Cincinnati Dallas Fort Worth New Orleans Phoenix Streetcar

Streetcar Projects Advance Nationwide Thanks to Local Initiative

» In spite of questions over whether the federal streetcar program has a future and the death of a project in Fort Worth, local dollars are distributed to build new links in Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, and Tempe.

Last week’s decision by officials in Fort Worth, Texas to halt planning work on the city’s streetcar line struck a blow to the nation’s nascent collection of modern streetcar lines, one of the Obama Administration’s biggest transportation policy moves. Local leaders backed down from a $25 million grant received from the federal government earlier this year, arguing that the city wasn’t ready to invest its own money in a project that some suggested shouldn’t be funded by taxpayers.

The decision reinforced the commonly heard argument that the federal government is encouraging a form of transportation that is not fully accepted by people on the ground. It is certainly true that Fort Worth was far from prepared to accept the grant from Washington when it was first distributed, as the city had yet to specify a route or identify a definite local funding source.

The disappointing news from Cowtown, however, was the exception to the rule this month as Cincinnati, Dallas, New Orleans, and Tempe worked to establish their own local revenue streams for major streetcar projects.

In Cincinnati, Mayor Mark Mallory celebrated the decision by Ohio’s Transportation Review Advisory Council to award the city’s planned streetcar line $35 million in state funds. After receiving a federal Urban Circulator grant this summer and dedicating corporate and local dollars to the line, Cincinnati is now ready to break ground on the first phase next year. Dallas, which won a $23 million TIGER grant for a new downtown streetcar link in February and later received more funding from Washington for an extension to its McKinney Avenue historic streetcar, now has $10.8 million more from the Regional Transportation Council to spend on both projects. And New Orleans, whose Loyola Avenue connection is fully funded by the federal government, is considering redirecting local dollars to build another line down Rampart Street. Millions of dollars in new development is already being directed to sites adjacent to proposed streetcar stops in New Orleans.

The funds once earmarked for Fort Worth are likely to be redistributed by the U.S. Department of Transportation to another more interested city like Washington, D.C., which has a major streetcar system planned but which has yet to receive any federal funds for its construction.

Meanwhile, the Phoenix metropolitan planning organization has agreed to move a 2.6-mile streetcar planned for Tempe to the region’s long-term transportation plan. Though the group will ask the federal government to cover half the project’s costs — likely to add up to about $160 million — this represents a concrete commitment to spend local dollars on the project. Ten years ago, the only city in the country that would have agreed to such a major engagement was Portland. Other cities that have received U.S. funds and which are likely to move forward with their own projects over the next few years include Atlanta, Charlotte, Detroit, Salt Lake City, St. Louis, and Tucson.

Together, this news represents a strong endorsement for streetcar projects at the local level: Interest in streetcar construction extends beyond the boundaries of the nation’s capital. The mode’s expansion into metropolitan areas nationwide is genuinely supported by a whole bevy of citizens and leaders from coast to coast, willing to put up their own funds for projects that they think will improve their communities’ development patterns and mobility options.

Nevertheless, future federal support for streetcar projects has been put into question by the arrival of a new Congress that clearly does not share the Obama Administration’s enthusiasm for this particular mode of transportation. New House Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Chairman John Mica (R-FL) has supported expanding the federal pot of funds for transportation, but he has also argued for increasing Congressional oversight over executive agencies such as the Department of Transportation. The grant programs that have contributed mightily to the build-up of streetcar networks — TIGER, Small Starts, and Urban Circulators — currently give the Secretary of Transportation (Ray LaHood) decision-making powers over which projects to fund. Mr. Mica has implied that he thinks such decisions should be made by legislators; would a new Republican majority in the house choose to spend that money on streetcars?

Democrats have picked as their ranking member on the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee Representative Nick Rahall (D-WV), someone who, to put matters mildly, has not made much of an effort to demonstrate his support for alternative transportation. He doesn’t seem likely to be a big voice in favor of devoting more of Washington’s money to streetcars.

Meanwhile, there is no evidence that the Congress has any interest in making room for further discretionary grant programs at all, considering the complete lack of consensus on how to fund maintenance of the nation’s infrastructure, let alone expansions in the form of streetcars.

