One of the renderings for the Cotton Belt line's platforms. This is DART's connector between Plano and DFW Airport. (Courtesy DART)

Transportation

DART’s Cotton Belt Line Comes Into View, to the Chagrin of North Dallas Residents

Meanwhile, it still takes more than an hour to get from downtown to 14 miles north using DART.

I rely on DART. Having not owned a car in a decade—a personal point of pride, especially in this city—its services are my primary method of getting around town. While I have learned to enjoy the benefits that DART provides (and there are benefits) I understand why many people shy away from, or outright dismiss, Dallas’ sole provider of public transit services.

The system can be daunting and confusing. If you are trying to get from Point A to Point B with one or more transfers, you need to time everything just right as to not get stuck at a station or on the side of the road. Buses don’t always show up when they’re supposed to, traffic being a primary contributor. Yet, for all of its inefficiencies, I can’t call DART altogether ineffective. It will get you where you are going, but it will test your patience.

Last Thursday, I took DART from my work in downtown to the June Shelton School and Evaluation Center in Far North Dallas to attend the fourth community meeting regarding the Cotton Belt, DART’s 26-mile suburban rail line connecting Plano to DFW Airport. It was the first to be held in the city of Dallas. It took more than an hour to reach Arapaho Road and Hillcrest Lane, a distance of about 13 miles. Here’s what that trip looked like:

  • 5:04 p.m. – Leave work and walk to the station
  • 5:16 p.m. – Get on the train
  • 5:44 p.m. – Arrive at Arapaho Station
  • 6:00 p.m. – The 361 bus arrives, three minutes later than scheduled (this is pretty good)
  • 6:15 p.m. – Arrive at Arapaho and Hillcrest bus stop, walk to Shelton

I know what you’re thinking. “It takes an hour to get from downtown to North Dallas?! Are you insane? Get a car, you fool!” For many, this is a standard travel time on DART. It takes up to an hour or more to travel almost anywhere from downtown unless you live within a four-mile radius. And this is just from downtown, DART’s central hub. It’s a completely different story riding the system across town. It’s not a new thing, either. In 2016, D’s Peter Simek spent some time riding buses around Oak Cliff. His headline: “Doesn’t Anyone at DART Realize How Terrible Riding DART Actually Is?”

I pass the time reading books and refreshing my Twitter feed.

Inside Shelton’s Gene and Jerry Jones Family Dining Hall, neighbors gathered for the meeting, talked among themselves, and looked at enlarged photographs of the Cotton Belt route, running east to west, along the sides of the room.

As the presentation got underway, it was clear that we were in for a contentious evening. DART officials recognized notable members of the community, their own board members who were in attendance, as well as recently elected Dallas City Council member Cara Mendelsohn. The Cotton Belt runs through the middle of her district. She addressed the 200-member strong crowd, voicing many of their concerns.

“There are lots of things that are happening and you have to speak up because you think it’s hard to fight City Hall? It’s really hard to fight a railroad,” she said. “So, use your collective voice and make things happen. I’m with you. This is not a great thing for the neighborhood.”

DART-cotton-belt-coit-road
A rendering of the sound wall at Coit Road, near where the Cotton Belt line will pass. (Photo courtesy DART)

The Cotton Belt, now called the Silver Line, is a 10-stop rail line running between Shiloh Road Station in Plano and DFW Airport Terminal B, which is also end-of-the-line for the TEXRail from Fort Worth. The route is part of the original DART Service Plan introduced in 1983; DART acquired the right-of-way for the Cotton Belt in 1990.

There has been significant pushback on the construction of the Cotton Belt in recent years, and not just from the community members gathered in North Dallas last week. The city of Dallas and its appointees to the DART Board have also voiced opposition to the project. They want to see the independent transit agency focus its efforts on the proposed D2 route that would primarily travel under downtown Dallas, helping alleviate the congestion currently created by the light rail lines bottlenecking down Bryan Street and Pacific Avenue during peak travel times.

Instead of having separate votes on the two new lines and giving the board some flexibility, DART consolidated the funding for each project into a single vote. In October 2016, the board voted in favor 12-3 of adding both the Cotton Belt and D2 to DART’s 2017 20-year financial plan. The three nay votes came from the board’s representatives of the city of Dallas.

Because both of the projects will cost $1 billion or more—the Cotton Belt is currently estimated at $1.1 billion—DART faced a money problem as it looked to take on a significant amount of debt. It had yet to secure federal funding for either project.

In 2018, after DART received a $908 million Railroad Rehabilitation and Improvement Financing federal loan, the DART Board unanimously voted to fast track project. It is now expected to open in 2022 or 2023, about a decade sooner than it would have without the federal dollars.

Now, DART and its partners are working on getting to 30 percent completion of the design/build process, they told the crowd on hand. While the route has not changed, some of the details of how trains will move through the neighborhoods have. As the tracks veer through District 12, they intersect several streets. For the majority of these, they do so at-grade. At Hillcrest and Coit Road, however, DART and its engineering firms have come up with a different solution that they say will not affect the surrounding areas as much. At each intersection, the train will travel over the road.

At Hillcrest, the road will be lowered below its current grade so that the tracks do not have to be elevated much from where they are currently. Per city regulation, the track will be a minimum of 16’6” above the road to accommodate most vehicles. This change poses some problems for pedestrians, though. In the slide presentation, a narrow sidewalk dips down a steep grade alongside Hillcrest—and its high-speed traffic—underneath the bridge. This is particularly concerning to Mendelsohn.

“In my neighborhood, people do walk because we have the orthodox community and that happens to be part of the eruv,” Mendelson told me. “So, every Sabbath they’re commanded to walk to go to services. That is the main way to go.”

