Tuesday, May 21, 2024 May 21, 2024
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Transit Oriented Development

Today the Dallas City Council Decides if It Wants a Downtown Subway

The saga of the so-called D2 line has drawn on for years. Now DART learns whether it takes the next $1.7 billion step.
Kelsey Shoemaker
Editor’s Note: The Dallas City Council unanimously approved the resolution on Wednesday afternoon, which frees DART to pursue the project’s federal funding. It has to work on other options for the project’s east side. You can read about that vote—and what it says about Dallas’ transit priorities—right here.

The Dallas City Council has a big decision to make today. Does it want a downtown subway or not?

The subway would double capacity while giving the light rail system a relief valve in the event of a derailment or some other disruption, as the current system bottlenecks on the single rail line through downtown. Dallas Area Rapid Transit says it needs a thumbs up or down during Wednesday’s meeting from Council to meet deadlines to pursue $800 million in federal funding to help pay for the project, which is known as D2. This is the resolution council will be voting on.

But DART will need $1.7 billion total, and the feds will pay for only half of it, which means it has to spend a lot of money to get those federal dollars. This project has been a key part of the transit agency’s capital plans since 2017, when the Dallas City Council passed a resolution supporting the below-ground alignment. It was a hard-fought battle. DART originally wanted the track to be at-grade through downtown, which would have required significant eminent domain and disruption.

Council and other groups fought for it to be built as a subway, which has more than doubled the price. It is a decision that will likely affect DART’s borrowing power through at least 2035. (But the agency will have enough to cover its other large projects, including the overhaul of the bus system, the Silver Line rail into Collin County, and continued maintenance.)

The D2 line would go from near Victory Park to the Perot Museum of Nature and Science south into downtown. It heads east along Commerce as it makes its way into Deep Ellum. There are four planned subway stops, which DART believes are significant development opportunities. It emerges as a surface line on Good Latimer. When it reaches Swiss Avenue, DART wants to put an above-ground “wye” junction, a Y-shaped confluence of the rail lines.

Most of the concern springs from interests on the east side of the alignment. The Deep Ellum Foundation, the group of business owners that operate the neighborhood’s Public Improvement District, hates how the subway emerges to join the street. Major landowners in Deep Ellum and the east side of downtown, particularly commercial and residential developer Westdale, have similar problems with it. They believe this will damage the urban fabric in a key neighborhood. Good Latimer is a main way in and out of the district, so how will having a surface rail line affect traffic? What about walkability? And the wye junction requires a fair amount of land. Will this eliminate future development? (They did get one win; the wye junction was originally planned for the denser Elm and Good Latimer intersection.)

“While we understand the regional importance of expanded core capacity and the need for a wye junction, the D2 project’s alignment and current plan to resurface to be at-grade along this corridor will disproportionately hamper area development, connectivity, and traffic,” wrote Stephanie Hudiberg, the executive director of the Deep Ellum Foundation, in a letter the organization sent to DART.

The west side is a different story. Developers in downtown proper are in favor of the project, as is Downtown Dallas Inc. But they need clarity. A subway changes how everything moves forward; they don’t want to plan for something that doesn’t materialize.

“My stakeholders want a decision,” said Councilman David Blewett, who represents downtown and Uptown. The vast majority of D2 is in his district. “If we’re not going to do it, let’s tell our people we’re not going to do it. We approved this in 2017, and we’re still screwing around with it. We’re harming the business community.”

Other concerns are more philosophical. This is a reliability project. While it does add capacity to DART’s line, it does not add new service areas or increase frequency under normal circumstances. It doesn’t pay for new trains or any other operational uses. The sorts of major disruptions that D2 would alleviate are rare. In the past year, there has been only one derailment, which backed the trains up about four hours. Meantime, there are still loud calls for improved service in southern Dallas, and this project to benefit the region will be housed in downtown Dallas.

“We feel we’ve done everything they’ve wanted and asked for; all we need them to do is ratify.”

Paul Wagemen, DART Board Chair

Some question whether this is the best way for Dallas’ transit partner to spend $900 million. Meanwhile, the federal grant program requires increases in ridership as a result of its investment. Adding capacity does not equal adding ridership. Is the city comfortable betting on that, considering rail ridership is down 50 percent since the pandemic began?

“We have spent upwards of $20 million and spent multiple years working on this. We have shown commitment to our member city Dallas by moving from at-grade to a subway alignment,” said Paul Wageman, chair of the DART board. “We feel we’ve done everything they’ve wanted and asked for; all we need them to do is ratify.”

The current Dallas City Council is operating based on decisions made by its predecessors. In 1990, the city of Dallas and DART signed an interlocal agreement establishing the city’s preference for a subway if light rail were to go through downtown. DART couldn’t afford it back then, but the city ordered the agency to begin planning for a subway extension once the agency reached ridership thresholds. It started the planning process in 2007.

In 2017, after years of adjusting the alignment, the City Council signed a resolution that supported the project and its current alignment. It also required DART to brief the Council once design was 10 percent completed. While DART conducted meetings with individual council members, it didn’t brief the full Council until design was 30 percent complete, near the end of last year. And when it did, the agency found a new Council with new questions about a significant capital project that will impact downtown for generations.