Nonetheless, the clear commitments given by some localities to their own streetcar programs indicate that there is a future for such transportation in the United States, even if Washington takes its hands off.

Dallas Light Rail

An Extensive New Addition to Dallas’ Light Rail Network Makes it America’s Longest

» New Green Line runs 28 miles from Carrollton to Southeast Dallas via downtown, but only every 15 minutes even during rush hours. To ensure its success, the DFW Metroplex must start taking the land use side of the transit equation more seriously.

Want proof that a massive light rail system doesn’t necessarily produce massive ridership? Look no further than Dallas, where 44 miles of DART light rail extending throughout the region and a rapidly growing population weren’t enough to prevent a decline in public transportation boardings between 2000 and 2010. The network carries about 60,000 riders a day — a pittance in the context of the city’s 1.3 million inhabitants. The most recent U.S. Census data show that the city’s transit mode share stands at less than 4%; the metropolitan region’s share is just 1.5%. Both are down from 2000.

Yet the city and the other member municipalities of DART have thus far been relatively steadfast in their commitment to the expansion of the local  rail system. Today, with the commencement of service on the full extent of the $1.8 billion Green Line, the region features the largest light rail system of any in the United States, with 72 miles of train operations. The 15 stations opening today extend the short segment that opened last fall northwest into Carrollton and southeast into South Dallas; they are expected to add roughly 30,000 daily rides to the system. The project was completed on time and on budget.

Still more is coming soon. Though a decline in sales tax revenue has limited opportunities for future construction, the 14-mile Orange Line is planned to open in phases over the next four years, eventually reaching Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport. A commuter rail shuttle connecting the northwestern extend of the Green Line into Denton County will open for passengers next summer. A streetcar and two Blue Line extensions are still on the books.

But that’s not good enough. Cities shouldn’t spend billions of dollars on a fixed-guideway transit system, only to be rewarded with minimal if any increases in ridership — especially in areas that are growing extremely quickly. What is Dallas doing wrong? Now that it has built itself a massive network, what can it change about its development patterns to ensure better use of its investments?

The clearest answer is that density matters a whole lot more than overall length of rail lines. As demonstrated by Strasbourg’s tramway network, which serves 300,000 daily users on 34.7 miles of track, in terms of attracting ridership it is more important to have a densely packed system in the inner city than it is to have an extensive series of suburban extensions. This, however, requires the existence of a dense urban core.

Dallas’ downtown is filled with jobs — 138,224, more than most cities’ — so it would seem in theory to be a popular place for transit users. But consider parking policies: The city’s downtown district actively encourages visitors to drive there and then park for just a dollar an hour. There’s no need to drive around looking for a space, because virtually every block is consumed at least partially by parking. When it’s this easy to get around by car, the fact is that transit options are unlikely to succeed.

Meanwhile, what Dallas really lacks is residential compactness: The downtown itself has grown from 1,654 residents in 2000 to 10,446 today (that’s pretty impressive!), but neighborhoods immediately adjacent to this area are primarily made up of single-family homes. Moreover, the alignment of the rail corridors, generally following existing highway or rail rights-of-way, often do not reach the densest areas or the biggest destinations. The well-populated (and popular) neighborhoods north of downtown, including Uptown and Oak Lawn, are mostly inaccessible to light rail. An underground station on the Red Line originally planned for Knox Street, which likely would have attracted plenty of riders, was not built because of local opposition. Even Love Field, the city’s second airport, is not directly on the route of the Green Line because a connection would have been too expensive to construct.

Because of the adherence to corridors that are intentionally designed to do as little as possible to challenge the movement of automobiles, trains run in industrial zones north of Love Field and along a forested edge zone along much of the southeast segments of the route. These were wasted opportunities: Those routes could have been designed to run in the boulevard medians in the center of neighborhoods, attracting more users, but instead they’re generally at the periphery of built-up zones.

Each and every decision about station location matters: The best-used light rail networks are those in which people have the ability to walk from their homes to the train and the truth is that that’s mostly impossible to do in Dallas’ system.

