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"Light rail pulling into stations early... DART lines to Plano, Garland ahead of schedule, under cost" - that headline from the Dallas Morning News of 21 March 2002 speaks volumes about what continues to be one of American light rail's continuing success stories. The urban rail adjunct of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) transit agency has been a model of efficient design and cost-effective, highly attractive transit operation that is serving as a model to many other communities.
And, as reporter Tony Hartzel notes, "... DART's light-rail expansion into Plano and Garland will arrive much sooner and much cheaper than planned." Hartzel elaborates further about the three-year, $1 billion light rail transit (LRT) expansion effort:
Trains will ferry customers to and from Plano stations starting Dec. 9, six months ahead of schedule. Rail service to Garland is to start Nov. 18, a week earlier than planned. The 11-mile Garland line and the 12-mile North Central line extension from North Dallas to Plano also stand about 10 percent under budget.
Extension to White Rock Station
The 11-mile branch to Garland has also been on track, and major
milestones have been achieved. On 23 September 3001, a 3.1-mile extension from the Mockingbird Lane Station to the new
White Rock Station opened. "I love it. This is very convenient" enthused Francisco Bear, who rode downtown the first morning
the station opened. A veteran transit rider, Bear gave the White
Rock Station glowing marks. "This one is much better than Park Lane. And it has plenty of parking."
DART spent $56 million to extend its Blue Line LRT alignment to the new station at West Lawther Drive and
East Northwest Highway.
"Every indication is that we're bringing in a lot of new riders" observed a DART spokesman, as every 15 minutes – 10 minutes during peak commute times – a light-rail train took off toward downtown Dallas. Meanwhile, on the opening day, parking lot capacity was nearly saturated, with vehicles occupying about 80 percent of the station's 490 parking spaces.
"Count Brian Beck among the potential new DART customers" suggests Dallas News reporter Tony Hartzel, noting that "The artist lives four-10ths of a mile from the station, a distance he can quickly cover riding his bicycle." The new LRT extension will provide him with "opportunities to go downtown for museum shows", Beck told the reporter.
"They did a nice job with the station" Beck observed, admiring the new stop's amenities and architecture. "I'll probably take advantage of it."
The opening of White Rock Station evoked enthusiasm from Robert Rudeloff. "I've been waiting for this for three years" the downtown worker told Hartzel. "I just wish they would expand rail faster so the rest of Dallas can see how convenient it is."
Extension to LBJ/Skillman Station
Another milestone was reached on 6 May 2002, with the opening
of the LBJ/Skillman Station, and marking the first time LRT trains
began to reach beyond Dallas's major highway loop – the LBJ Freeway – toward a truly suburban ridership. About a third of the
new 3.5-mile, $85.1-million rail extension runs on the west side of Dallas's White Rock Lake Park, home to a wide variety of wildlife.
"Trains making practice runs last week moved quickly through the more than one-mile stretch of parkland but made little noise as skaters and cyclists followed the White Rock Trail under the train tracks" recounted News reporter Tony Hartzel. Addition of the station "makes a difference to some commuters, with the choice of driving to the White Rock station for a shorter trip or the LBJ/Skillman station to enjoy a touch of scenery" notes Hartzel.
Part of that scenery, Hartzel also notes, includes a ride along the second-longest section of elevated track in DART's LRT system. The bridge through White Rock Lake Park is 4,695 feet long, a scant 53 feet shorter than the LRT bridge over the Trinity River flood plain into Oak Cliff. The bridge segment makes up the longest part of the journey through White Rock's scenery, which rail passengers can see for a minute or two while traveling at a top speed of 60 mph.
Nature themes are also evident at the new LBJ/Skillman Station, which has native plants, spring wildflowers, and a picnic area similar to those found in Texas roadside rest stops. The station also features artwork with quotations from President Lyndon B. Johnson and his wife, Lady Bird Johnson.
