Is DART the Failure It Appears To Be?

Austin and Houston are now engaging in the same light-rail transit battle we enjoyed 20 years ago, and opponents are getting plenty of ammunition from the low performance of the Dallas system. Their most piercing criticisms come from data reported by the News’s Michael Lindenberger in June (liberated from the paywall, scroll down at the link):

A Dallas Morning News review of passenger data from the past 15 years shows that despite massive promotion and billions in tax dollars spent, most of DART’s rail stations serve fewer people now than when they opened.

DART’s ridership projections have time and again proven wrong — massively wrong.

In 2007, DART budget writers predicted that by 2012, the Green, Blue and Red lines would combine to provide 45 million passenger trips per year. Last week, [CFO David] Leininger told the agency’s board that he’d be pleased with half that many.

That is a miscalculation of approximately 100 percent.

Back to the point of ridership being lower than when DART began, neither Lindenberger nor DART officials give an explanation (perhaps they have in other forums).

I speculate that the reason may be that we are subsidizing two forms of transit in competition with one another: more roads and light-rail. Think of all the roads and interchanges that have been built in Dallas-Fort Worth in the last fifteen years. Roads are just as expensive as rail from a subsidy standpoint; all highway user fees, including the gas tax, pay for only 51.72% of highway costs. The more roads, the more drivers, as countless studies have shown. The more drivers, the fewer DART riders.

But with roads, there is a subsidy on top of just building them. As Jon Huntsman pointed out in the last Republican debate, the true cost of a gallon of gas is about $13 when taking into account the vast military and diplomatic costs of protecting foreign oil imports, such as keeping the sea lanes open, as well as environmental costs (this study says $15.14 a gallon).

What we need is a dollars-to-dollars mileage and usage comparison between the two transit choices. If one exists, I hope a commenter will link us to it. In the meantime, it seems foolish that Dallas and Texas continue to spend huge amounts of money to serve the same customer — the poor sap who just wants the easiest way to get to work.


  • The gas price issue is a red herring unless we build a lot more nuke plants. Electricity comes from petroleum just like gasoline.

  • Hannibal Lecter

    Wick, your 51.72% number is just one of many made-up numbers by transit enthusiasts. At the state level, Texas actually operates the highway system as a profit center, taking in much more in gasoline taxes than spends on construction and maintenance. As I’m sure you know, 25% of state fuel taxes go to public schools. Other diversions include small airports, subsidized inter-city bus service and DPS. At the federal level, huge amounts of the federal gas tax are diverted to mass transit and other pork. The last time I checked, DART alone had received over $700 million in federal gas tax funds. If not for all those folks driving on the highways, there would have been no money to pay for light rail.

    Do we spend enough on highways? No. Are fuel taxes high enough? Of course not. But the bottom line is that not only are auto drivers carrying their weight by paying for the highways, they’re also paying for DART’s follies, public schools and all kinds of other stuff.

  • Duh

    Darts HUGE mistakes were not building the rail in the way of a subway downtown and not building through the heart of the main established intown neighborhoods as well as building a DFW airport line much sooner. On top of that there is no true way to determine actual ridership since Dart stations are set-up to very easily cheat the system and just hop on a train without purchasing a pass. Although I’m sure a lot of thought and planning went into Dart it just doesn’t appear that there was much of it.

  • Dallas expat in MT

    Hardly any electricity in the US is generated from petroleum. It’s mostly from coal and natural gas.

  • brandon

    I used to ride the dart. When they opened the green line, they took cars away from the red line and it became very very crowded. I could never sit so when I moved, being close to the rail station was less important and being closer to work was more important.

    After riding every day for 2 years, I will never ride consistantly again.

  • Wick Allison

    @ Hannibal Lector: The 51.72% comes from the Federal Highway Administration report of 2007 (last available). Tolls add another 5%.

  • J bennett

    If someone is aware of the problems then hopefully we have some smart people with solutions not rhetoric.How long is it going to take this area and this country to use alternate public transportation instead of fueling the oil industry?

  • Scott

    I’m not a DART apologist nor do I ride it except on the rare occasion when it is more convenient and/or cheaper than driving and paying to park. However, cities build infrastructure. We build libraries and give away the services. We build parks which sit idle most of the time and are free to use. We have county hospitals, we pay for our safety by having police and fire departments. We build schools and provide education. There is no part of a city’s infrastructure that is worth it from a cost/benefit analysis except safety, health and education. To me, the question isn’t to compare having DART to having roads. Both are part of the infrastructure of a city and both benefit different segments of the city and both carry a cost. If you want to shut down DART then also advocate to shut down the parks, libraries and make people pay for services at county hospitals. These are just a few examples, I’m sure there are other city services that could be questioned as to their worth. DART is just an easy target but I’ll admit probably the most expensive.

