Dallas, a Transit Builder if Not Pioneer, Moves Forward on Streetcar

» A 1.6-mile streetcar line would bring dubious benefits to this Texas city.

Not all transit expansion projects are created equal — let that be clear. Sure, expanding public transportation options in general usually contributes to the expanded mobility of urban residents. But governments, as we know all too well, have limited funds. So identifying the best possible investments for the money must be an essential part of political decision-making.

Which brings us to Dallas, which submitted plans this week for a 1.6-mile streetcar from the city’s downtown to the Oak Cliff neighborhood just southwest across the Trinity River. It could be the first rail line in the U.S. to feature streetcars that use battery propulsion instead of always having to rely on overhead catenary. The project was funded by a U.S. Department of Transportation’s TIGER grant in February 2010 and it will be Texas’ first modern streetcar line if it opens as planned in 2013 (the existing McKinney Avenue Trolley, open since 1989 in Uptown and currently being extended, uses historic vehicles). Though it may generate construction jobs — one of the major goals of the federal funding program — the rail line will do next to nothing to improve the quality of public transportation in this, America’s ninth-largest city, still suffocated by its automobile dependency.

I will get to the point quickly: Though the $23 million the Dallas Oak Cliff streetcar will cost to construct is truly tiny compared to the investments other cities are making in light rail or subways, the characteristics of this project make one wonder if it is worth spending any money at all on it. There are plenty of projects around the country that could take advantage of these funds in a far more efficient, customer-focused manner.

The project violates almost all the basics of transit project delivery. Worst is its proposed single-track construction — there will not even be any bypass tracks included as far as I can tell (see update below: this issue has been partially resolved) — which will limit service to 20-minute maximum frequencies. From day one, the service will be limited to what in a standard transit system would be considered poor operations quality. And this is basically an impossible-to-resolve structural problem, since once construction has been completed, there will be little appetite for more of it in the same locale.

To put it another way, 20-minute frequencies mean ten minute average waiting times; combined with the seven minutes it will take trains to journey the 1.6 miles from origin to destination, this means that on average, walking will be just as fast as taking the train. And the lack of bypass tracks means that any future extensions would increase maximum frequencies even further. This is hardly convenient transit, and everyone seems to recognize that fact, considering service will end at 7 PM each day, with no weekend operations. An urban rail line with a service pattern that is less broad than that of a typical city bus should raise some serious questions.

If this project serves such an important travel market as to deserve the significant investment that is required to put tracks in the street, why are such pitiful operations planned?

Then there is the issue of stop placement. The line’s four proposed stops are already bordering on too many considering the short route distance. But confounding the matter is the fact that three of those stops are within a half-mile of one another in the Oak Cliff neighborhood; this means streetcar stops less than every 1,000 feet, slowing down service and increasing costs. Is the assumption that people simply will be unable to walk more than a few blocks to a station? If this were true, isn’t the whole point of the transit investment, premised on people walking from stops to their final destinations, kind of problematic?

Similarly, the two terminal stops fall short of the likely destinations of many of their users. On the Oak Cliff end, trains will stop two blocks short of the Methodist Hospital, landing instead across from a large parking garage. That’s friendly competition.

On the downtown Dallas side, trains will stop at Union Station, which is an acceptable terminus but not nearly as good as what was originally planned — line up Main Street, through the heart of the central business district (which would have increased the line’s price to $58 million). But the federal government’s willingness to contribute only a portion of funds and the city’s general ambivalence about spending any of its own money has interred that plan, at least for the moment. This produces a situation in which passengers living from Oak Cliff have an only indirect connection to the jobs center, which is several blocks away from Union Station.

Moreover, the line’s creators have chosen to design the connection between the streetcar and Dallas’ lengthy light rail network in such a way that not only makes it difficult for passengers to transfer between the two but also limits the opportunities for interoperability between them. At Union Station, where streetcars will terminate and light rail and commuter rail lines already exist, passengers will have to walk 500 feet to get from one service to the other (this is the one place on the line were short walking distances really matter!). This will make the prospect of transferring between services frustrating and slow, limiting users’ desire to take the streetcar rather than hop into their automobiles.

