» 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.