  • downtown_worker

    People always find something to complain about. If DART were a huge success, this would be a story about how the trains are too crowded.

    I’m just happy to have transportation options. In 2014, I’ll have the option to take the Orange Line to DFW and not pay a $50 cab ride.

  • Bob

    A significant factor in the cars vs. transit comparison is density. The more dense the area to be served, the greater the advantage of transit to the resident.

    The older trend of reducing density by building farther and farther out from the center city is being challenged by infill and redevelopment in the center city that increases density in those areas. Transit won’t help much in the Friscos and Southlakes, but it can do a much better job in the Uptowns and Mockingbird Stations and Richardsons and Oak Cliffs.

    Transit and cars are never an either-or situation (except in places like New York or San Francisco), but instead are factors in city planning and development issues. Since the creation of DART, Dallas has begun to swing away from total dependence on cars, and that trend will continue into the future.

    Sure, DART has faults, just like every other large comprehensive organization that serves millions of people. But the response to those faults is to fix them, to make DART better. We all benefit from that, whether we ride a train or bus, or sit alone in our cars on our crowded roads.

  • Brown Bess

    “The gas price issue is a red herring unless we build a lot more nuke plants. Electricity comes from petroleum just like gasoline.”

    Huh, no. Only a tiny fraction of US electricity is produced with oil, and none in Texas.

  • Fred

    DART rail will eventually be recognized as a success as time unfolds. However, it could serve the city better by completing the Knox-Henderson station which is hollowed-out but lies fallow underneath the intersection with Central Expressway.

  • smeyers

    A hallmark of a premier city is its public transportation system…think San Francisco or NYC. How many cars can North Texas handle, we are talking about a major future quality of life issue here. Do we want that future delineated by dollars and cents or do we want to make meaningful changes that make sense now to live a less polluted world for our offspring.

  • Neal

    If you want to see a picture of failure, take a look at Austin’s downtown-to-Leander commuter rail line. It’s a ghost train and the stations are in the middle of nowhere.

  • kris

    DART is yet another money grabbing , union based, bloc of votes for politicians who need to rob peter to pay paul for their excesses

    If cattle cars are the answer then let private enterprise take care of it and they owners of the vehicles can modify their prices their schedules etc and no one will be ill affected by their decisions

  • Jackson

    Neal’s Austin example is unworthy because it’s only a year old, the first rail line of any sort in that city, the toe in the water.

    Dallas has built — and is building-out — the mass transit infrastructure for a 21st Century city. Twenty-five years from now, when many of us are old and grey and bent with the chill of a winter’s day (or older and greyer), and we and the next generations are transporting ourselves across the city like we do in D.C., NY and countless other cities globally, we’ll be far ahead of the game as an economic engine because of our movement of people to and fro.

    Think of it. The Dallas County population is currently 2.4 million. It’s 7 million in DFW broadly. What do you suppose it will be when DART turns 50 years old in 2033, a short 22 years from now? How much of that added population (double today’s, I bet) will be in the central core, where only high-density development can and will cover the increase? After all, Dallas proper can only grow up, not out, and the County will be that way more and more.

    These questions ask themselves, and they answer themselves, too: Mass transit infrastructure build-out.

    Many of these comments seem to come from those longing for the good old days. Get with the program. Imagine the future. It’s closer than you know!

  • Jackson

    One other thought: In 2033, with our inner city population near-doubled, we won’t be adding lanes onto Central Expressway all the way over to Greenville Avenue, a block to the west. The real estate is too valuable. And widening Central by plowing through on the east side for new lanes is also a nonstarter. That real estate is as rich or richer than the west side. So there will be no way to move people, the workers who drive the economy, without doing it through an integrated infrastructure that carries them en masse in a smart way, like we’re doing.

    Wick’s essay a year or two ago on what to do with I-30 (plow it up and make it work for the communities on both sides of it) is so correct. We are not able to view growth and how to handle it like we did 50 years ago. We’re just not.

  • Jackson

    I got the east and west wrong. It’s Greenville to the east, of course. I’m not usually longitudinally and latitudinally-challenged. Sorry about that.

  • Borborygmus

    @Jackson – your 2033 scenario puts an increased burden on the side streets for commuter traffic. Hillcrest Road should never have been expanded to it’s currently cramped 3 lanes – with cars driving 50 mph or higher down it. I wish they’d change it to 2 lanes plus generous bicycle lanes to thwart traffic from just cutting through an entirely residential swath of Preston Hollow/North Dallas.