While the new streetcar will include a track connection to the light rail, that link has paradoxically been designed to eliminate any chance that the streetcar could one day act as an extension of said network. The connection, included to make it possible to maintain streetcars in the light rail shop, doubles-back on the passenger line away from downtown. The plan thus precludes the possibility of providing for a future in which streetcars could utilize the light rail tracks through the downtown to offer better service to the business district.* The possibility that this streetcar line could serve as a sort of tramway, with light rail-type operations in the street right-of-way, has been made difficult by this poor interlining with the light rail and the single tracking. The fact that streetcar and light rail lines are only marginally different and in fact can be made identical in terms of vehicles used appears to have passed over the designers of this project, ironically the operators of the city’s light rail system DART.

From the perspective of a government already light on funds, this Dallas streetcar project thus comes across as inept. Though it would serve a new part of the city, it would do so in a way that adds very little to existing transit options and that offers very little for service improvement in the future. Should this project be a priority for U.S. grant givers? Should Dallas, a city with troubled transit ridership, be focusing on a project that will do next-to-nothing to change those conditions?

No matter the limited benefits of the Dallas streetcar project, of course, it is fortunately not the norm in terms of recent capital projects at most — or at least many — American transit agencies. The streetcar project currently underway in Tucson, for instance, will manage to provide two-track service, reasonable frequencies, and direct service to major destinations in that city. Though this project will indeed be more expensive than its Texan cousin, it will offer far more in terms of transportation benefits and will attract a more significant patronage from day one. On the other hand, we can only hope that for the sake of ensuring appropriate use of limited government dollars, projects like Dallas’ should be curtailed.

*Those knowledgeable of Dallas’ light rail network might note that the downtown route, which runs along Pacific Avenue and Bryan Street, is already congested with trains at rush hour and therefore could not handle the addition of streetcars. But Dallas’ medium-term transit plan identifies a parallel downtown route called D2 that would resolve those issues and leave plenty of room for streetcar operations.

Update. 26 July: Turns out that, unbeknownst to me, Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson managed to secure an additional $3 million in federal funds for the streetcar project last week. These funds will be used to build a passing track, which will allow for significantly improved service and allow trains to run more than every 20 minutes. This makes the project mildly passable — but the other issues raised in this post remain extremely problematic. And though the passing track will be useful, it will not be sufficient to allow for reasonable service on an expanded system.

44 Comments | Leave a Reply »
  • Matt Edwards

    Not knowing anything about Dallas, this short street car route seems like perhaps it’s more of a tourist train? Something similar to this? http://www.edmonton-radial-railway.ab.ca/highlevelbridge/

    • Rangers100

      It may have the limited functionality of a tourist train, but it will not be running in between any tourist spots. The idea is to better link Oak Cliff neighborhoods with downtown Dallas, but this initial line won’t even go far enough into Oak Cliff to be of much use to any of its residents.

  • Dallasm

    I know this may sound optimistic, but it is a starter line. We applied for the money that we could get and want private investors to pay for the rest. I don’t know how much you know about Dallas, but Dallas is currently heavily investing in Oak Cliff. You may or may not know about the $100 Trillion dollar Star-chitect designed Bridge being built connecting West Dallas and downtown. You might say it goes no where, but private developers will be happy to remedy that. You may or may not know about the millions that have been poured into revitalizing the Bishop Arts District. All of this would probably seem incredibly wasteful to you, but it’s an investment in that part of the city. And it’s paying off. Property values in OC have sky rocketed in the past 10 years. Private developers are building all over the place down there. Crime is down, business is up. The hope for this line is that some rich guy will be happy to pay for the rest of the line and will route it past his new fancy high dollar town homes.

    It’s called an investment.

    • Alan Robinson

      It is an investment if a deal has been made and matching funds are guaranteed. It also seems like a strange way of doing cost recovery through Transit Oriented Development. Is Dallas making any real-estate profits from this?

    • Well that is a strange way of doing so…

      The line is being built on the wrong route, makes transit look like crap, and is built in such a way that discourages investment.

