Dallas Compromises, Finding Funds for Some Light Rail Projects

» Link to airport and extension of Blue Line south, delayed indefinitely earlier in the summer, now back in line for funding. Yet transit agency plans reduction in light rail frequencies even as it expands.

Dallas and its airport, it seems, are inexorably linked in the minds of regional leaders, so the idea that the city’s transit system would fail to extend to the airport was, simply put, hard to understand. Facing decreasing sales tax revenues, however, the DART transit system’s officials announced in June that they had no choice but to put off this long-planned connection.

Yet this week brought better news as DART President Gary Thomas revealed that through a series of cost-cutting measures, the agency would be able to afford both the airport rail link by 2014 and the extension of the Blue Line light rail corridor south to the University of North Texas by 2019. The Green, Orange, and Blue Line extension projects now under construction were never threatened.

The compromise? Other proposals, including a second downtown rail corridor and further extensions of the Blue, Red, and Green Lines — as well as a new corridor extending into West Dallas — remain off the table as they are simply too expensive to consider because DART must find $8.8 billion in overall economies over the next twenty years. More significant for current users is the decision to decrease light rail frequencies on all lines to every fifteen minutes during peak hours (down from ten), a choice that will save $5.6 million annually but reduce the appeal of taking the train for most trips. Some bus services will also see a cut.

The plan has been sent to DART member cities for review; it is likely to be approved later this year.

In moving forward with the airport link, DART will be pursuing a politically popular project that, if not completed, could have resulted in the decision by some cities to abandon their membership in the agency, depriving it of vital sales tax revenues. Yet it is poor policy to endorse a major construction program even as services are being cut; in other words, what’s the point of building track that will be used by only a few trains a day?

But one can imagine the political pressure in which DART decision-makers find themselves: The agency must fulfill the interests of its most suburban constituents, many of whom are frustrated that they have yet to receive their personalized light rail line. Meanwhile, because the airport connection appeals most strongly to the political leaders of the region because it is the only transit line most of them will ever use, it is essential for DART to pursue its construction if it wants to remain in the funding game.

Yet operations cutbacks do have their negative consequences. The decision to cut headways on light rail operations has justified DART’s decision to permanently postpone the D2 downtown light rail link, which would have relieved the existing center-city trunk route used by all lines. That project, it seems, is not necessary if all lines are running only every fifteen minutes; in addition, the creation of a new streetcar system already partially funded through the federal TIGER program will add capacity for downtown riders. So the agency has determined that it is preferable to divert spending on an extension of the Blue Line south to the University of North Texas instead.

That project, though, will only further enforce the already very suburban orientation of DART’s expansion program rather than improve the circulation of people within the densest parts of Dallas. In addition, it seems to imply that fifteen-minute frequencies are acceptable in the long-term; they certainly are not if Dallas ever intends to encourage significantly increased public use of its light rail system, which has cost more than $2.5 billion to build so far. Why not, some will likely argue, save up and spend on the new downtown alignment as soon as possible, which would allow an eventual ramp-up in services to meet growing demand?

There may not be enough money to pay for D2 compared to the cheaper Blue Line extension right now, especially since the latter corridor may be able to acquire federal funds to pay for a portion of its overall costs, a feat the downtown corridor is less likely to match. But the Dallas region could hold off on its decision about the best route until the mid-2010s, when it will begin actual engineering work on either line to be built.

The agency may still alter its proposals, of course. But a true revival of frequencies along the light rail routes — the best way to increase ridership — will require an increase in funding. In its long-term plan, DART assumes some improvements in its financing thanks to a plan to assess taxes on utility bills, new charges at parking facilities, and introduce high-occupancy toll (HOT) lanes. Yet the region might want to rethink the way it funds rail lines in general; now that most of the basic system has been built, further extensions should perhaps be sponsored directly by each constituent city. If the City of Dallas wants a downtown link instead of the south Blue Line, it should make the decision and then pay. DART should perhaps content itself with the responsibility of ensuring steady offerings of rail and bus services throughout the service area.

Like many metropolitan areas engaged in the pursuit of an improved public transportation network, the Dallas region must find a way to compromise its desire to expand its rail offerings to meet the needs of as many suburban interests as possible while also retaining adequate services along the existing transit system. Finding the right medium between the two will be a fraught process, especially in the midst of a recession.