“I most certainly would want to hold up a project if it’s not meeting the needs of our people,” said Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, of Far North Dallas, during Tuesday’s Transportation Committee meeting. This was her sentiment the day before the full City Council will vote on the matter.

Mendelsohn was not on the 2017 City Council that agreed to the resolution. (Neither was Blewett.) In some ways, she is exactly what DART is worried about: someone with new insight who doesn’t necessarily share the sentiment of her predecessors. She has fought with DART over noise and traffic concerns related to the suburban Silver Line that is under construction in her district, which extends to Collin County. She said she wanted to see more bus routes in the south and is skeptical that this is the best project for the amount of money the agency will have to borrow.

“I’ve had a very, very negative experience trying to get DART to address the issues in my area,” she said.

Councilman Adam Medrano represents Deep Ellum. He has also been an outspoken critic of the way the line treats the neighborhood, for many of the same reasons as the Deep Ellum Foundation.

Others, like Lake Highlands Councilman Adam McGough, the chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, remain in favor of the project. (Medrano and McGough were both on council in 2017.) “The D2 subway’s benefits extend beyond adding capacity to DART’s system. It will also improve the system’s reliability and quality, increase service levels on existing rail lines, support economic development opportunities, and provide access to new markets,” McGough wrote to D Magazine in an email. “This project has received consistent support over the years from the City Council, DART Board, and other local transportation authorities, so I see no reason to believe it would be inappropriate to continue moving it forward.”

The Federal Transit Administration requires letters of support from partner cities before it approves grant funding. That’s what DART is looking for. Without that buy-in, the feds won’t write the check. Since October, DART has briefed the Transportation Committee and the Economic Development Committee multiple times on the project. In their own meetings, some board members have expressed frustration with the Council’s wavering. They wrote a letter to Mayor Eric Johnson and debated sending it to media.

The agency’s message has been repetitive: there is $800 million in federal money available, and DART needs to act quickly to get it. But critics point to the $900 million the agency would have to put up, as well as the disruption construction will create.

“I do not understand why the city of Dallas is not demanding that $900 million of regional money that’s going into D2 not go into the south side,” said 42 Real Estate’s Scott Rohrman, a critic of the project who owns property on the east side of downtown and previously owned many of Deep Ellum’s older buildings. “We have an ability to not have a gash and a wye junction at the entrance to one of our most vibrant neighborhoods, which is Deep Ellum.”

City staff has added some caveats to the resolution to help make Council more comfortable. It breaks the project into two zones, A in the west and B in the east. It asks DART to work on the project in Deep Ellum—“Zone B”—to solve some of the neighborhood’s concerns and gives the Council another chance to give it the thumbs down in 2022.

(The cynical vote would be to approve this resolution for political cover, suspecting DART won’t be able to fix the east side. Then you have something tangible to point to when you vote “no.” Plus, elections are in two months.)

The Dallas City Council will vote on this alignment of the D2 subway. It’s split into two zones so DART can focus on fixing the problems on the east side.

But the FTA won’t allow DART to make significant changes to the alignment it submits under the grant program the agency is applying for. DART’s plan can’t exceed $1.7 billion, which limits the scope of what it can do to meet those concerns. There is talk of the line surfacing on the west side of I-345, the freeway that separates downtown from Deep Ellum and that may not be long for this world. But it seems like the agency will be limited on what it can do to ameliorate Deep Ellum’s concerns. Or the money would have to come from another source, like the city or the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

“DART’s number is $1.7 billion, and I think we’ve been clear about that for some time,” said Wageman, the DART board chair. “We just can’t continue to delay and wait and have the scope creep to where this thing gets totally outside of what the board originally approved.”

The resolution also ties planning for D2 to a number of other major transit projects. There is a lot going on. I-30 is being redeveloped. Fair Park is getting a serious makeover. Baylor University Medical Center would like an exit off I-30. TxDOT will soon release its suggestions for the future of I-345, which many are expecting to focus on burying it. (Outright removal seems to be losing traction, but we’ll have to wait and see. TxDOT’s feasibility study to determine its preference for the highway’s future is expected later this year.)

The D2 subway, from the city’s perspective, shouldn’t be planned in isolation from those other projects. They should be planned in concert, which could also give the city an interesting pitch to the federal government for even more funding down the road.

“The idea is to really integrate I-30, 345, and D2 to open up that whole area for something much greater,” said Majed Al-Ghafry, an assistant city manager. “That is the long-term plan, but the idea was to really do this visioning along with D2 so if D2 goes ahead of those other projects, it’s not in conflict with them.”

TxDOT spokesman Tony Hartzel says the agency is coordinating with DART regarding how the engineering would work if 345 is buried or removed. “They aren’t competing for the same space, as some have indicated,” he said.

But all of that is down the road. The debate has been rushed, but today the Council has a decision to make. Is or isn’t the city of Dallas getting a subway? Let’s see which direction those thumbs point.