DART-cotton-belt-hillcrest
A rendering of the Cotton Belt line sailing above Hillcrest. (Photo courtesy DART)

She would like to see some kind of barrier or buffer, like pylons, installed to protect pedestrians from the cars zipping by. She’s also concerned about how navigable the grade will be with respect to seniors and those pushing strollers. Similarly, the tracks will also be raised above the road where they intersect Coit. Here, though, instead of lowering the street below grade to accommodate the rail above, it will remain at its current grade. Instead, the tracks will rise significantly to pass over the road. Combine the elevation of the tracks with the 15-foot sound wall barrier and the entire structure climbs some 40 feet in the air, yards away from neighboring homes. This particular design change drew jeers from the audience.

After the presentation, about 30 people stepped up to the microphones on either side of the cafeteria. Though at times the comments were hyperbolic, paranoid, and pejorative—one man told the officials on hand to “go to Hell”—it’s clear that the community has four major concerns: a lack of communication, the possibility of freight traffic, noise, and safety.

Many of the residents complained that DART did not notify them or property owners who are adjacent to the track about proposed changes to betterments along the line. Officials on stage did not provide firm answers as to why not all property owners received notices nor did they refute the claims of the residents.

The specter of potential freight trains rumbling along the line is perhaps the biggest boogeyman of the entire project. Freight traffic is not currently permitted along the line in Dallas, but DART has not signed off on a city resolution that would ban it indefinitely.

In the same resolution, the city calls for continuous 15-foot sound-absorbing walls “on both sides of the rail line.” Residents are concerned that DART will not do this. In some areas of the line, the agency only plans to install a wall on one side of the track with a chain link fence on the other side. A segment consisting of only chain link fencing is reportedly going to be installed next to a Montessori school. This brings us to the issue of safety.

“We’ve got transit-dependent citizens, residents of Dallas who can’t get anywhere by bus.”

District 12 Council member Cara Mendelsohn

Trains running along the Silver Line are not the same ones that DART uses for its light rail interurban network. They are diesel-powered Stadler FLIRT engines with a top speed of 124 mph. The trains won’t be running that fast through Dallas; DART says it will limit speeds to 45 mph through the city proper. For comparison, much of the freight traffic traveling through the city is on a track that limits speeds to 25 mph.

The high speed of the Silver Line and its proximity to schools caused several in the audience to point to incidents of light rail trains striking and killing four people since June. While tragic, deaths involving DART trains are infrequent. In 2018, 202 people lost their lives on Dallas roads, according to TxDOT. And this year 53 pedestrians lost their lives at the hand of drivers in Dallas through the end of July.

DART board member Patrick Kennedy asked staff for information about each of the train incidents, although he notes at least one of those accidents involved a police officer who was distracted by his phone.

Most of the residents who live in the neighborhoods that the Cotton Belt bisects and attended the meeting believe DART is operating in bad faith. That belief has sown quite a bit of animosity and resentment as many see the agency as stubbornly chasing its white whale without regard for the surrounding communities. Their council member echoes that sentiment.

“Throughout the campaign I said DART is a disaster because they are somehow obsessed with this Cotton Belt line, but here we’ve got transit-dependent citizens, residents of Dallas who can’t get anywhere by bus,” Mendelsohn said. “One of the things in the resolution is that they’re supposed to have already implemented a grid-based system before they hire out a contractor for [the Cotton Belt]. Did that happen? No, that didn’t happen.”

Much of what she would like to see goes back to the resolution that the City Council passed last year. Even if DART chooses to adhere to all of the city’s recommendations, she still doesn’t believe that her constituents will contribute to the Cotton Belt’s estimated 11,000 daily riders.

Driving is so much more convenient and car ownership in this part of the city is necessary, she says. She would like to see the agency focus its attention on overhauling the much criticized bus system. Mendelsohn isn’t the only one calling for such action. In fact, there’s a growing chorus for something to be done. For its part, DART is undergoing a 10-year plan to look at making its bus routes more efficient, something that the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County accomplished in two years.

Even with so much pushback from the community, it’s too little and too late. The Cotton Belt is coming whether they like it or not. Mendelsohn even admits that it’s an inevitability. DART found the funding it needed. Now, it’s up to her to make sure that her constituents get the transparency and concessions from DART that they have asked for repeatedly.

After the meeting, I walked back to the bus stop. Because this was after peak hours, the buses do not run frequently—usually every 40 to 50 minutes. I live about a dozen miles from the school, in Old Lake Highlands. Driving would have taken about 20 minutes. The DART took two hours.

  • 8:05 p.m. – Arrive at eastbound Arapaho and Hillcrest bus stop for route 361
  • 8:15 p.m. – Bus arrives
  • 8:25 p.m. – Arrive at Arapaho Station
  • 8:38 p.m. – Board southbound Red Line train
  • 8:59 p.m. – Arrive at Mockingbird Station to transfer trains
  • 9:13 p.m. – Board eastbound Blue Line train
  • 9:21 p.m. – Arrive at Lake Highlands station
  • 9:28 p.m. – Decide to walk to Sprout’s to get dinner because the bus isn’t scheduled to arrive until 10 p.m. (I got a buffalo chicken wrap and a Miller High Life if you’re wondering)
  • 9:48 p.m. – Back at the route 475 bus stop at Lake Highlands station
  • 9:54 p.m. – Board the bus
  • 10:01 p.m. – Bus departs
  • 10: 17 p.m. – Get off the bus at my stop and start walking home
  • 10:26 p.m. – Arrive home

DART at the very least gets you where you’re going. It just takes time. On my way home, I did not experience any serious delays in service, which is lucky because that isn’t always the case. The next morning on my way to work my bus was 15 minutes late. Such is life riding the city’s only public transit service.

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