Despite all the above, this is not — and I am adamant in writing this — what an anti-transit crusader would argue is an example of Americans simply “not wanting” to living in urban conditions and thus not taking transit. The Dallas metropolitan areas has a total of 570,000 apartment units in multi-family buildings, and over the past four years, an average of about 8,000 of them were added every year, according to a recent real estate market report by the Texas A&M University. This housing is being built by private developers and it is being absorbed by the market. These are, inherently, dense developments.

And yet the Dallas Morning News reports that few major residential or commercial projects are being built in conjunction with the opening of the Green Line. Though several proposals are being considered, they certainly will not represent much of a major percentage of the total investments in new apartments in the area. There are obstacles to new construction in these neighborhoods.

Dallas and all of the cities being served by light rail must make a more serious effort to attract new growth into the transit zones around stations. If people are going to be living in apartments anyway, have them do so in mixed-use, walkable neighborhoods within easy distance of light rail stops. If this means using eminent domain to spur private redevelopment, then so be it: Something significant must be done to encourage increased use of the transit network.

In the meantime, Dallas has responded to the fact that it cannot afford to construct a second light rail route downtown by reducing frequencies on its existing routes to accommodate the arrival of the Green Line trains. Headways have declined from every 10 minutes at rush hour to every 15; at other times, trains will operate only every 20 minutes. This decision, made in good faith and reflecting a fundamental lack of resources, nevertheless will ultimately limit the number of people willing to switch to transit. Why do so when the trains run so infrequently? Yet the declining ridership that that thinking will likely produce will only encourage more service cutbacks in the future: It’s the transit death-spiral, and Dallas has to make sure it can avoid it.

Many of these problems are likely to be resolved over time — we cannot expect rail capacity to be absorbed immediately. As the example of the Washington, D.C. Metro shows, new dense and transit-oriented districts are likely to appear as people become used to the idea of living near the rail system. That, in turn, will result in increasing ridership. Yet the prototypical examples of Dallas rail development — at Mockingbird and Victory stations — are packed with parking and located just next to freeways. In other words, they are ideal environments for drivers. Those patterns must be altered if this region ever expects to profit fully from all that it has spent on its light rail network.

Dallas Finance Light Rail

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.

Dallas Light Rail

Once Assured, Dallas Light Rail Expansion to Airport Now Off Track

» A project that cheered suburban officials hoping for more economic development lacks adequate funding.

If the recession taught us anything, it’s that long-term fiscal projections aren’t to be trusted. After pulling together a massive 25-year expansion plan just four years ago based on assumptions of decades of increased tax revenues, Dallas’ DART has had to pull back dramatically, putting in purgatory all planned capital projects not yet under construction.

Now under threat: the long-planned light rail connection to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

It’s not that DART’s management has committed serious financial malpractice, it’s just that its guesses in 2006 about how the economy would expand haven’t played out as expected. Just as importantly, though Dallas is at the heart of one of the nation’s fastest-growing metropolitan regions, the population within the district DART serves is becoming less wealthy compared to the national average and especially compared to unserved (and untaxed) suburban areas nearby.

Yet the announcement by DART CFO David Leininger last week that the full Orange Line project — which was supposed to extend northwest from Dallas into the city of Irving and then to the airport — would not be completed on time still came as a bit of shocker. In April, the news of a decline in tax revenues seemed to imply a choice between the Orange Line and a new downtown light rail link — a contest that the cheaper and closer-to-construction airport link was supposed to win. But the situation has evidently gotten far worse in the last few months, pushing both projects down the drain.

Irving, which has contributed more than $800 million in funds to DART since it joined the agency’s service district in 1983, has planned billions of dollars of new residential and commercial construction around Orange Line stations, hoping to attract businesspeople wanting the ideal compromise between downtown Dallas and D/FW Airport. Its politicians are understandably upset about the loss of the future airport connection.

Two earlier phases of the Orange Line, with six stations and nine miles of track, are still roughly on schedule, currently under construction and expected to be finished in 2011 and 2012. But the 4.7-mile project from Belt Line Road to the airport, which DART says it needs $275 million to complete, was supposed to be done in 2013 and now has been put off indefinitely. With $7 billion accumulated in debt, the agency can’t do much more other than support existing operations now that it will have $3 billion fewer revenues than originally projected.  Unless the agency identifies a new source of local funds or collects a major federal grant, it has little chance of building the airport connection before 2030.