      Solution:
      1. A better route would be Davis Street while an even better route would be Jefferson Boulevard.
      2. Create two tracks instead of one, amp up the service, and don’t put in such a position that makes it worse that an automobile, namely putting it behind a parking lot from the destination.
      3. Making it look like crap discourages investment. You must take the following equation into mind whenever dealing with investments:

      If A = B
      & A = C
      then B = C

      In this case it would be:

      If the street car route is public transit
      and the street car route is huge waste of money
      then public transit must be a huge waste of money

      • Dallasm

        Yeah, there are all sorts of great route to choose from. But none of them matter if you don’t get over the river. 80%+ of that $20M is going to go to revitalizing that historic bridge. Once we get a line over that bridge additional miles get much, much cheaper.

        Then, a private investor can route it anywhere they choose.

        • ThomasD

          Why should this publicly funded route be predominantly for a TBD private investor to rationalize. For transit purposes, the route seems like crap.

          But if its worth doing for Transit Oriented Development in a resurgent Oak Cliff district, then private money should be involved simultaneously for two tracks and 10 minute headways. The alignment should also be integral to TOD, not pasted behind the main drag.

        • It still should be double tracked somewhere in that span ~ although double tracked throughout is preferable, double tracking somewhere to allow higher frequency operation, albeit on a rigid timetable, only becomes more important if it ever goes somewhere useful.

          Although the ideal for the “starter segment of a TBD corridor” would be double tracking over the bridge, it would even be an improvement to have a double track segment between the viaduct and Union Station and a double track segment between Greenbrier and Oakenwald.

    • Ralph

      Is there room to install a 2nd track later, or at least some passing sidings? If not it seems useless as a starter system.

  • Truly, I am now completely convinced that all of this is being done on purpose as part of some sneaky strategy by pro-suburban politicians.

    #1 Texas is rightist stronghold and good public transit decisions were never expected since the start.

    #2 It would be an excellent strategy for the anti-transit crusaders to “high-jack” the public transit authority and create what appears to be excellent public-transit investments at a surface level but in reality create less for more, something that will damage and corrupt the image of public transit as the way into the future.

    An ingenious, yet sinister strategy.

    • Danny

      Texas as a whole may be a stronghold for the right, but Dallas is most definitely not. Argument nullified.

      • Don’t be too sure about yourself buddy, Austin also had another such epic rail fail.

        Austin’s Light Rail

        Austin’s Ruined Potential

        And as for Dallas…
        Dallas County is VERY borderline, about 50-50. This creates an excellent environment for them to be on an all out war for majority, the perfect scenario for my theory to be true.

        • Danny

          Austin is ALSO a liberal city.

          BTW, county politics don’t count when the rail systems are part of city governments. That is like saying that Canadian politics are affecting American policy.

          • Austin may or may not be a liberal city; that is fine for me. It actually makes more sense if it IS Liberal because if it wasn’t then the line would not have been built in the first place!

            Oh, so you say DART operates only in the city of Dallas, eh? Well then check out the service area for DART. Since it includes so many suburbs(12), it is safe to say that DART does not only deal with Dallas politics.

            P.S.That analogy you did between Canada and the United States made NO SENSE WHATSOEVER. A county and a city is like saying a country and a state. One is above the other/one is PART of the other. Caanada and United States are equal sovereign states.

            • Danny

              DART is operated by the city of Dallas. It is an opt-in structure for all cities not named Dallas.

              In other words, if the non-liberal suburbs of Dallas hated transit, they would have to do nothing more than opt out. No conspiracies needed…and they get to save their sales taxes while they are at it.

              I know you have your life at stake here on your wager of some vast conservative conspiracy to destroy the reputation of public transportation by building a subpar trolley system…but you really need to step back and take a look at how contorted and silly your argument is.

              Facts:
              1) Dallas, controller and operator of the system, is a very liberal city.
              2) Many of the suburbs that have opted-in to the DART system are also liberal cities
              3) No city is required to be a part of DART, nor required to fund DART.

              So in order for your retarded conspiracy to be true, you would need conservatives that are simultaneously smart enough to penetrate and hijack the entire transit planning department run by a liberal city, and yet dumb enough to not opt out of the DART service area.

              • Michael

                Yes Dallas is a liberal city but many of the other member cities in DART are most certainly not.

                Plano, the second largest city in DART, is one of the most conservative cities of its size in the country. University Park and Highland Park collectively voted nearly 75% for John McCain in a Democratic year. Garland, Richardson, Irving and the other northern suburbs vote more along conservative lines than liberal. The suburbs in the south area of Dallas which tend to vote more liberal rejected DART. DeSoto, Duncanville, Grand Prairie all rejected DART.