With the new extension, light-rail trains now operate within a mile of Garland. The line is scheduled to reach downtown Garland in November, and a track to Richardson (on the Plano branch) is scheduled to open July 1st, according to DART.
Most important, DART officials said, the new LBJ/Skillman Station has broken the LBJ Freeway barrier. "We'll get a whole new set of customers with this station" said Doug Allen, DART's executive vice president for program development. "LBJ Freeway has been both an actual barrier and a psychological barrier. And there's not a real good way to get from that part of town to downtown."
Bridging the barrier also involved building a new railway trestle over the LBJ Freeway - so far, the only DART rail line that will go over traffic on Dallas's busiest highway. That portion of the project required DART, the city, and the state to shut down portions of the LBJ Freeway during weekends.
LRT trains now travel over LBJ Freeway and down the main trunk
line parallel to North Central Expressway, reaching the north edge of downtown in 18 minutes, and the popular West End LRT
station in Dallas's downtown restaurant district in about 24 minutes. Trains consist of at least two and often three cars at a
time, leaving every 10 minutes during peak commute times and every 15 minutes during offpeak hours.
Between 1,500 and 2,000 passengers a day are eventually expected to use the LBJ/Skillman station. "it's a pretty quick trip, and it's scenic, and it's quiet" said Tim McKay, DART's senior vice president for project management.
Cost-Effective Rail Extensions
In 1996, the DART's LRT project cost $860 million for 20 miles of route, about $43 million per mile – or about $52.9 million per mile in 2002 dollars.
In the scheme of transit projects, that cost for the original 20-mile Dallas system is somewhat remarkable, considering that it included a 3.5-mile subway, a 1.2-mile transit/pedestrian mall downtown, and a 0.9-mile long elevated viaduct over the Trinity River floodplain (plus numerous other elevated sections here and there). Fortunately, as with many LRT projects, extension of the system into suburban areas is proving much less costly.
The 3.1-mile White Rock extension cost just $18.1 million per mile
in 2001, or about $18.7 per mile in 2002 dollars. The latest (2002) 3.5-mile extension to LBJ/Skillman comes to just $24.3 million per
mile – and that's with that extended, nearly mile-long bridge over White Rock Lake Park. The North Central extension project to
Richardson and Plano is budgeted, overall, at $26.6 million per mile (2002).
DART officials attribute the progress and good fortune in constructing the extensions to several factors, including good construction weather. Agency officials have also been applying a number of useful lessons they learned from building DART's original 20-mile starter rail system that opened fully in 1997.
For example, rather than contracting with six different companies to lay track for extension segments, DART awarded one contract to a single company for six rail segments, according to DART's Tim McKay. Thus, when work slowed in one area, contractors were able to shift to another area to get ahead of schedule.
That has significantly benefited the Plano line, now being built by Martin K. Eby Construction of Wichita, Kansas. While it's sited at the northern end of the North Central line, it was in the perfect spot for contractors to keep busy when activity slowed on other rail sections heading to Garland or Richardson.
"There's not only an economy of scale, the contractors get in a
rhythm" McKay told Dallas News reporter Hartzel. "Now we're gathering lessons learned for the next phase of construction."
DART is planning important service changes and additions to complement the rail service. Starting in December, express buses will no longer run from Plano or Richardson into downtown Dallas. The transit agency will commence a shuttlebus service from downtown Plano to the Collin Creek Mall area on the other side of Central Expressway. in addition, a circulator bus route will operate from DART's West Plano Transit Center at Coit Road and 15th Street to the station beside North Central at the President George Bush Turnpike.
Other rail segments and stations are planned to open before the Plano section. DART is scheduled to open seven more stations in North Dallas and Richardson in the summer of 2002.
An LRT line to Fair Park and Pleasant Grove should open in 2007, while LRT trains will start running to Farmers Branch and Carrollton by 2008. Another LRT line to irving/Las Colinas and Dallas/Fort Worth international Airport is scheduled to open by 2010.Rev. 2002/06/04