two things are important: one, we must seize this immediate opportunity to advance a project that is long overdue and essential to advancing a larger system, and two, we must start planning future phases of that larger system now.
Vision and Value
In 2011, The 360 Plan, our strategic plan for Downtown and its connected neighborhoods, emphasized the importance of streetcar and introduced desire lines for a fully built-out system:
As the center of the city and one of the region’s most prominent employment centers, downtown is the place where freeways, arterial roads, commuter rail, light rail, bus lines, and trolley cars all converge. However, despite this range of transportation, most of the emphasis is on the automobile and there is a lack of connectivity between these different modes of travel…A modern streetcar network can be the glue that binds downtown’s established destinations together and the framework along which new development can rebuild the fabric of the central city.
The update to The 360 Plan, due out this fall, builds on this vision and provides a framework for further mode diversification by enhancing pedestrian, bike, and public transportation options, and stressing localized, high capacity, frequent, and reliable service.
The value of streetcar has been proven throughout the country, from established systems like Portland’s to new systems like Kansas City’s, which according to reports, has generated more than 2.4 million trips since its opening in May 2016. In Dallas, streetcar will similarly support existing and future growth. Since 2010, the central area of Dallas, including downtown, has continued to drive the highest rate of population growth in the city and remains the largest employment center in the region. Sustaining and amplifying this base of jobs and housing is greatly dependent on a robust multi-modal transportation network that creates inter-area connections that deliver equal access to housing, jobs, entertainment, education, services, amenities, and recreation.
Furthermore, streetcars are a proven transportation option that can reduce dependence on auto usage, especially for those making “short trips” within the central Dallas area or looking for complementary service to bus or light rail. In fact, in a recent study focused on a 2.5-mile radius of downtown (the geography of The 360 Plan), GPS data showed that nearly 20 percent of all trips never left the study area, instead moving between neighborhoods like Main Street to Deep Ellum, West End to Dallas Farmers Market, the Cedars to the Arts District, and so on. Streetcar gives an alternative to making these trips by car, thereby reducing automobile dependence, lowering congestion and parking demand, and improving walkability.
Finally, as a locally serving system, streetcar has tremendous placemaking potential. The investment in streetcar infrastructure can have transformational impacts on the public realm, creating more humane corridors that are proven to spur additional private investment and street life.
Current study of the four proposed alignments includes a Comparative Economic Benefits Assessment conducted by HR&A Associates, commissioned by DDI. In cooperation, operations, maintenance, ridership, and cost recovery models are being led by DART and the City of Dallas. These studies will inform alignment preferences by all parties to be determined in concert with D2 LPA determination over the next 30-60 days. Regardless of the route, preliminary analysis of the economics proves streetcar as a net positive, as any of the four alignments:
- Increase the number of blocks with transit adjacency by more than 100.
- Deliver ¼ mile or less new access to rail transit to more than 62,000 current employees.
- Better connect our entertainment districts and benefit tourism, serving more than 3,100 hotel rooms and 800,000 visitors, with a spending potential of over $136 million yearly.
- Equal a commercial real estate premium. Projections show streetcar could have a positive net impact on leased office space, ranging from 0.5 million square feet up to just over 1 million square feet, depending on the alignment, with a corresponding increase in jobs, and an average $50 million increase in value.
- Positively impact residential growth by stimulating more units and greater assessed value at a possible $17 million high, building Dallas’ tax base.
The Time is Now
For more than a decade, DDI has continued to advocate for the establishment and growth of a streetcar network. Strengthening multi-modal mobility options in our center city will enable us to be economically competitive, attracting new residents and talent who expect and are accustomed to high quality, well-connected urban environments. The importance of moving forward with the Central Dallas Link now cannot be stressed enough, with immediate attention also paid to the full network—north, south, east, and west—that will deliver a vibrant and robust system in the future that reconnects us with the past, for downtown and the city.
Kourtny Garrett is president and CEO of Downtown Dallas Inc.
Dustin Bullard is vice president of public space and design at Downtown Dallas Inc.