                I do not think there is a conservative conspiracy, however it is not accurate to portray the north Dallas suburbs as liberal leaning.

              • I think the point of a conspiracy is to achieve a goal without either
                - making it public you did it
                - or not having the power to do it by direct and open means.

                Just opting out would be traceable and would require some clout, both of which are not necessary with a conspiracy.

              • You don’t have to be liberal to encourage public transit. I am just saying that in the U.S.A., anti-transit advocates are ALMOST always rightist. But I NEVER said conservative cities hate public transit. In fact, most member cities are conservatives, no conspiracy needed like you said.

                there were some cities that either decided never to join or just dropped out later on. These cities are: Duncanville, Grand Prairie, Lancaster, Mesquite, The Colony, Wilmer, Coppell, and Flower Mound. Of the aforementioned, only The Colony and Coppell are still eligible to join.

                “I know you have your life at stake here on your wager of some vast conservative conspiracy to destroy the reputation of public transportation by building a subpar trolley system…but you really need to step back and take a look at how contorted and silly your argument is…” ~Danny

                Seriously, Danny, seriously? I was just putting out a theory, no need to get militant about it… You don’t even know me and yet you still had the “knowledge” to say that my LIFE is at stake here due to some WAGER!?!?

                Like WTF man, I’m only 15 years old, what are you blabbering on about!?!? I don’t gamble and no one is pointing a gun at my head so chill dude.

                1) Yes, Dallas is the owner of DART (I believe that even though I still need a reference or a link to that fact).
                2) Liberal or not, it doesn’t matter (also needs reference).
                3) I was aware of that the entire time. My theory never even stated that so I don’t even know why that issue was brought up.

  • Buckeyeman

    This has to be one of the worst rail transit proposals I’ve ever seen in my entire life.Every last thing about it spells failure.

  • Ocean Railroader

    I would wounder what types of former streetcar routes could be in the City that are sleeping under the streets that would be worth more in bringing back. Also I wounder how this streetcar relates to the former system that got torn up in the 1950′s? The former streetcar system in this city would most likely follow better routes then this loop route to nowhere.

  • Im not surprised.

    Have you seen what the Dallas light rail extensions look like? Absolutely terrible. They go against everything transit should be.

    It’s not surprising that the same planning failure is being applied to the streetcar.

    It’s either gross incompetence, or as someone mentioned above, a twisted conspiracy to make transit look bad. Pick your “favorite”. Either way, the residents of Dallas lose.

    • Oh wow, I just read the link Yonah posted to the existing streetcar line construction.

      “The McKinney Avenue Transit Authority is building a turntable near the CityPlace West DART station that will rotate its streetcars.

      However, the $668,000 project is also raising eyebrows. All four of MATA’s streetcars can be driven in either direction and don’t need to be rotated. The operator simply makes a few simple changes, such as moving some of the steering levers to the opposite end.

      “If we have time, we’ll probably use the turntable to show people how it works, but it’s not necessary,” said MATA operator Charles Chambers.”

      This has to be a joke. It just has to be.

      • Nathanael

        Historic operations work a bit differently from transportation operations, and MATA is a historic operation, even if it happens to be useful for transportation.

  • Andy Haretip

    Most of the criticism on this blog seems to be solidly grounded in ignorance.

    J, the turntable is being built to allow MATA to use the single ended PCC cars that it purchased from Toronto at a bargain basement price and any future single ended streetcars that it may acquire. A wye is being built at the downtown end of the line.

    • Which if you watch the video, youll note they have no funding or plans to restore those PCCs. The article says they ARE restoring two cars….both double sided.

      And theres these things called loops which do the job of a turntable….but cheaper.

      • Andy Haretip

        I have seen the video and used to work for MATA. I keep up with the improvements on the line. The video is lazy journalism. The cars will be used when the track is suited for it. The equipment they have has been in service for 20+ years with only maintenance and running overhaul. They are desperate to get the other cars in service. The money being used is from the local PID, so what scandal is occurring here? How is this a joke that they are building something that they want and need with local funds? Your ignorance is glaring.

    • Strange, I was pretty sure that this line would use Primove, something which T.O. does not have.

