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Dallas: Light Rail's Latest Texas Success

Special Report by Light Rail Progress
© Light Rail Progress - August 2000

The following article from the San Antonio Express-News published in the spring of 2000 -- prior to San Antonio's unsuccessful vote for a light rail transit (LRT) system -- provides an excellent overview of the success of the Dallas-area DART LRT system.

While the LRT plan proposed by VIA (San Antonio's transit agency) – which included a 1/4-cent sales tax increase – was rejected by voters on 6 May 2000, San Antonio decisionmakers and transportation planners, like those in Austin and other cities across the country, continue to look at Dallas's success as a model and an inspiration for possible new LRT installations.


San Antonio Express-News Monday, Apr 17, 2000

Dallas light rail on a roll against the odds

(Last updated Monday, Apr 17, 2000)

By David Anthony Richelieu
Express-News Staff Writer

DALLAS - if there ever seemed an unlikely setting for successful urban rail transit, it probably would have been the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex, the mythological birthplace of Suburban-style sport utility vehicles.

The common wisdom has been that Texans, many of whom have a primal attachment to their cars and pickups, were too independent and too proud to submit to the tyranny of light rail that lets them go only where tracks have been laid.

So it's somewhat surprising that Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART, has become the national poster child for light rail.

By every standard imaginable, DART is performing beyond expectations - and even beyond some of its planners' wildest dreams.

"It is simple," DART media relations director Morgan Lyons said, "since the first light-rail line began operating in 1996, ridership on all segments systemwide has increased."

Deana Hodges, a homemaker and student who was riding DART from Mockingbird Station to a downtown appointment in the middle of the afternoon, said: "it's just easier. The train goes pretty fast through the tunnel and I don't have to worry about parking when I get there."

By next year, DART expects to handle more than 97 million passenger trips per year and meet its goal of doubling total ridership since 1996, when light rail started.

Today DART serves 2 million people in 12 cities covering 790 square miles.

It has 805 buses, 52 light-rail cars, 12 transit centers, two transfer stations, 261 shelters, and 1,590 route miles and 18 miles of High Occupancy Vehicle Lanes.

But getting there was a struggle.

In 1984, a voter-approved 1-cent transit sales tax took effect. But another DART measure fizzled at the ballot box in 1988 when a $3.6 billion plan for a 93-mile rail system using long-term debt was defeated. The main opposition was from Sensible Metro Area Rapid Transit (SMART).

After a painful redirection of priorities limited to pay-as-you-go resources, five years of construction and the expenditure of $859 million - mostly from the 1-cent sales tax collected for transit - DART opened the first segment of its 21-mile "starter system" in 1996.

The starter system was completed in 1998 and has worked so well that DART is now in a five-year expansion to double its size.

Wide impact

DART's impact has been felt from one end of Dallas to the other.

The most costly segment was $122 million for a 3.25-mile tunnel from downtown to Mockingbird Lane near Southern Methodist University.

The official explanation is that it was impossible to plan a rail route compatible with U.S. 75, the busy North Central

Expressway that was being widened from four to eight lanes in each direction.

Others insist the route alignment and tunnel came about because residents in some suburbs were alarmed by the idea of trains stopping anywhere near their homes.

Whatever the reason, DART was hidden underground for three miles.

But today, a mad scramble is on to convince DART to alter alignments, build new stations and extend its tracks to go into upscale developments.

The Dallas Morning News urged a future DART line be rerouted to serve Texas Stadium, the University of Dallas and Las Colinas, the development where sculptor Robert Glen's bronze horses splash through fountains in the plazas.

The Morning News found support for DART had changed and that 82 percent of those polled last fall backed long-term debt so DART could expand more quickly.

DART's biggest fans are excited about the new activity erupting along the rail lines and around the station sites.

The zoo, on the Red Line south of downtown, has seen a 60 percent increase in attendance since the trolleys began stopping there. Some of that has come from DART educational programs with special zoo fares.

Boarding an inbound Blue Line trolley at Mockingbird Station last Tuesday morning, passengers found about 60 excited elementary school kids riding the rails to town - some sitting in the seats, some on the floor.

