» 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.