  • AlexB

    This is a terrible idea as is, but it doesn’t preclude double tracking in the future or adding a Main St. connector that joins with the existing McKinney Streetcar to create a longer more useful route. Considering the small amount of money this whole thing costs, it seems like dropping $100 million and doing it this way to begin with would have made a lot more sense. At the very least, this should be labeled “Phase 1.”

  • It seems like Dallas really likes their potpourri of under-performing and weirdly connecting rail lines.

    Nevertheless I’d like to point out that
    - 1.6miles @ 5km/h / 80m/min gives a total walking time of 30minutes, not 17minutes
    - if one uses a fixed interval schedule, regular uses wouldn’t wait for 20 minutes

  • dallas resident

    This STARTER line will eventually connect with a much larger system. In the short term, it joins two other projects (a freeway extension and cable-stayed bridge, along with a new pedestrian/bicycle bridge) as additional ways to reach the rapidly growing and long-neglected Oak Cliff neighborhood.

    The city originally wanted to fund a downtown circulator, but the feds decided this was a better use of their money.

    • AHA!

      A freeway extension you say? Just the perfect scenario for my theory to work! It is all some twisted conspiracy to make transit look bad and dis-favorable for the voters. Such a coincidence that they are pretty close to each other.

      The perfect comparison for anti-transit politicians.

  • danny

    I see two possibilities here:
    a) They are intending for this to be single tracked for its entire lifetime, or, b) They are incompetent.

    The incremental cost of adding a second track (no extra catenary needed, as these are battery powered) is on the scale of $2-4 million per mile if they build it at the same time, or $8-20 million per mile if they build it afterwards. This is due to the difficulty of rebalasting, regrading, and adding switches to existing lines.

    If they truly want to use this as a starter line and then double track later, they are making an absolutely huge planning mistake. Being about two miles, we are talking $4-8 million extra, but saving $16-40 million down the road.

  • Noah

    Like was mentioned in other responses, this is only the starter segment of a much larger streetcar network for the inner-city. There are plans to expand the line both into Oak Cliff (following historic streetcar routes) and into Downtown Dallas (see the Downtown Dallas 360 Plan here: http://www.downtowndallas360.com). While funding for the extensions can be accomplished through neighborhood taxing districts (see Uptown and MATA), the connection over the river (across the world’s longest concrete bridge when built in 1910) needed some help with funding to get the project started; city leaders pursued this grant knowing it would be the hardest segment to fund. At first it will only connect a large medical center with regional transit, but long-term goals are to knit neighborhoods — which had been divided by freeways and bad planning of the 20th Century — back together. Downtown Dallas is seeing a revitalization and surrounding neighborhoods are receiving a lot of interest. Now that MATA is expanding into Downtown from the north, the city will just need to finalize plans for filling in the middle.

    • Yeah, so O.K.
      The line is a good idea, BUT, it still needs two tracks AND needs to go the the hospital’s front door, not behind the parking lot.

  • Matt

    I do wonder how these Texas metro areas, which are growing quite fast are going to handle their traffic and mobility issues. I know Houston and Dallas have very small light rail systems and San Antonio and Austin really have none, but I imagine once the recession ends, they are going to have pretty difficult traffic issues to deal with.

    • Nathanael

      Don’t worry about that. The recession won’t end for a decade given current policy; the Republicans are trying to make it worse, and Obama’s going along with them. Unless we get (say) a Green Party President in 2012, I see no hope for a long time. Perhaps by 2020 people will be fed up enough with pscyhotic economic policy to elect someone other than a Republican or a Republican-in-Democrat’s-clothing.

  • As a Dallas resident, I have to say that any press toward better public transportation is a move in the right direction. When visiting Europe, you can move about in a large city in fewer than 20 minutes by using their vast public transportation systems. I’d love to see the United States make a step toward trying to mirror Europe’s success in this field.

Leave a Reply

 

 

 

Comment preview below as you type. You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>

For help if you have trouble posting or your comment is marked as spam, please email:
info (at) thetransportpolitic.com | Comment Rules

The Site / The Fight

by Yonah Freemark

yfreemark (at) thetransportpolitic (dot) com

  • Le progrès ne vaut que s'il est partagé par tous.

Email newsletter

Network

rss feed
comments feed
twitter feed
email update