» 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.