They listened as a member of DART's education staff explained details of the new rail service. The youngsters oohed and aahed when they zipped past the City Place

station being constructed 12 stories below ground.

City Place is about midway through DART's 3.2-mile tunnel and it will have the only "subway station" on the system. Some others are below street level, but are open-air facilities.

Last week's group of youngsters wasn't headed for the zoo, but was on a field trip to Union Station to have a picnic lunch and learn all about how a multimodal transportation center works.

That is where buses, light rail, the Trinity Express commuter rail line being built to Fort Worth, Amtrak and other transportation modes come together at one place so passengers can easily change routes or the kind of transportation needed to reach their destination.

Missing are connections to Love Field and Dallas-Fort Worth international Airport that are fighting right of way and political snarls.

Meanwhile, convention delegates use light rail to get to and from downtown hotels on the route with the Convention Center.

That connection prompted Adam's Mark Hotels to spend $200 million to renovate the huge former Southland Co. headquarters into the largest hotel in Texas.

Foes and fans

Because DART has triumphed where almost no one expected success, it has become a special target of light-rail critics.

Consultant Wendell Cox is a persistent DART critic. He has been called in by the Texas Public Policy Foundation to help persuade San Antonio voters to vote against VIA's light rail plan that will be on the May 6 ballot.

Cox disputes many of DART's figures, but in the end generally points to the $42 million cost per mile as being a bad return on the investment. He denies there are any tangible benefits to light rail.

"It doesn't reduce congestion, or pollution and is actually slower than existing bus service," Cox says.

The emergence of projects such as the Adam's Mark and the explosion of development around DART stations also are dismissed by Cox.

Cox argues most of the new development near DART stations is also along freeways and probably would have occurred anyway.

But people overseeing these projects say otherwise. They also say economic development is one of DART's best selling points.

Most people, at least.

Bill Ceverha, president of SMART, maintains DART needs to get back to providing public transit and focus less on spurring real estate development.

"Modern transit companies see themselves as somehow spurring development instead of providing public transit - especially when they try to do development themselves," he said.

"Look at the end result. I don't think DART has been all that successful," he said, admitting, however, that he has yet to ride on the new light rail system.

But others see transit-related development as a new dynamic in the local economy.

South of downtown, a nine-story former Sears warehouse that has been empty for years is being converted into 450 apartments and retail, commercial and restaurant space precisely because DART's Cedar Station is nearby.

But Ken Hughes and his Mockingbird Station development are creating the most excitement.

Just a year ago, the area across the tracks from the station was a huge, empty three-story Southwestern Bell warehouse with little more than the developer's "wish list" on a large sign.

Since then, the framework has been put in place for three new floors atop the warehouse that is to become 200 loft-style apartments. The end of the apartment building will open into a new glass-covered entertainment, retail and food

atrium already under construction. The atrium will connect the apartments to an office complex and hotel on the other side.

Then the platform of the DART station will extend over the tracks to connect directly into the atrium, cascading down to the stores and shops via terraces and escalators.

Across the DART station parking lot, what was an empty lot a year ago where the Dr Pepper plant once stood, today is 400 luxury apartments in a three-story complex faced with brick and cast stone trim. Across the street is a supermarket.

The total area involves well over 500,000 square feet and the combined investment is in the hundreds of millions of dollars. It has caught the attention of other developers.

One is Don Dillard, vice president of Galatyn Park Corp., which is developing 550 acres of Hunt Bros. property even further north just east of the North Central Expressway and south of the President George Bush Turnpike.

DART is planning two stations on the site, the first coming in 2002.

"We aren't exactly sure what impact DART will have out there," he said. "We just assume it will be good."

DART also is filling other needs.

So many rabid fans of the Dallas Stars have been riding the rails to Union Station that extra cars are put on to get them to the hockey games at Reunion Arena.

"it's great for going with your friends to the Stars (hockey) games," said Greg Younger, an office manager in his late 20s. "We all get pretty worked up when they win. It's fun riding back together afterward."

And when the team moves to the new American Airlines Center next year?

Just leave room at the front door, because DART will be pulling up there, too.


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