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Good Public Transit

With its Vote Against the Cotton Belt and For a Subway, Is Dallas Finally Ready to Take Public Transit Seriously?

A new unanimously backed city council resolution formally kicked aside the Cotton Belt and backed a new downtown subway line. But the real kicker is its bus policy.

This morning the Dallas City Council spent nearly two hours talking about buses, and it was glorious.

Buses — the least sexy of all public transit modes — are apparently the one public transit amenity that everyone around the horseshoe can agree on. Sure, the Dallas City Council also voted unanimously on a resolution that stated it wants Dallas Area Rapid Transit to build its second downtown rail alignment (D2) as a subway. And even though a handful of council members still said they would like to see the Cotton Belt rail extension built-out, the council also voted unanimously on a resolution that did not include the Cotton Belt as one of its transit priorities.

But while we always talk about those huge, multi-million (or billion) dollar improvements that take decades to build, what was perhaps most striking about today’s vote was the attention the council paid to buses, a public transit mode that is cheaper, quicker to implement, and has the potential to more greatly impact mobility than any new rail line built-out to nowhere.

Let’s set the scene: the Dallas City Council moved its usual Wednesday meeting to Tuesday this week to accommodate Yom Kippur. The agenda was slim — the only really point of contention was a request by the Hall Arts development group to use two lanes of Leonard St. in the Arts District as a valet stand in order to accommodate a new hotel and condo residence Craig Hall plans for the corner of Leonard and Flora. Philip Kingston put up a noble fight against the proposal, claiming that ceding a chunk of the public right-of-way for a valet stand wasn’t exactly the most pedestrian-friendly idea of the millennium. But this is Dallas, a city in which no one understands that there is usual free street parking within 100 feet of anywhere you would ever want to go. And so valet stands ruled the day. It seemed to set the wrong tone for the morning, but the morning wasn’t over.

After the council ran through the majority of their agenda, it was time to vote on a resolution that would declare the council’s position on a slate of public transit initiatives. On paper, the item didn’t look like much. The council was essentially voting on something that would tell DART they like the idea of a D2 subway, better buses, and a downtown streetcar. But reading between the lines, the language of the resolution represented a huge shift in the way Dallas thinks about and advances its transit policy.

For one, what most stood out about the resolution was what wasn’t there — namely, the Cotton Belt. The Cotton Belt is a rail project that would run through the northern portion of Dallas on its route from Plano to DFW Airport. As it is currently planned, DART would construct the line, which many suburban DART member cities would like to have seen built yesterday, by taking out a load of debt. Backers of the Dallas subway argue that that debt would jeopardize DART’s finanical capacity to build the underground light rail extension downtown.  You may remember that council transportation committee chair Lee Kleinman went to bat for the Cotton Belt. Kleinman sees the Cotton Belt as a way of linking DART to big new developments like the redevelopment of Valley View Mall. But he was blocked. With today’s vote, the council effectively told DART that Dallas doesn’t want the Cotton Belt to be built any time soon — if ever.

And then there is that downtown light rail line. Just a year ago, the council voted in favor of an at-grade alignment of the D2 light rail extension. At the time, DART officials claimed a downtown subway would be too expensive. Since then, transit, urban, and neighborhood activists have argued that a street-level downtown light rail line would wreak havoc on downtown development and neighborhood cohesion. Today’s resolution represented a complete reversal of the council’s position on the D2 project, sending a message to DART that Dallas will only support an undergrounding of the second light rail extension. That was a huge win for the subway advocates, who filled the council chambers today in matching green t-shirts. The turnout was led by the Coalition for a New Dallas, which (disclaimer) is the political action committee co-founded by D Magazine publisher Wick Allison.

The killing of the Cotton Belt and the advocating of a D2 subway were the two expected victories of the day. However, the part of the resolution that really jumped out at me was its second provision, which called for “expedited implementation of expanded bus services targeted toward the transportation needs of low income and transit-dependent riders.” To further clarify, council member Adam McGough offered an amendment to the resolution that contained six provisions to ensure that DART can provide transit-dependent riders adequate and expanded bus service.

These items included suggestions for limiting the number of transfers riders have to make and the distance between transit stations. They suggest DART shift from its hub-and-spoke bus system towards a grid-based system. Council member Sandy Greyson even referenced Chicago’s easy and reliable bus system, which follow’s that city’ street grid, as a model for Dallas. All of McGough’s amendments basically boil down to a way of holding DART accountable to measurement and metrics which evaluate system performance based on reliability, mobility, and ridership.

