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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.



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