Its Big System Plans Now Stretched Too Thin, Dallas Considers Ways to Cut Back

» Forced to choose between an extension to DFW Airport and a new downtown rail line, Dallas won’t get everything it once planned for.

Even the country’s fastest-growing metropolitan area is incapable of following through with its 20-year long-term transit expansion plans, joining the list of recession-hit regions.

Despite growing by leaps and bounds, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex’s primary transit provider, Dallas-focused DART, is being forced to reevaluate how much it will be able to build over the next few decades. When it was approved just three years ago, DART’s 2030 Transit System Plan assumed that the region would grow to eight million inhabitants and be able to raise $5.2 billion in new funds to pay for 43 miles of new light rail service, a major expansion of bus offerings, and commuter rail improvements. Ten billion dollars would be earmarked for operations expenses.

This did not include planned investments in neighboring cities like Fort Worth, which has its own transit system.

But the sour economy and the slow decline in both the education level and wealth of the region’s newest inhabitants have taken their toll: Fewer tax returns, even with a bigger population, mean that Dallas and its neighbors may find themselves with 40% fewer funds than expected. This could mean a virtual shutdown of new transit capacity projects, with a likely $3 billion cut in capital spending by 2030.

DART board members will assemble next week to consider the consequences of the downturn.

That’s quite a disappointment for a region that has made a serious effort to promote density both in downtown Dallas and in suburban centers like Irving, which is planning a huge redevelopment on the former site of the Texas Stadium, just adjacent to a proposed Orange Line light rail stop.

Even so, three projects currently under construction are secure, including the entire Green Line (whose first phase to southeast Dallas opened in September 2009), an extension of the Blue line from Garland to Rowlett, and the Orange Line. Cumulatively, Dallas expects to have 90 miles of light rail in service by 2013 — making it the largest operator of that transit mode in the country.

Downtown Dallas’ modern streetcar and the Denton County A-Train commuter rail line are still on track, with local and federal commitments basically assured. The Cotton Belt line, a commuter rail project connecting Plano with DFW Aiport, has been re-framed as a public-private partnership dependent on currently non-existent outside funds. Fort Worth’s SW to NE rail corridor (from the southwest side of the city to DFW Airport) and its proposed downtown streetcar are awaiting more funding, but both are unaffected by DART’s fiscal problems.

But the unexpected drop in revenues may force DART’s board to choose between two proposed lines for completion over the next decade: a new downtown light rail trunk route, originally planned for 2016, or an Orange Line connection to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport, supposed to be open by 2013. Both were assumed to be essential elements of the region-wide transit network.

Projects reserved for the 2020s, including extensions of the Red, Blue, and Green Lines; a West Dallas light rail corridor; and a new crosstown bus rapid transit link, will likely be delayed by a decade or more if no new source of revenue is identified.

For now, though, the biggest question is whether to prioritize the Orange Line extension or the new downtown line, called D2. DART CEO Gary Thomas told Irving leaders that the Orange Line project would come first. Irving has fostered more than $4 billion in development around planned stations partially by promoting the close airport connection. Meanwhile, the downtown line is several years behind the Orange Line in planning, putting it at an inherent disadvantage.

But it’s hard to know how the DART system will work when trains from the fully activated Orange and Green lines join the Blue and Red lines on downtown’s Pacific Avenue and Bryan Street, the core segment of the network. When Portland opened its new Green Line last fall, it made sure to construct a new downtown alignment to avoid traffic tie-ups on the existing light rail routes. Can Dallas move ahead with the Orange Line, knowing full-well that its fate is to have serious train congestion in the center city without building the D2 link?

One solution may be to simply terminate Orange Line trains at Union Station, an option that’s technically feasible albeit less-than-ideal for Orange Line riders, who won’t get direct access to the business center. Another possibility could be building a cheaper downtown link than the one currently proposed, which is needlessly expensive because of plans to connect it to a convention center hotel via a tunnel that will generate relatively few riders. A surface-level route would take road space from cars but could be constructed at a far cheaper cost. This may be necessary: It’s just not clear to me that it will be possible to run four light rail lines along the same downtown route segment without reducing train frequencies on some routes.

Dallas council member Linda Koop has suggested that replacing some proposed light rail routes with other technologies could save money for DART. For the West Dallas line, for instance, a streetcar service is possible, since the route is relatively short and streets are uncongested. Several extensions of the light rail lines could also be built as streetcars, sharing space with automobiles in order to save funds for the agency while still extending rail services into the suburbs. It’s fiscal constraint for a fast-growing region.

10 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Tom West

    Firstly, Dallas has the advantage here that its iaport is relatively close to built-up areas, so any light rail line to the airport will seve a number of communities along the route. (Contrast this with Denver, where any line to the airport must run through miles of fields).

    Secondly, although the tax is coming in at a lower rate than expected, the income will continue indefinately. DART should produce a plan saying thatwith the first (say) $100m it will do this project, with teh next $100m it will do another project and so on. The idea that if the project can’t be done by 2013 or 2016, then it must be cancelled is absurd. Sure, things may take longer, but I’d rather have a definate far-off date then a 50-50 chance of a cancellation.