The airport link is particularly expensive because it would run directly into the airport, ending services between two terminals, where it would also meet a proposed commuter rail line from Fort Worth. DART reevaluated the connection last year — considering a solution that would connect the light rail and commuter lines north of the airport — but eventually decided to stick with the original plan.

The separate Green Line project, which extends northwest and southeast of downtown, plus the Blue Line extension from Garland to Rowlett, remain funded; both are under construction and the first is supported by a federal New Starts grant.

For the city of Irving, the arrival of the Orange Line was supposed to mean a denser, more urban future focused around areas such as the Las Colinas urban center (which has its own people mover system) and the former site of the Texas Stadium. The city paid for most of the costs required to re-route the line into designated areas of high-density development. But leaders there are convinced that the growth they’re looking for in the future won’t happen unless the airport is directly connected to the line. If the project doesn’t happen, there is some suggestion that Irving may even consider leaving DART — a move that would not only hurt the agency directly, but also limit the ability of the organization to maintain support in other suburban jurisdictions that may feel slighted by the predominance of Dallas in the region. Some estimates suggest that the airport station would attract as many weekday passengers as all the others on the Orange Line combined.

Much like in many regions with transit authorities that spread out across city lines, from inner-city to suburb, Dallas faces a situation in which it has only limited funds to sponsor projects that must serve areas across the region. Everyone expects to see high-quality transit service thanks to their contributions to the overall revenue base, but only so many projects can be funded. Irving may be upset about its own loss, but so is downtown Dallas — and no one’s running to its defense right now. The fact is that DART cannot afford to build the D/FW connection in the next few years, and that’s not a personal affront to Irving, it’s just the result of bad timing. And even the truncated Orange Line will provide significantly improved service into this suburban city, if only towards downtown Dallas.

That said, it could be argued that the airport connection is vital: The facility plays an important role in the economic viability of the region as a whole. From that perspective, a future federal grant could be an important step towards filling in the gap, but Washington’s current belt-tightening isn’t likely to make getting hundreds of millions of dollars a particularly easy process. (I don’t know why the Orange Line was never submitted for partial federal funding through the New Starts program.)

The failure to fund the Orange Line link to the airport is only the most recent example of the consequences of the financial problems facing similar transit agencies across the country. You can’t envy those forced to explain why they can’t build projects promised just months ago.

Image above: Dallas DART preferred D/FW Airport Connection options, with future Cotton Belt Commuter rail, from DART

Charlotte Dallas Detroit Finance

Regional Transportation Authorities are not Necessarily the Solution to the Urban-Suburban Divide

» Developing common goals is more productive than forcing a merger of regional transportation agencies. An authority for Detroit comes closer.

If there’s anything Detroit needs most, it may be regional cooperation, where it finds itself distinctively behind the times. While some major cities like New York or San Francisco are large and wealthy enough to be able to close themselves off politically from the surroundings, Michigan’s largest metropolis benefits from neither of those characteristics, so it must find ways to make agreements with nearby municipalities.

Frequently mentioned is the idea of a regional transportation district, which would coordinate funding and spending activities at the metropolitan scale. A proposal for one is currently being considered in the Michigan legislature. But it’s not clear that the creation of such an agency will resolve some of the structural issues complicating politics in this metropolis.

The biggest problem is the metropolitan area’s racial and class disconnect: While the city is largely poor and black, surrounding areas in Oakland, Macomb, and Wayne Counties (the city is a part of the latter), which are its nearest neighbors, are mostly middle class and white. These differences — perhaps the starkest inner city/suburban divide in the country — have resulted in opposing decision-making about issues of metropolitan concern, including land use, the environment, and of course transportation.

The existing public transportation system is particularly balkanized, with inner-city trips being provided by the city’s DOT and connections between downtown and the suburbs by an agency called SMART, originally formed in 1967. This has produced a number of operational and perceptual difficulties, certainly not aiding in matters. To make matters more confusing, the M-1 Rail streetcar line planned to run 3.4 miles from downtown to the New Center along Woodward Avenue is to be built by a private consortium.

