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Transportation

The 6 Things Dallas Should Ask for from the Biden Infrastructure Bill

Mayor Johnson’s letter of transit priorities to Secretary Buttigieg missed the mark. Here is what Dallas should be gunning for in the bill.
By Peter Simek |
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Peter SImek

Last month, Dallas Mayor Eric Johnson outlined his three priorities for Dallas’ transportation future in a letter to U.S. Secretary of Transportation Pete Buttigieg. The city will soon join a crowded line of municipalities and states seeking funding through the Biden administration’s $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, which will be doled out over the next decade. Of the three priorities Johnson listed, one makes sense, one is questionable, and one shouldn’t be there at all.

Interstate 30’s burial and expansion through East Dallas is—and should be—on the list of priorities. The highway’s redo is already deep in the planning weeds, and the city will need to secure funding to pay for improvements like deck parks that will help undo the damage the highway wreaked on surrounding communities for more than half-a-century. The Texas Department of Transportation has made it clear it won’t pay for these additions, making this pool of federal dollars a clear target for a project that is close to turning dirt.

The questionable priority is Johnson’s desire to seek funding for Dallas’ new Vision Zero campaign, a global initiative meant to encourage cities and transit agencies to craft policy that eliminates traffic fatalities. While I agree with the principles of Vision Zero in general—particularly the work it has done in highlighting how complacent our society has become about automobile-caused deaths—there is growing evidence that the approach isn’t working.

There is often a disconnect between the prescribed capital street improvements and a concrete and well-funded plan for implementation. Dallas’ own Vision Zero project is very much a work in progress. At a Wednesday morning briefing, city staff told Council it won’t even have a plan for another two years.

In his letter, the mayor does acknowledge that there is a need for safe and complete streets. He writes that he wants to pursue projects that address the city’s high traffic fatality rate, particularly in the “the most dangerous locations and on the most dangerous corridors throughout Dallas.” But we don’t even know what the funding would cover at this point, so putting it at the top of a list of priorities for a once-in-a-generation federal infrastructure funding opportunity feels too vague.

The third item that should not be anywhere near Johnson’s list is Harold Simmons Park. Set aside the decades of controversy over what would be the best way to imagine a park in the Trinity River floodway. I reported last year that the Army Corps of Engineers is currently working on improvements between the levees that has indefinitely stalled the park project. Using this precious federal funding opportunity to hand more money to a legacy project that has been the benefactor of many millions of local and federal dollars over the decades and yet still has very little to show for it seems premature at best. At worst, it is foolhardy.

What disappointed me about Johnson’s letter was that there were several specific, obvious infrastructure improvements that Dallas desperately needs that weren’t included.

These aren’t radical or even new ideas. They are the kinds of urban infrastructure improvements that every city in America has been talking about for years. They also fit well within the bounds of the infrastructure bill’s stated desire to fund projects that promote increased community connectivity, transportation equity, and climate change mitigation.

Here they are, in no particular order:

Build Bike Lanes

Has the mayor forgotten about the Great Scooter Debate that has dragged on in Dallas for the past three years, keeping electric scooters out of Dallas? Or what about the endless calls for more bike lanes in a city that lags far behind its peers?

Dallas desperately needs to improve its streets for cyclists, and adding that infrastructure will also improve the streetscape for other modes of transportation, like scooters, which can solve public transit’s “last mile” problem. Bike lanes won’t just make Dallas a safer place for cyclists, it will also help build more buffers that protect pedestrians, create opportunities to redesign sidewalks and intersections so that they are safer for people with disabilities, and provide a way to dampen traffic speeds and reduce roadway width.

That addresses the priorities of Vision Zero without having to wait for whatever potentially toothless Vision Zero-esque plan city staff comes up with in 2024.

Subsidize Expanded Transit

This month DART is rolling out its new bus route system—a remarkable feat that has taken years of slowly built political will and plenty of painstaking planning. Part of the challenge with that effort, however, is that DART planners have had to reimagine the bus system without any additional funding for the expansion. That means some routes were eliminated and replaced with the on-demand GoLink service.

