Guest Post – My Transit Advice to DART: 2015

The following is a guest piece written by long-time Dallas transit advocate John Tatum.

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Since 1980 regional transit planners have confused building a new public transit system with relieving congestion on area freeways. It is time to clear this confusion. They need to think urban! Think big! Think Love Field in the 1920’s, then DFW in the 1970’s. Fast forward 50 years – we need a transit system to stimulate and support, to shape the built form of the core of a new world class city. Think about the historic development of Paris, London, New York – about Boston, Chicago, and Toronto. Even Los Angeles is now serious about transit reshaping their city! What kind of city should Dallas be in 20, 30, 50 years? DART should be in the city-building business.

DART’s failed predecessor, the Lone Star Transportation Authority (LSTA), was so crippled in its thinking about which mode of transit was appropriate to the booming DFW area and its then-bright future that it refused to even consider rail. Such was the pervasive influence of road builders who proposed the development of “bus ways” (highways by another name). In truth, the LSTA’s plan sought to capture the dedicated transit sales tax to build new roads while simply buying and expanding the existing Dallas Transit bus system. But in the voting booth, no one was buying this idea – not neighborhoods, not urban developers, not transit dependent minorities –and the 1980 vote to create a permanent transit authority was 4 to 1 against.

To be fair, part of the difficulty was the Legislature’s decision to tie Dallas and Ft. Worth together in an overarching structure, cities with very different needs and constituencies which would have had to struggle together in a cumbersome two-tiered governing board – nothing like our DFW Airport Board.

For transit supporters, the crushing election defeat produced a new understanding that a community-based planning process, complete with long-term financial projections of tax receipts and expenses, was the only way to rebut those “anti-tax”, “no pig-in-a-poke” critics. An Interim DART board was created in 1982 (now focused on Dallas County and Plano) and spent nearly two years putting forward three alternative transit visions which focused, this time, on rail modes. The “Red”, “Blue” and “Green” plans described different rail “systems” (type of rail cars, length of rail lines, timing of construction, type of right of way), all complemented by a supporting bus network and to be financed and operated over thirty years.

Unfortunately, the Interim DART Board opted to present to voters its “Red” plan which focused on extending rail lines into the suburbs as quickly as possible by running “light rail” cars at grade on most of the new lines. Elected officials on the Board rejected the “Green” plan which proposed the newer “heavy rail” technology adopted by San Francisco, Washington D.C., and Atlanta as unacceptably dependent on federal funding and perceived to focus too much on the City of Dallas. The “Green” plan offered higher speed, high capacity cars and grade separation from streets to eliminate traffic conflicts, delays and accidents. But the “Green” plan also included extending the subway considered necessary under the reconstruction of N. Central Expressway by one mile through Downtown Dallas to avoid building an operational “bottleneck” there. Sadly, suburban representatives and influential Downtown property owners insisted on putting all trains on the surface of Pacific Avenue to save money and avoid construction disruptions. We suffer the consequences of that decision to this day – with shorter trains and platforms, slower speeds and schedules, 35% reduced capacity in the rush hour, and the cost of replacing the Pacific Avenue tracks (in a fraction of their normal life/after only twenty years) just this past month.

At the time of this Pacific Avenue Transit Mall political compromise, DART promised (by Inter Local Agreement in 1985 with the City of Dallas) to build a subway under Elm Street when certain financing and operating conditions were met. DART was required to reserve funds to engineer and construct this second rail line Downtown, and to do nothing to lose potential funding to advance the subway construction. But today, DART has no funding set aside for any “second alignment”, much less the agreed Elm Street Subway, and current projections are that funding will not be available until after 2030! Technical violations of the agreement have not been “triggered” because DART limits its trains in the peak hours Downtown.

Meanwhile, DART (at least) has been actively engaged in planning for the 2nd rail alignment at grade through Downtown Dallas since 2009-10. This so-called “D-2” Major Investment Study (MIS) intends to 1) best connect the Green and Orange lines and relieve traffic on Pacific Avenue, and 2) expand and improve rail service with the second separate rail line to complement the existing line which will remain. Citizen comment in 2010 included detailed suggestions for the Elm Street Subway, identifying transfer stations and complimentary (feeder/distributor) trolley routes (See Exhibits Attached) but this formal submission has been neither publicly acknowledged by DART nor evaluated to date. It absolutely should be looked at – what if it’s an improvement?