And that, folks, is downright revolutionary when it comes to DART.

For more than 30 years, Dallas’ transit agency has been driven by a fundamental philosophy that sees development and traffic reduction as cornerstones of its strategic policy and planning. As a result we have built a light rail system that looks like a sprawling highway system and maintain a bus system that functions on a hub and spoke model. We have the longest light rail system and the least efficient. Ridership has stagnated. And the bus system is notoriously difficult to navigate and slow. The system as a whole is pathetic.

Anyone who has had to rely on buses to get around Dallas knows how impossible Dallas’ bus system can be. Transfers extend travel times by hours. Distances covered by car in minutes take hours. The hub-and-spoke system ensures that routes are byzantine and complicated to follow. And getting to your destination often requires long walks from bus or transit stations that are not actually positioned near popular destinations.

And that’s the story the council heard today. Speaker after speaker during the public comments before the vote on the resolution got up to the podium today to tell them about their experience with Dallas’ buses. Many of them were patients at the Healing Hands Ministry clinic, which is located at the corner of Royal and Abrams. These were people who relied on public transit to access basic healthcare needs, and their stories of having to figure out how to get to what they refereed to as a “public transit desert” were heartbreaking.

One woman, who said she lives in a homeless shelter and who recently had knee surgery, was forced to walk a mile up hill from the nearest bus stop. Another woman talked about having to get up at 5 a.m. just to make a morning appointment. Another woman spoke about living in South Dallas and trying to get to a job at the Irving Convention Center. After that long, long commute, she arrived only to find that DART doesn’t provide adequate bathroom facilities in its far-flung locales.

“Being a country girl I went ahead and did what I had to do,” she said.

Longest light rail system indeed.

This is the real face of public transit in Dallas, a picture of frustration, hardship, and humiliation. It is an image of a transit system that cuts in sharp contrast to the ways in which DART measures its own success, citing the length of its rails or the proliferation of its transit oriented developments.

In recent weeks, as backers have advocated for the Cotton Belt, we have heard again arguments based on the logic that has shaped DART into what it is today. DART, we are told, is a way of driving growth, connecting member cities, and reducing traffic on highways. But today the council heard from many of its residents who want DART to be about finding ways to get around Dallas more easily, efficiently, economically, and ecologically.

And the council responded by adopting a resolution that represented nothing less than a complete sea change in its attitude and approach towards public transit. Dallas essentially reminded DART that it is a public transit agency and should provide decent public transit.

The council’s resolution, while representing a monumental shift in policy, is essentially only a statement of desire. Ultimately it will be up to Dallas’ representatives on DART’s board of directors, as well as direct conversations with transit agency officials, to ensure that DART follows Dallas’ new and clearly stated objectives. But the vote was an indication that the city of Dallas may finally be willing and able to start holding DART accountable to the most essential aspect of its mission: providing rapid transit.

 

 

Comments

  • MattL1

    “But this is Dallas, a city in which no one understands that there is usual free street parking within 100 feet of anywhere you would ever want to go.”

    SHHHHH! Don’t tell anyone. Otherwise there won’t be free street parking within 100 feet of anywhere anymore.

  • J Wood

    Before anyone gets indignant about excluding the Cotton Belt, consider the following:
    The projected ridership does not justify the cost of the Cotton Belt according to DART’s own projections and feasibility study. The limited service Cotton Belt Line is expected to cost an additional $1.2 billion. DART’s study estimates that there will only be 12,682 net incremental light rail trips (6,300 users) on each average day for this $1.2 billion investment. Over 20 years, DART estimates the Cotton Belt operating costs are estimated to be $360 million but the additional riders will pay fares of only $72 million or 20% of the operating costs and none of the capital costs or interest. Including interest and DART’s assumed payment of 25% of the principal over a 20-year period, the $72 million paid by riders will only constitute about 7% of the $1.1 billion cash costs of the Cotton Belt Line and still leave DART with $724 million in Cotton Belt debt at the end of 20 years.

    • kduble

      DART has no plans now, nor has it ever had plans, to use light rail on the Cotton Belt, so your primary thesis is wrong.

      That being said, you omit a key fact: the Cotton Belt would link the Red, Green and Orange lines to each other, as well as to DFW Airport and to Tex Rail. Without considering the increase in ridership this connectivity would bring to DART’s LRT existing network, your analysis is flawed.

      • Brody Andrew Mulligan

        The feasibility study accounts for the variables regarding interconnection of the existing and planned expansion of rail lines. Unless I am mistaken.

