Friday, May 24, 2024 May 24, 2024
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Transit Oriented Development

Why the Second Downtown DART Line Should Be a Subway

It's necessary. Necessary doesn't mean now, but it does mean we should do it right.
Photo courtesy of DART

As a kid, like many I presume, I loved building toy train lines during the holidays. I would build them as long and complex as I could. Or at least as long as the amount of tracks I had and the space my mother would allow.

The trains would run around in their one-way loop, and I would toot the horn whenever I could to annoy my sisters. Each year the family cat would curiously inspect this new intruder like it was the first time it had ever seen it, before getting its tail run over — derailing the train, and causing the cat to screech and run away.

Those trains ran empty. There were no passengers. Nobody else enjoyed them, except me, before I got quickly bored by the operations and maintenance of it. It was simply me laying track and playing choo-choo train.

You may ask, “What the hell am I reading this for?” Well, for the remainder of this post I am going to suggest why D2 (the second downtown DART line) should be a subway, of a route not yet determined, though there are ideas out there.

This is very much not an attack on DART and shouldn’t be perceived as such. Instead it is a call to support them politically in order to turn the tide of transportation budgets (near and far) that are currently working against them. They have to do very much with very little. In the end, that equates to little ridership.

Transit is a service. It must be integrated into the urban environment and other transportation networks in order for it to have any utility. Too often it is forced to exist in a vacuum, and thus it does. This requires increased cooperation (and funding) among relevant stakeholders and public agencies.

Lines get built on existing rail corridors once built for long-haul freight, which intentionally avoided interaction with the local surface transportation system (which has its many drawbacks of disconnecting the surface street network) in order to go very far, very fast.  There are several factors that help determine ridership, which is a measure of the utility of a transit system.  The two most important are land use intensity (density, particularly of jobs) within a walking proximity of transit stations and the street network around the station area.  The streets where people drive, ride, and walk have to be heavily interconnected to and from the transit station area.

Laying tracks only where it is cheap and easy may yield the longest light-rail system in the country, but that doesn’t equal the most useful system. In reality, it results in the most heavily subsidized. It turns out more upfront costs can save a lot of money in the long term. That means we have to collaborate and think creatively to secure enough funding to build any new lines right the first time.

Here are my takeaways from what I heard at last night’s D2 stakeholders meeting:

