One of the frustrations with the long-term nature of transportation planning is that there is little room for buyer’s remorse. Whether we like it or not, we’re stuck with the decisions of previous generations. And if those decisions weren’t all that great, the best we can do is improve on mistakes.
Take our light rail network, for example. In the 1980s, the region debated light rail versus heavy rail, and, in the end, Dallas Area Rapid Transit set out to build the country’s most extensive light rail network. Today, we have more rail line miles than anywhere else in the United States. DART credits this system for generating billions in economic development. But DART also boasts low ridership, and in Dallas, only 20 percent of jobs are reachable by mass transit in 90 minutes or less.
Now there is new evidence that even some of the much-touted economic benefits of light rail don’t hold up. The Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank took a look at a new light rail network in Virginia. They expected to see what most light rail studies find — namely, that the economic benefits are typically not as large as originally hoped for or promised, but that overall there are some positive net economic gains from developing light rail. In Virginia, however, researchers found that home vales within 1,500 meters of the light rail lines dropped by 8 percent.
“I didn’t think that the light-rail line would be a significant benefit,” Gary Wagner, the lead author of the study and vice president and senior regional officer of the Cleveland Federal Reserve Bank, told NextCity. “But I did expect, most of the literature had tended to find a small positive effect.”
Now, of course, to draw a simple one-to-one comparison between Virginia’s light rail and Dallas’ would be like comparing apples to oranges. Wagner admits that when it comes to public transit, every region responds differently to improvements. But there are some things that were found in the study that seem to be held in common. One is that the inefficiencies of the Virginian system, like in Dallas, can be related to the fact that the region where the light rail is being developed — Norfolk, Virginia Beach, and Newport News — has multiple employment centers. Just as light rail in Dallas won’t bring you to any of the jobs located near the Dallas North Tollway, Virginia’s light rail only reaches one of those employment centers. The second is that the general perception of light rail is that residents don’t actually want to live near a station.
So where does this leave Dallas? Well, for one, it lends merit to the all those North Dallas opponents of the Cotton Belt light rail who claim that a light rail running through their backwards is going to have a negative impact on their property values. It also offers reason to celebrate that DART now appears to be moving full steam ahead on a subway alignment of its new downtown alignment, rather than the surface line that was originally proposed.
But the study also offers a cold reminder that the challenge of mass transit in Dallas has always been the difficulty of connecting a spread-out workforce with many job centers that are likewise spread all over a massive region. Light rail seems particularly unequipped to accomplish this, and so doubling-down on investing in more and more rail miles isn’t an effective way of solving Dallas’ mobility issues. We need to look at other forms of transit.