  • kduble

    Navel-gazing here. Meaning, Simek doesn’t seem to realize Dallas appoints only 7 of DART’s 15 board members, and I’m not sure even all 7 of these would vote to scuttle the Cotton Belt. It’s Dallas AREA Rapid Transit.

    While I approve of the bus recommendations — Houston’s Metro has successfully overhauled its buses — it’s disconcerting our city council is so apt at dispensing advice to DART and DISD when it can’t get its own house in order.

    Council, if you’re serious about wanting transit to work, then take some baby steps. Eliminate minimum parking requirements in core-Dallas, require parking structures have retail frontage, set aside lanes for cycle paths and bus rapid transit, and demand TCR’s high-speed rail station be configured as something other than a park-n-ride.

    • Peter Simek

      “Council, if you’re serious about wanting transit to work, then take some baby steps. Eliminate minimum parking requirements in core-Dallas, require parking structures have retail frontage, set aside lanes for cycle paths and bus rapid transit, and demand TCR’s high-speed rail station be configured as something other than a park-n-ride.”

      Hear hear! Which is why it was depressing that the council yesterday, essentially in the same breath, kowtowed to a developer playing code chicken over valet lines, and then pivoted with its DART resolution. These things, as you argue, need to go hand-in-hand

      And yes, as I mention in the last paragraph of the post, this is all pretty symbolic. But DART can’t build D2 without council approval of the alignment, so, at least in terms of that aspect of the resolution, the vote has teeth. But you’re right the rest are ‘pretty please’ requests.

      • North_of_LBJ_kYle

        If Dallas cannot pull out of DART or withhold their sales tax, what teeth does this vote have? Or, what’s DART’s motivation to follow Dallas’ resolution?

  • J Wood

    Before anyone gets upset about the vote to exclude the Cotton Belt, consider the following:
    The projected ridership does not justify the cost of the Cotton Belt according to DART’s own projections and feasibility study. The limited service Cotton Belt Line is expected to cost an additional $1.2 billion. DART’s study estimates that there will only be 12,682 net incremental light rail trips (6,300 users) on each average day for this $1.2 billion investment. Over 20 years, DART estimates the Cotton Belt operating costs will be $360 million but the additional riders will pay fares of only $72 million or 20% of the operating costs and none of the capital costs or interest. Including interest and DART’s assumed payment of 25% of the principal over a 20-year period, the $72 million paid by riders will only constitute about 7% of the $1.1 billion cash costs of the Cotton Belt Line and still leave DART with $724 million in Cotton Belt debt at the end of 20 years.

    Most people that want the Cotton Belt want it to go to DFW. Yet the line misses key areas like west Plano, LBJ offices and the Legacy business park, which is expected to have 90,000 workers, many of whom are frequent travelers. Service could be more convenient, faster and far cheaper if DART built a robust bus service from key points in north Dallas and the northern suburbs to DFW and this would also result in much higher ridership than projected for the Cotton Belt.

    • kduble

      Well, first of all, DART isn’t now, nor has it ever, proposed light rail for the Cotton Belt. Rather, it proposes the kind of clean diesel Stadler trains adopted by the Denton County Transit Authority and Austin’s Capital Metro. MetroRail is able to run these vehicles right down 5th Street and right up next to Austin Convention Center.

      Also, a weakness in the study you cite is it takes no account of the increase in ridership Cotton Belt service would bring to the red, blue and green lines when passengers can change trains at these Cotton Belt stations and head to DFW Airport and Fort Worth.

      The difficulty with the robust bus service you cite is it would travel on the same clogged roads as all the other traffic. It’s true we could remove the rails, flatten embankements and put a cement rapid bus glidepath in the Cotton Belt ROW, but this would cost far more than simply running Stadlers along the existing single tracks — with some pullouts — and incrementally improving service over the decades as federal funds become available. This has been the developmental pattern of the Acela in the Northeast, which is now beginning to attain speeds of 150 mph in certain stretches.

      When one takes the long view, even Bus Rapid Transit will never have the combined benefit of speed, capacity and cost-per-rider that rail can offer over the next 50 years.

      • “When one takes the long view, even Bus Rapid Transit will never have the
        combined benefit of speed, capacity and cost-per-rider that rail can
        offer over the next 50 years.”