  • AlexB

    Just because tax revenues are coming up short right now doesn’t mean that will continue next year. Are they basing projections five years from now on the tax returns right now? That seems obviously wrong. The recession won’t last that long (I hope.)

    Everything on this map seems terribly important, it really would be a shame to lose any of it. I guess terminating the new orange line at Union Station until they build the second downtown link would be best, but it all has to happen at some point.

    Looking at a previous post on the second downtown trunk line, was the orange line the only line that would use it? It seems like if you moved the green line to the new trunk also, no trains could serve the Deep Ellum station. This is strange because I thought the existing trunk was already overburdened with the red, blue and green lines. If they build a new trunk, two lines should be able to use the existing and two lines should be able to use the new one.

    • Allen

      @Alex, good point. But what it really points to is that most of the 40% difference in tax revenue projections is not because taxes are down (they’re down to 2006/2007 leves in DFW, IIRC). It’s becasue they were far too simplistic and unsophisticated in calculating future tax revenues.

  • Unfortunately, the fastest growing areas of the region are NOT members of DART, and therefore not sending sales tax revenue that way. Although Plano is a member and quickly growing, cities like Allen, Frisco, and McKinney are not. This despite the fact that many residents of those cities drive down to Plano to catch the Red Line. Getting them to join DART is a must, but with those cities being very conservative with nothing but urban sprawl, I fear I would be a very difficult referendum to win. Perhaps the Local Option Tax is what’s needed.

  • dejv

    But it’s hard to know how the DART system will work when trains from the fully activated Orange and Green lines join the Blue and Red lines on downtown’s Pacific Avenue and Bryan Street, the core segment of the network.

    If current 10 minute headways are to be maintained, it would result in average 2,5 minute headways on common section, perfectly doable. There is a tradeoff though between average speed of LRVs and throughput for cars at signalled intersections.

  • jrbraddick

    Glad to see Dallas spoken in a positive way when it comes to alternate transit development!

    The Orange line needs to take priority over everything else for now. I once commuted from East Dallas to Union Station onto the intercity TRE railway express to the only station serving DFW, onto a shuttle to the southern remote parking facility onto another shuttle into the terminal. All in all it took over an hour and a half to cover the distance you can drive in about 25 minutes.

    Alternate options should be considered, like the idea of terminating Orange in Downtown, at the current convention center station, also serving Union Station. This would fulfill a direct link from the new Convention Hotel to DFW airport. Dallas also needs to consider putting some of the saved money from not developing D2 at this point and invest it into expanding services at Union Station, which could be the largest intermodal transit hub in all of Texas if this were do be done.

    D2 is still a need but deciding to spend the most money on a line that serves the least amount of passengers in a time when money is thin, is absurd. Furthermore, streetcars are considerably less expensive and can fulfill the need of LRTs with less build out and similar results.

    In addition, not adding a new member in over 15 years is another problem DART is having. Consider different membership options to pull in the outer suburbs into DART without pissing off gas guzzeling suburbanites. (myself not included)

    • Wad

      In addition, not adding a new member in over 15 years is another problem DART is having. Consider different membership options to pull in the outer suburbs into DART without pissing off gas guzzeling suburbanites. (myself not included)

      Be careful what you wish for. This turned out to be a fiasco for the San Francisco Bay Area’s BART.

      San Mateo County, where SFO Airport is, isn’t a member of the BART district but still gets service. It’s not a free lunch, though, and San Mateo got royally screwed because it had to agree to the principle that BART is first in line at the funding trough. BART has decimated the county’s bus service, and San Mateo County has lost more bus riders than it has gained BART riders.

  • Ocean Railroader

    If they do turn some of the light rail lines into streetcars and build that streetcar system they could mark off and close highway lanes in the streets by marking them off or putting in classic 1900’s coble stones around the trolley tracks to make peoplenot want to drive on it. I think Light Rail and Streetcars are the same thing in general in that they both can run in their own right of way or run down the center of the street.

  • Cameron

    The plans of Dallas, Denver, Phoenix, and Salt Lake City are ambitious enough so that when recessions happen, the users will at least get a half of a loaf. This is not the case in Minneapolis, where we passed 1/4-cent sales tax that is the foundation of our local contribution but won’t be nearly enough to build our cheap, sprawl-centric system we’ve planned.

  • Ramon

    Dalla’s problem isn’t the recession or building too much too fast. I’ve lived here for 14 years and have watched the light rail system go from a dream to a reality. The issue is the trains are full of people who don’t pay because there is an “honor system” of ticket purchasing. The riders are supposed to use the kiosks to purchase tickets on the platforms and have no turnstyles to go through to prove they purchased a ticket. there is also scarcely any transit police to make sure these “honorable” adults have purchased a ticket.

    I don’t understand why DART didn’t take notes from successful systems such as MARTA, or the DC METRO and have ticketed passengers have to scan their tickets or slide them through a turnstyle to insure they are in fact paying passengers. Now DART is having to cut back up to 33% of it’s plans and workforce because revenues aren’t what was expected. So strange when I see trains full of passengers on a regular basis even at non peak schedule times. It would be a good investment to modify the ticketing system to insure everyone who rides the trains is paying. Hiring more police to check tickets is the more expensive way to do that so why not make sure they pay on the front end prior to boarding the trains?

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