The city should see the infrastructure package as an opportunity to step in and fill some funding gaps. Could city funding be used to subsidize frequency on some of the new routes? And, if not, could Dallas use this money to invest in hard infrastructure like better bus stops and wayfinding tools that make the new bus system more ridable?

And why isn’t connecting and expanding the streetcar network—which was expanded thanks to the Obama administration’s TIGER transit investment—on the list of priorities? The embattled Oak Cliff streetcar will be somewhat useless as a viable means of transit until it is connected to an expanded network. Not expanding it not only wastes an opportunity for this round of federal investment, but it also continues to waste the investments made during the Obama administration.

Fix the Street Grid

During the 1960s and 1970s, Dallas planners embarked on a systematic effort to devastate the city’s historic street grid, expanding neighborhood streets into multi-lane boulevards, cutting new connectors and byways through city blocks, rounding-out street corners to allow cars to dangerously zip through intersections, making too many one-way streets, and generally overbuilding the hell out of the network.

Dallas transportation won’t improve until the city claws back these false “improvements.” Some of this work is already happening. Oak Cliff will close the Jefferson-Twelfth connector and turn it into a park named after my late-friend Keven Sloan.

Late last year, the neighborhood also experimented by shutting down a lane of Jefferson Boulevard temporarily to see how a street diet would affect traffic in the area. In my anecdotal experience, it showed how needlessly wide Jefferson is. The infrastructure bill should be seen as a way to tackle these kinds of projects throughout the city. There are numerous ways in which Dallas’ broken street grid could be improved, and stitching it back together will improve both local and regional transportation, while making city streets both safer and more efficient.

Bring Basic Water Infrastructure to Southern Dallas

One of the infrastructure bill’s main priorities is to expand clean water access to the 10 million American households that currently lack safe drinking water. As we were once again reminded by last month’s third-party review of Dallas’ housing policy, in Dallas, access to water still reflects the scars of segregation.

The city manager allocated $10 million from last year’s American Rescue Plan Act to fund water and sewer infrastructure near new developments in southern Dallas that include a certain amount of affordable units. But there are still acres of existing communities that are not connected to the city’s sewer system.

The shameful, historic neglect needs to be remedied, and the infrastructure bill presents an opportunity to find funding to expand basic sewer services to the entire city without dangling a carrot to developers. I mean, I can’t even believe that is a sentence that can still be typed in a 21st century American city.

Make Complete Streets Mandatory

The city needs to get to a place where every time any street is patched, repaired, repaved, or rebuilt it is done so as a complete street—that is, as a street that is inclusive of multi-modal transportation. This will require not only funding for building-out this infrastructure—things like protected bike lanes and wide sidewalks—but also a revision of the city’s planning documents and how it trains its staff.

Complete streets need to become part of the culture of Dallas’ streets services, and not just the object of one-off boutique projects. Why can’t Dallas use the new infrastructure bill’s desire to “rebuild our roads . . . with a focus on climate change mitigation, resilience, equity, and safety for all users” as a directive to create what you might call a “complete streets project zone”? Carve out a significant number of blocks—10 to 20 in downtown or southern Dallas—and rebuild them all as a stitched-together complete street network. Use that project and experience to update the city’s Street Design Manual, policies, and engineering documents to make building these streets the norm.

Bring Traffic Signals and Curb Management Into the 21st century

One of the things that will hamper the effectiveness of the new DART bus network is Dallas’ old and inadequate streetlights. The buses may come more frequently along some routes, but if they must stop haphazardly at traffic signals that aren’t well-timed or adaptive, their efficiency will be compromised.

At a bare minimum the city should try to reprogram its traffic signals so that they give buses priority. But there are also new technologies being piloted throughout the world that are looking at new ways technology can improve streetlight automation and the divvying out of curb space.

This will only become a more pressing need as rideshare, new delivery technologies, and other changes to the streetscape driven by AI, electric vehicles, and semi-autonomous or autonomous vehicles come online.

Dallas could use the infrastructure bill as a way to get out in front of these trends.

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Peter Simek

Peter Simek

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