The critical issue is prioritizing the use of always limited public transportation funding. How can the effort to push the proposed Trinity Tollway (at a rising cost of $1.3B) be justified with DART’s conspicuous needs Downtown clearly unmet? DART’s failure there is one of under-service which cascades through the entire system. Besides the elusive promise of traffic congestion relief, what private investment will result beyond the private financing of tollway construction to be paid off with ever-rising tolls? What city-building will result?
While DART has finally decided nothing, recommendations from the 2010 MIS only seem to aggravate current problems, while offering nothing qualitatively better, all at an estimated cost of more than $1B. Worse, there is nothing to suggest that the currently proposed designs will attract sufficient additional ridership to win federal funding necessary for construction. Worst of all, this latest transit “vision” for Downtown is not about TOD at all! Nowhere is there evidence of new development that uses transit to economic advantage – and Dallas’ CBD is the only place where rail transit can create a critical mass of office and residential development according to recent studies. This is short-sighted planning for our largest regional urban center which is now on the verge of economic and demographic transformation, but also is the bottleneck for the region’s rail system which boasts of being the largest in America.

As recently noted in a recent Dallas Morning News editorial, DART’s 93 mile rail system continues to disappoint with falling ridership, loss of fare box revenue, the highest per mile and per seat costs, and largest operating subsidies compared to other US transit systems. The previously proposed Elm Street Subway should be honestly evaluated before a (federally required) Locally Preferred Alternative for Downtown is approved and submitted for federal evaluation and funding. Simply put, an Elm Street Subway works better than the current favorite plan and will mean more riders, more new development, bigger tax base, less traffic, and lower subsidies for operations. Simple decision – right?

To be sure, much has been achieved already by DART – the system is a true community asset, already attracting much transit oriented development to the areas near its stations. But DART should now honor its 1985 commitment to build the Elm Street Subway in Downtown Dallas. Elm Street should drive DART’s comprehensive plan for system improvements in Dallas’ CBD — both the rail 2nd alignment and feeder/distributor trolleys – in order to attract the ridership and funding currently lacking. Without investment of the $1B in new rail lines DART has failed to set aside (as required by its Inter Local Agreement with the City), ridership will continue to languish and operating costs will increase. Only with a viable subway in place Downtown will DART attract the new riders it needs. Only with a better “D2” in place can Downtown Dallas continue and sustain its revitalization now underway.

More importantly for our DFW region’s future, the vital urban vision of today’s youth and their current and future employers is not possible without high speed, high capacity rail transit – and Downtown Dallas cannot be cost competitive with suburban and exurban development in this regional economy otherwise. Without a full Downtown subway, new development cannot occur without bringing new auto traffic, parking lots and garages – unless it will simply not come into Dallas. With the Elm Street Subway, billions of dollars in new offices, residences and shopping will be built without depending on the automobile because it will be more profitable if located by rail stations! A pedestrian Downtown Dallas for the 21st Century will follow construction of high capacity, high speed, safe and convenient rail transit through the core of the city. Or that urban future we envision and desire must just wait.

So, Downtown Dallas can be a model of TOD for our region for the next 100 years – or not. DART can turn itself around – or not. It’s really all about return on investment – and realizing future potential. With a more than 30 year investment history to scrutinize, DART now owes a more successful and productive transit future to its tax payers, its riders, our transit-dependent neighbors, new TOD developers, and those generations of new riders who are not yet persuaded to ride.
Respectfully,

John C. Tatum, Jr.

Member, Lone Star Transportation Authority (Eastern Sub-regional Board), 1980
Member, Interim DART Board, 1982 – 1983
Member, DART Board, 1983 – 1988

Comments

  • Michael Sitarzewski

    This is full of thoughtful and now expected DART-shaming. People see this (the very people we want riding DART) and they see DART painted as a poorly planned and executed/failed system. It’s not perfect, but the “problems” have less to do with design and more to do with authors and pundits that have never set foot on the system. How about using DART daily for 6 months, then writing a story about it and it’s “problems?”