Tuesday, January 25, 2022 Jan 25, 2022
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THE CITY Take the D-Train

Other cities have survived downtown rail. But can Dallas?
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WHAT GOES AROUND, COMES around. When Dallas Area Rapid Transit decided last summer to run its downtown trains along city streets, in a transit mall, it was riding an idea that first came down the tracks in the Seventies.

Back then, the vehicles in question were buses but the goals were the same: fewer autos in downtown Dallas and a more pleasant environment for pedestrians. The transit mall of the Seventies, proposed for Main Street, was to have little or no auto traffic and feature seating, landscaping, and sidewalk cafes. Not much has changed.

The 1989 DART proposals for a 1.1-mile transit mall along Pacific and Bryan streets included glowing descriptions of “urban amenities,” “site enhancements,” and “decorative elements.” And it’s true, there are things that can be done to make a light-rail line more pleasing to the eye.

But don’t spend too much time trying to imagine what an exciting, modernistic world Dallas will be entering when its new transit mall is up and running (by January 1995, according to the schedule DART proposed to the City Council). When all is said and done, the essence of what we’ll have in downtown Dallas is … railroad tracks.

Dressing a hog in a prom dress doesn’t make it the homecoming queen. The ties may be hidden beneath a surface of bricks or concrete. Overhead power lines may be obscured by a canopy in places. Rails may be set down flush with the surface rather than rising above. But trains run on track, and you can’t really obscure that fact.

Accept that dose of reality, something that is sometimes lacking in the debate for and against the DART transit system, and the bottom line is pretty good. A rail transit mall in downtown Dallas isn’t as bad as some may paint it, despite the fact that it essentially is just a gussied-up train system. Other cities have survived the experience, and from them, we can learn what to expect-and what not to expect.

‧ Much of the opposition to DART trains over the years stems from ignorance about how quiet light-rail trains are. The only rude noise they make usually is the screech of steel wheels on steel tracks if the train has to make a sharp turn. Other than that, they’re quieter than the average bus, and almost as quiet as an electric motor, which is what propels them.

In fact, some light-rail systems in such cities as Portland and San Jose, California, actually drew complaints for being too quiet. In 1988, a woman wrote a letter to the San Jaw Mercury News to complain that she almost stepped in front of an oncoming Santa Clara County light-rail train in San Jose’s downtown mall. She wanted to know if something could be done to make them noisier.

● Concerns of Thanks-Giving Square and JFK museum proprietors aside, the DART trains will be less of an intrusion than the buses they will replace. Pacific and Bryan streets never have been renowned for their beauty anyhow, and one doubts that the downtown environment will be seriously desecrated by the addition of tracks and a few stations.

As long as the trains aren’t so long that they block intersections-and they’re not supposed to be-DART light rail shouldn’t disrupt traffic much. DART engineers have estimated that traffic will actually move better through downtown Dallas once the traffic synchronization is finished.

Despite occasional grumbles from citizenry who dislike even the momentary pauses the trains cause, the experience in cities like San Jose, Portland, San Diego, Calgary, Cleveland, and Edmonton has been that, even in their downtown malls, the trains come along, they pass through an intersection in a few seconds, and poof-they’re gone.

‧ There are some who say that a transit mall will return shoppers and retail prosperity to downtown streets. The experience in other cities seems clear-cut-a transit mall won’t make a downtown any more viable than it already is.

In Portland, the light-rail system serves a thriving, busy downtown, reminiscent of the post-World War II city centers we all like to get nostalgic about. But downtown Portland was bustling with people before the light-rail system began operation in 1986, and the trains just fed on that success.

By contrast, San Jose leaders have had a tough time luring shoppers downtown, and the 1988 extension of the light-rail system into downtown San Jose hasn’t changed the situation much. The San Jose trains run on each side of a new, fancy shopping pavilion that is to be the core of the city’s revitalized downtown shopping. So far, the pavilion cannot be described a success.

What does that portend for Dallas? It likely means that the Dallas rail will carry a lot of people to the West End, since a lot of people go there already. If Dallas gets a new downtown shopping mall and the mall prospers, the train will bring it customers. If a store is just getting by, a DART train nearby is not a promise of sudden prosperity.

Much to the contrary. Marginal stores and businesses along the transit mall face some tough years ahead during its construction. Small businesses without deep pockets are in danger of financial ruin if shoppers, discouraged by jackhammers, barricades, and torn-up streets, find it difficult to get to their front doors for months or years. (It was merchants1 fear of just such an adverse effect that killed the proposed Main Street transit mail in the Seventies.)

One bright side to consider is that a street-level transit mall won’t be nearly as damaging to downtown as the subway project the City Council wants. The agency has agreed to build a subway eventually, when funding becomes available and ridership figures warrant one. The reasons that make a subway a dumb idea now won’t change for a long time, and DART estimates it’s two-plus decades away from breaking ground, but even then, it’s doubtful that DART will have the resources or the potential ridership to justify the expense.

A subway seems classier than the light-rail trains in the city’s near-future, and it would have let trains go faster through downtown, but the drawbacks are tremendous: it costs too much; subway construction can be very disruptive; and, politically, the subway could be a thorn in the relationship between Dallas and the suburbs, who worry that a commitment to a subway now will prevent light-rail extensions to their cities.

What the transit mall will do is provide Dallas with a more affordable transit system. DART’s most recent figures estimated that a downtown subway was going to cost about $120 million more than the $34 million street-level mall. Add tens of millions to that, please. Tunnels also have a tendency to cost more than hopeful planners and engineers initially expect.

AH those reasons make a transit mall along Pacific and Bryan seem like a pretty good idea. So it won’t have the pizazz of the Paris Metro or the London Underground. It won’t have the cost overruns of the Los Angeles subway project, either.

Just plain railroad tracks can be pretty, can’t they? A pot of flowers here, some cur tains there, a few million bucks for art proj ects. .. hey, it’s just like home.