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Dallas Light Rail Success Can Be Model for Houston

Commentary by Marvin D. Monaghan – November 2003

The following commentary by Dr. M. D. Monaghan of Garland, Texas is slightly revised from his op-ed which originally appeared in the Houston Chronicle of 27 October 2003 with the title "Real truth about Dallas rail and its success". Dr. Monaghan is a retired optometrist and longtime public transport supporter who served on the board of directors of Dallas Area Rapid Transit from 1990-93 and 2002-02. He also served on the North Central Task Force, which assisted in the design of the road and rail alignments through North Dallas.

Public transportation observers in Dallas are bemused at the array of criticisms, threats and dire predictions leveled at the light-rail construction project in Houston. It's déjà vu all over again to those who vocally supported the Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, rail program and who beamed with satisfaction when the rail line was completed and judged a success in all quarters while the dissident factions faded into the woodwork never to be heard from again. The same phenomenon will occur in Houston upon completion of the [Main St. light rail] starter line. [See article As Houston's Light Rail Project Nears Finish, Major Vote Looms Nov. 4th.]

Not only has light rail been a success in Dallas but in many cities in the United States and around the world. It is the ideal solution for a city that has grown too large for buses but cannot support heavy rail with fully dedicated subways and elevated guideways. Reports that it is a failure in Dallas and that a cash-flow crisis exists is simply not true. The one-cent sales tax has declined because of the recession that has gripped the country; however, reductions in service and temporary overall belt tightening are addressing the shortfall. The sales tax mainly pays for around-the-clock service, which the public demands outside of peak hours, when the fare box pays the costs of operation. Rail service has been reduced from 15-minute intervals to 20 minutes in off-peak hours. Peak-hour service remains at five- to 10-minute intervals. Little to no inconvenience has resulted.

Instead of referendums being defeated en masse as alleged, municipalities that were not included in the original DART rail plan are clamoring to be admitted, and arrangements are being made to accommodate them without detracting from the tax investment of the cities that voted into the system in the beginning. Denton County has already established a transportation authority of its own and will partner with DART for service into Dallas via Carrollton as is done with Fort Worth Transit. The only dissenting votes came from communities too small to matter or located too far from the proposed rail alignment. This will give convenient access to the two large universities in Denton for the thousands of Dallas County students who now have to fight frustrating congestion on interstate 35.

Several communities between Plano and McKinney are anxious to acquire rail service and are investigating whether to establish a Collin County Authority or to join DART.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments is actively promoting the activation of the DART-owned Cotton Belt line to provide commuter rail from Fort Worth into the north entrance to D/FW Airport. East Texans are looking to the east end of the Cotton Belt for future commuter rail service to extend as far as Greenville and perhaps beyond. Fort Worth has plans for commuter rail southwesterly to Granbury and north to Denton.

Nowhere is there negativism remaining in the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex of the character that clouds the issue in Houston, and this opposition will disappear once the sleek, new Metro light-rail trains are rolled out and the public can experience the smooth, comfortable, quiet ride that is in marked contrast to the bumpy, rattling, noisy buses with their cramped interiors and narrow single doorways. Each rail car has four double doors on each side eliminating a long queue of riders at stops and has access to ample electrical power from the overhead wire, which assures efficient air conditioning.

False impressions have been voiced implying that rail systems disadvantage minorities and transit dependent riders. In Dallas, these people, most of whom live in the southern sector where there are few jobs, are delighted that the slow, plodding bus ride to the north side of the city where the jobs are has been replaced by the fast 65 mph trains. For example, the peak hour travel time from downtown Dallas to downtown Garland has been cut almost in half, and the trains stop at a station near the industrial job sites on the way in. Four other convenient stops are made.

One detractor accuses light-rail trains of being products of foreign design and manufacture. Has he looked out the window to see where many of our automobiles and trucks and virtually all buses come from? Foreign light-rail train builders have assembly plants in the United States, the same as automobile manufacturers. Our country was a leader in this field in years past and is gradually regaining this position. DART's cars were built as shells in Japan and fitted out in Dallas and Elmira, N.Y.

An alleged disadvantage of being "tethered to a sparking wire," mentioned by one critic, ignores the pollution-free operation this makes possible. That is better than being tethered to an Arab oil well!

Transit train safety is unparalleled. In seven years of operation at DART, there have been fewer than a half-dozen fatalities, and these have been due to careless pedestrians or motorists who walked in front of trains or drove through lowered gates. Buses have far more accidents. A recent one involved two rogues who commandeered a bus and caused the driver to crash into a tree and a garage injuring several passengers. The trains are under master control of a dispatcher in a central office at all times, with radio communication and remote lineside signaling to prevent accidents. Not all of DART's road crossings are grade separated but are protected by gates and lights or traffic signals. A 3.5-mile tunnel speeds the trains through near North Dallas.

Another false alarm is the rumor that the trains cannot operate in more than three inches of water. Competent design by the right of way engineers will ascertain that standing water will be eliminated by adequate drainage. Never has there been an instance of a DART train being stopped by high water.

Metro has drawn criticism for owning its own headquarters building. So did DART when they bought and renovated the former Foley's Department Store Building -- until they showed a 27 percent saving over renting. A transit agency cannot afford to hire engineers and other staff full time just for periods when construction is under way. DART maintains most of an entire floor of offices, which is occupied by visiting engineers, eliminating much confusion and unnecessary travel while achieving better coordination of planning.

Electrically propelled transportation is better positioned to cope with any petroleum shortage that might occur. In the Texas grid, there are five possible sources of electricity that may be called on for the purpose of powering the trains.

It is irrelevant to discuss congestion and pollution in connection with public transit. To make a dent in either, thousands of cars and trucks would have to be removed from the roadways. What it will do is give commuters who live in the corridors served by rail a pollution- and congestion-free ride to work every day devoid of frustrating delays and accidents on the freeways.

It is misleading to state that only 1, 2 or 3 percent of a population uses transit. The usage must be compared to the population in a specific corridor, which can run as high as 35 percent. With 70,000 riders a day using DART's light-rail and commuter trains, a corresponding number of automobiles are obviously off the road.

Passengers board DART light rail train at Dallas's Union Station.

Last but not least is the subject of image and the impression that a city leaves on its visitors. Not many are impressed by hordes or swarming buses, and they can seldom identify with where the buses go. When a bus is gone, it leaves no tracks. A world-class city can do better. Rail is both a permanent and identifiable fixture and an in-perpetuity investment for the community it serves. The ambience it creates on a city street is not to be ignored. The highest real estate values of their kind in the world are on a rail transit mall in Zurich, Switzerland!

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Updated 2003/11/02

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