Hoping to stave off the further decline of their region — Detroit is one of only six large metro areas (of 52 larger than one million) that actually lost population between 2000 and 2009 — local leaders have called for greater cooperation, notably in the form of a regional transportation district, which would have the power to collect revenues from multiple counties and then be able to spend those funds on upgraded roads and transit. Detroit politicians have noted with interest the success of cities like Los Angeles and Denver in promoting such agencies and the resulting growth in their respective transit systems.

The problem for Detroit is two-fold: one, such a regional transportation district is unlikely to pass through the Democratically-controlled Michigan House, let alone the Republican-held Senate, neither of which have been particularly enthusiastic about increasing local funding; two, neither the City of Detroit nor Oakland County is particularly enamored with the current proposal, the first because of its conviction that the tax should come before the agency, the second because of its criticism of labor protections included in the bill.

Editorial boards for several of the local newspapers have suggested that the region must move past local parochial concerns if it is to find a way to survive the upcoming decades, which are unlikely to be any less difficult for Michigan than has been the recent past. And indeed, everyone, from Detroit Mayor Dave Bing on down, seems to agree that regional cooperation is necessary, and that transit corridors in the city would eventually benefit the suburbs.

But the assumption that the creation of a five-member authority with control over the region’s transportation finances will solve problems ignores the vastly different needs and wants of the inhabitants of different parts of the region. It seems useless to move forward with such a transportation district without first establishing regional, coinciding goals. Otherwise, the transportation district — even outfitted with a large amount of money under its control — could collapse into an infighting monster, certainly not anyone’s ideal outcome.

At the moment, Detroit’s biggest stumbling block seems to be the choice between a variety of potential future transportation modes. While many of the suburban areas are campaigning for a 67-mile “golden triangle” bus rapid transit system, the city has focused its resources on an eight-mile long version of the Woodward streetcar line. Meanwhile, Ann Arbor, 40 miles to the west, continues to campaign for a commuter rail connection. None of these projects seems likely to be fully built out without the support of a new regional transit district and its new revenue source. But the expectation that all programs could be constructed using the funds — as a sort of grand compromise necessary to getting both suburban and urban leaders on board — also seems unrealistic (especially in a time when SMART is seeing serious fiscal difficulties). Someone will have to choose what to prioritize at some point.

The example of Charlotte, North Carolina is worth highlighting. Back in 1998, the city and the surrounding towns in Mecklenburg County joined together in a Metropolitan Transportation Commission designed to eventually allocate funds received from a new 1/2-cent sales tax. A series of rapid transit projects designed by the Commission were supposed to provide services to every town — it was a “let them all eat cake” situation. Like most areas, however, Charlotte has seen a vast decrease in collections over the past few months, and its expansion program has been massively cut, with even the full extension of the popular recently built light rail line likely to be delayed for years.

Now, the city and its suburban partners are stuck in a rut. The city’s priority is an inner-city streetcar, whereas towns to the north want a commuter rail line. Because of the make-up of the regional Commission, those latter interests will inherently win out — because they represent a majority of the votes on the board, and because if they don’t support the transit system’s advancement, they could simply pull out altogether, leaving the center city in an impossible situation with inadequate funds to get anything done. A similar situation is plaguing recession-hit Dallas as well, which has had to compromise a downtown light rail route in favor of one heading towards the suburban city of Irving.

The existence of the regional transit district in itself, in other words, cannot ensure regional agreement about how to proceed with investments when there is a limited budget. Though Charlotte and Dallas have indeed been able to construct major new transit projects over the past decade, their advancement was largely due to a growing economy that made projects throughout the region possible. Adjusting to new fiscal realities won’t be easy for any of these cities; their transit authorities are not guaranteed to stay intact once certain areas of the region are denied funding for their desperately wanted new projects.

Thus, instead of rushing into an inter-municipal compact, Detroit might want to focus on first developing solutions that appeal to everyone involved. Everyone should agree on the same priority list — with funds to be spent in a clear order, if and when money is available. Establishing such a compromise may be an intractable quest, but so may be creating a functional regional commission during tough economic times.

Image above: Downtown Detroit Rosa Parks Transit Center, from Flickr user Buddahbless