        The thing is, that in my view BRT is a slippery slope to rail. When you take the lane away from cars (expensive politically but cheap economically) you begin to get speeds comparable to rail. With sufficient frequency you can get comparable capacity. And then when you max out on capacity you have the grounds (both logical and literal) to change to rail. The difficulty with going directly to rail is that you have to fight both the economic fight (high cost) and the political fight (exclusive lane) at the same time. Going BRT first splits the fight and saves a possible waste of money on a bad idea.

        Or go cheap on the political fight and implement the lane exclusion bit by bit over time.

        Plus 50 years is an eternity in transit oriented development time.

        I’m not saying the Cotton Rail shouldn’t be done. I don’t have the facts.

  • tested123

    Dallas is going to have a serious problem on its hands. DART will either move forward with the Cotton Belt or lose a suburb or two. If that happens, DART won’t have the money for the D2 subway.

    • Peter Simek

      I’d have to check the numbers, but the only suburb that may actually pull out of the system over the Cotton Belt would be Addison. If they tried to do that, it would require citywide vote, and even if Addison residents voted to leave DART, the city would still be on the hook for its portion of capital improvement costs incurred up until the moment of the exit (Dexit?) referendum. Meaning, D2, which will be partly funded by federal grants and which doesn’t require nearly as much debt load as the Cotton Belt would, could be built-out before Addison’s potential exit affects DART’s bottom line or borrowing capacity. Again, i’d have to double check all this, but that is my impression of the financial situation.

      • EricCeleste

        Dexit. Giggle.

      • kduble

        More like Axit, or Aexit.

  • I live in Chicago and our bus ridership is declining. I believe it to be caused by car congestion on arterial streets slowing the bus system down. Our great rail transit has had no expansion in over 20 years.

    What’s the answer? Taking lanes from cars and putting them to more productive than cars (total commuters per lane moved) Bus Rapid Transit (BRT) use. Dallas can leapfrog an entire step by not only adapting the grid bus system like Chicago (and Houston) but introducing BRT at strategic sections. Even systems like Paris depend on frequent efficient bus routes.

    • kduble

      I agree, but BRT involves relegating a lane to exclusively serve buses, and on the Cotton Belt, there are no lanes to dedicate. We’d have the upfront costs of building them from scratch. This argues for running self-enclosed, clean diesel rail on the existing tracks, as Denton and Austin have done.

      • I was making a mostly generic statement. I have effectively no knowledge about the Cotton Belt. My questions about it would be first would it contribute riders into an effective frequent high-ridership gridded transit system? Or is it more a high-ridership stand alone commuter line? I am assuming that the ridership projections are realistic and favorable.

        My guess for Dallas, I know little more than what was presented in this article, is that first a quality gridding of the bus system (a la Houston) needs to be effected. I assume such a thing can be done relatively revenue neutral. As part of the process a Jarrett Walker style decision on the percentage divide between ridership lines and coverage lines would be made. Then the decision on the Cotton Belt would be taken. The decision would pit the Cotton Belt against the other possible projects in its class (ridership or coverage). If it is deemed a ridership line does it generate more ridership, either directly or as a feeder/consumer of other ridership lines. Or if it is a coverage line does it meet coverage criteria better than the other coverage possibilities.

        So then if it is a ridership line, it might become a question of does it generate more ridership than say some number (1? Several?) BRT routes costing the same.

        As for the taking of lanes, that is usually a political decision rather than an economic one. I would think than one would not make a so-so decision over a good decision just because the politics was easier.

        Those are my takes as an outsider without a dog in the hunt.

        As I think about it, at the moment Chicago is considering spending a ton of money on what appears to me to be coverage route (extending an existing transit rail) over the potential creation of several ridership BRT routes for the same amount of money. And it is mostly a political and pre-existing momentum set of decisions. So yeah, stuff can be a lot easier to imagine than to do.

  • DFW Guy 01

    As a resident of Far North Dallas, I’m totally against the Cotton Belt rail. I think it would be a huge waste of money that could be better used elsewhere and would create safety and environmental problems in my area. A better investment would definitely be to develop the D2 line as a subway. People who live close to the Hwy 75 or I-35 corridors do use DART to get to downtown or nearby areas. However, within the suburbs, use of DARThas no future. We are in TX and people love their cars. Who in the world is going to ride DART’s Cotton Belt rail from their house in North Richardson or Far North Dallas to the airport? Very few people. It’s impractical to walk 10 blocks from your house with luggage to the nearest DART station. Who is going to ride the Cotton Belt rail from North Richardson or from Irving to go dine in Addison? No one, unless you want to get mugged as you walk 10 blocks to the DART station at midnight after having had a few drinks. Let’s use our $ smartly.