15 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Robert in Calgary

    It’s always interesting to read about cities that build a rapid transit system and then refuse to run it like one.

    Based on the article, the priorities for Dallas should be:

    1 – the D2 project
    2 – the airport link they crave
    3 – ramp up service frequencies

  • It seems to me that part of the concern is that if the suburban communities don’t get light rail connections, then they will just pull out of DART (like many apparently have already).

  • Jean-Luc

    After the D2 and Orange line to DFW are done, it really would be nice to see more focus on transit (and biking) in the central parts of the city (south of Mockingbird) where a car-free or car-lite lifestyle really could be encouraged with the proper infrastructure.

    Anton, that might explain the extension to Rowlett in the works. As far as I know, only two cities ever pulled out of DART: Coppell and Flower Mound.

  • John W

    Or perhaps it’s a clever plan. Once the economy picks up and they do increase frequencies, they’ll have riders from across the region complaining about congestion on the central segment, demanding that D2 be built. Well, maybe.

  • J

    So, so so stupid.

    Hey Dallas, if you cancel ALL light rail service, youll have money to build all the extensions! Empty rail lines for everyone!

    Frequency is NUMBER 1 to make people chose rail. A private car means you can get from a to b when you want. 15 minute headways means you cannot, you have to rely on someone elses schedule.

    Making a transfer? You might be spending 28 minutes waiting, even though the trip is only 10 minutes of movement.

    Fail, fail fail.

    But of course, Dallas isnt alone. San Francisco cut service, and their new subway is going ahead. DC is moving full speed on their link to the airport, and have threatened to cut a lot of service. NYC also slashed routes, and their 2nd avenue subway is under construction.

    • As has been pointed out numerous times, Uncle Sam has plenty of money for new capital projects, but not a dime for operations.

      So guess what transit agencies do?

      • And yet the US is a massive oil importing country, and there is far more energy efficiency bang for the buck getting ridership up on existing services than in constructing new service for low frequency operation.

        I don’t recall whether this was Reagan that abandoned Federal operating funds support, or Carter in one of those “pre-emptive surrenders” that the so-called moderate Democrats have long excelled at.

        • Knowing nothing about this, I’d guess it was Reagan. Carter was liberal on energy issues; it was Reagan who abandoned all conservation schemes and defunded urban transit.

      • J

        I know the feds only fund capital costs and not operations.

        And its because how deep the lobbying goes.

        New construction means engineering firms for environmental studies, law firms for mitigation, huge purchases of concrete, steel and technology etc etc. So many companies have their hat in it, it’s never going to change.

        Operations? Only the transit union wins.

        • I’m actually surprised that operations subsidies weren’t made in the form of “outsourcing assistance”–an inducement to TAs to fire their in-house operations staff and instead contract driving and maintenance to private contractors (presumably, non-union ones).

          Given the transparent anti-labor posture of both the Reagan and Bush 43 administrations, this is a big reason why ops long weren’t subsidized. It just isn’t that insufficient numbers of construction interests were able to profit from the subsidy–it’s that many in DC were gravely concerned that were operations subsidies to be provided, some part of it might finance raises for bus drivers, not increases service.

          • It’s not just a union thing. Reagan was against anything that had an environmental component to it. He defunded alternative energy research, and went as far as removing the (symbolic) solar panels from the White Houses.

  • political_incorrectness

    What is the federal match for captial costs? I am sure it is not a 90 to 10. If it was 90 to 10, more dollars could go into operations instead of into capital costs that could comrpomise transit systems. I know France has dedicated around 30% of their transport budget to public transport. We need a major shift in priorities.

    • The New Starts program generally provides a 60/40 match (the Feds pay 60%, localities must come up with the other 40%), though for large ticket projects, the ratio turns to 50/50.

    • The max for that funding is 80 Fed : 20 Local, but unlike the 80:20 HSR funding that has been applied for this year (the the 90:10 that has been proposed for the long term), transit applications at 80:20 matching rates lose out to applications that propose lower matching rates. Some projects propose lower than 50:50 in an effort to get to the head of the queue.

  • Danny

    This might end up being a good compromise. Rail has pretty low operating costs and running high frequencies on rail is less costly than running high frequencies on bus. Cutting operating funds to build up rail will take some time, but once the construction is complete it can replace more of those buses and frequencies can resume or increase on a more cost effective basis.

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