  • “This is a Regional Project”: It is true: adding a second line downtown to alleviate the choke point of four lines converging onto one downtown trunk line increases capacity of the entire regional network. Since we can only fit so many trains on one line, that limits the number of trains we can put on every line. Remedying this means reducing headways (wait time between trains), greater reliability, and likely increased ridership due to better service. However, the implication of the statement is “downtown where the line will be built be damned.'” More on that in a bit, but since it is a regional project there should be regional money put into the project in order to increase the local contribution. Right now, DART is proposing to put up $325 million in bond sales against future retail sales tax revenues of member cities. This would be matched 50/50 by a grant from the Fed’s Core Capacity program. NCTCOG receives an escalating amount of Congestion Mitigation and Air Quality (CMAQ) funds each year from the federal government. Currently this number is about $60 million and change annually. It is expected to increase beyond $80 million per year (unless rules change in the near future that punish us for being in non-attainment of EPA air quality standards EVERY YEAR — you’d think we should adjust policy and how we spend these dollars.) A large chunk of these dollars for the duration of D2’s planning and construction should go towards D2 due to the systemwide benefits of it and the reduced idling time for cars that wouldn’t have to wait at lights for trains to pass if the line were below grade.
  • “This is the most important project”: Also true. Nothing else we could do would have similar ripple effects upstream throughout the system, as I mentioned. Where other cities competing for the core capacity grant are proposing to add 10% or 20% increase in capacity, D2 adds 100 percent. Since this is the case, D2 should be prioritized ahead of the Cotton Belt in timeline and more importantly, funding (from all sources). As somebody in real estate said to me over lunch the other day, we should be expanding the system from the core outward. Spreading ourselves too thin physically and financially is precisely the problem. One at a time, and do them right the first time. Further, the Cotton Belt should prove up its ridership in an incremental way as a bus system rather than a single-track rail system as Carrollton Mayor Matthew Marchant suggests. It would have much lower upfront and operational costs as well as much lower headways, which would provide better service. Again, a single-track Cotton Belt is more of the same, expanding lines on the cheap rather than focusing on service and building out a high-quality multi-modal network.
  • DART pledged to “seek maximum funding”: That may be the case related to their internal calculus related to the specifics of the Core Capacity grant (of course, had they asked for 49.9 percentD2 would be the only HIGH rated project under consideration). There are only two sources of funding in the capital stack. Other lines around the country are being planned and built many more sources of local, regional, state, and federal funds (LA’s purple line, the “subway to the sea,” has seven!). We can just go ahead and cut out the state’s contribution because, well, you know. However, the state did pass Propositions 1 and 7, which floods areas with highway money. Yes, this isn’t a highway. But other highway projects around the region can now be funded with these new sources allowing for existing sources of regional funds to go towards rail. Point being, we should be asking for 49 percent to increase D2’s score, but significantly increasing the local contribution from the city, county, and the region. If we can increase local funds to $600M and change from $325 and ask for 49.9999999 percent from the feds, we’re much closer to making a subway through downtown a reality.
  • This may be a regional project, but downtown has the most to gain (or lose) — job density in the core is one of the critical components to transit ridership and success: So much so that the initial feasibility studies done as a precursor to DART back in the ’70s and ’80s wildly (and I mean WILDLY) over-projected job growth in downtown. They presumably did so (out of blind optimism?) because those kind of job numbers would be required in order to make rail transit functional. Back then the number of jobs in core hovered between 100 to 120,000. We haven’t left that range in the 30 years since. I’m not saying we shouldn’t create more jobs in the core. Nor that they will never appear, but instead that we should be doing everything we can in order to get downtown jobs and housing numbers up. Since the existing surface line hasn’t moved the needle, we can’t reasonably expect another would (particularly when it is going to significantly take from potentially developable private property). In exchange for not designing a system that could profoundly tie downtown up in knots, significantly take private property, and negatively impact historic buildings (though, when have we ever let that stop us?), we should explore what funding capacity is left in the various downtown TIFs to put some contribution from private value. Since TIFs were created as a tool to leverage future private property gains into public infrastructure improvements, what better way than to help with the subway?  And we should be exploring Public-Private Partnerships to explore building the subway stations as a component of vertical development above as a means of decreasing the costs of station areas.
  • Subway is just too expensive: It is true that train lines below ground are expensive. However, this isn’t a fatal flaw. It’s merely a political challenge. It’s a challenge to local and regional political leadership and the status quo. It’s time to do things differently because doing it right the first time is the cheapest and most beneficial way over the long-term. $1 billion isn’t a lot of money when it is amortized over the lifespan of a hundred-year project. Furthermore, if DART’s plan is indeed to build D2 at-grade and then put the existing Bryan-Pacific line below ground, it is far more expensive to build two lines than just one new line. Lastly, two of the biggest ticket items when it comes to building subways is not the tunneling, but the costs to ramp up a tunneling effort as well as fitting out the stations. Once you decide to tunnel, you get cost efficiencies digging for longer distances. And if we can save on station areas in any way as mentioned above, we should do that, too.
  • All of the surface lines have fatal flaws: Every single property owner I have spoken to supports the subway option (even major ones that are as yet off-the-record). It doesn’t inspire much confidence that the proposed lines keep squiggling their way around the city while pretending the route is fixed. The locally preferred alternative (LPA), which was a reaction to the previously planned line plowing through newly built townhomes in the Farmers Market was found to be infeasible due to TXU vaults under Jackson Street (let alone all of the negative impact to the Statler Hilton redevelopment). After 10 years of the proposed route running under Lamar, they just now determined more TXU vaults would inhibit that line so it is now moved under Griffin. A project of such significance and potential impact shouldn’t be done by finger painting. We shouldn’t rush into bad decisions to build an inferior line like we did with Love Field. If it takes another year to build the capital stack, then so be it (though we should still move as fast as we can to find additional funding). It will be worth it.

Long story short, consider this a challenge to our elected officials around the region and appointed officials on the DART board to ride DART once in a while to find the money to do D2 right.