    • kduble

      “Who in the world is going to ride DART’s Cotton Belt rail from their
      house in North Richardson or Far North Dallas to the airport? Very few
      people. It’s impractical to walk 10 blocks from your house with luggage
      to the nearest DART station.”

      I believe there’s such a thing as a park-n-ride.

      • Brody Andrew Mulligan

        Park and ride works great and is an excellent means of a comprehensive public transit strategy. Many people can use Lyft or Uber in suburban areas for a reasonable cost with planning as a better means of access to DFW Intl.

        Park and ride also seems to be highly attractive to people – at least for my mom, who lives in Euless, and takes Dart via TRE to teach at Townview.

        • DFW Guy 01

          kduble / Brody – You are not considering a number of things:
          (1) The Cotton Belt line will not have Park-n-Ride stations in Far North Dallas or Richardson.
          (2) By the time you drive to a park-n-ride station, park, then wait for the Cotton Belt train (which DART said will come maybe twice per hour), a simple trip to the airport would represent two hours of your time. Who wants to do that?
          (3) DART will only work when it saves people TIME. If it takes you longer to ride DART to get to a place, then people will use their car.

          • Brody Andrew Mulligan

            Very true, I was not aware that the cotton belt would not incorporate park and ride in ND /Richardson.
            I suppose time is a relative concept – I’m red-green colorblind, and an orchestral musician, ironically, with certain forms of anxiety that make driving difficult, and as a responsible person I also recognize the possibility that should I need to use fast acting medication, such as xanax, that doing so may put my ability to operate a vehicle safely, effectively, and legally in question. Many people enjoy using public transit primarily out of convenience, however some individuals do genuinely enjoy an alternative to driving. I’ll happily add an hour to my commute if it means I have less stress from driving, and can work, read, or study while doing so.

          • schrodie

            Re. point 3– DART seldom saves anyone time. When one can get from Point A to Point B faster on a bicycle or on foot than one can on a bus or combination of buses and/or trains… what does that say about your “rapid” transit system? This closely ties into Point 2: Accessing the rails if you have to use the buses. In my neighborhood near Casa Linda, we have to ride 2 buses just to get to White Rock Rail Station, our closest train station. The other option from my neighborhood is to walk nearly a mile to catch a bus to Lake Highlands, then double back through White Rock on the Blue Line, then transfer to the Red or Orange at Mockingbird… Green Line at Pearl Station. The trip to White Rock Station (3 miles) can take over an hour at some times of the day. By car, the trip to the rail is about 12 minutes, if that long. I can bike faster than an hour– I can walk a bit faster than 3 mph and I don’t have to worry about a bus not showing up.

            Why build train facilities if it requires a car to get to the train (in a reasonable amount of time) in the first place? Let’s work on having better bus support at the existing facilities before we build new things that the USUAL bus passenger would have difficulty accessing in a reasonable amount of time?

  • Brody Andrew Mulligan

    Dallas is unfortunately in a situation where a number of challenging factors prevent even cautiousness in ambition with regard to expansion of bus service, even when those plans are based on conservative ridership projections. These are complex and no fault of any one person or factor, save, Henry Ford, and the inevitable existence of Time: Noteably, urban sprawl, sparse population density clusters, lack of zoning and planning policies promoting mixed-use communities in which businesses and residences are feasibily built in close proximity. Population density is a key element that cannot be entirely predictable – therein lies a problem for the efficacy of bus service: it takes just the right combination of route frequency, public perception, careful consideration of development in major bus corridors, and a logical utilisation of the not-entirely-ideal public population housed in a manner best served by a grid system. In this game, we are playing catchup, and it will take a gambit of people willing to stake their political careers on progressive zoning policies, DART’s willingness to accept the reality of necessary operating losses requiring heavy subsidy and offset by the laudablely late abandonment of immediate service expansion to the park-and-ride suburban world, on which revenues dependency is in a catch-22 situation, and investment in a serious, aggressive advertisement strategy to change the psyche and perception of bus ridership.

    • kduble

      While I applaud what you’re saying, I suspect such a change would result more from zoning and design than ad campaigns.

      • Brody Andrew Mulligan

        Definitely, I just meant at a minimum an ad buy would need to be an element to promote bus service ridership – public perception of how it would effectively function would vary greatly from reality, and it may be difficult to get a promising start to a new bus system without an awareness campaign for both residents and visitors.