Dallas Light Rail

Its Big System Plans Now Stretched Too Thin, Dallas Considers Ways to Cut Back

» 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.

Dallas Light Rail Streetcar

New Rail Corridor for Dallas Would Double Downtown Transit Capacity

Downtown Dallas Transit Plans Map

» Streetcar project is also under consideration.

If the September opening of the first phase of Dallas’ Green Line was good news for what is becoming an increasingly impressive city from the standpoint of livability, Texas’ second-largest metropolis still has a while to go before it will be urban. The local transit authority, DART, has been proactive in planning for the city’s inner-city future, with new light rail and streetcar lines proposed downtown. Whether those projects will provide the kind of density of transit provision necessary to significantly alter attitudes about public transportation in D-Town, however, remains to be seen.

Dallas was one of the first cities to offer modern light rail in the country, but its system is expanding quickly in response to the region’s quick growth. The Green Line’s second phase, which will extend almost 30 miles from Carrollton to Buckner by 2010, is the longest such project in the nation. The planned Orange Line will connect downtown directly to Dallas-Fort Worth airport. And an extension of the Blue Line is currently being built.

All of this growth in the city’s rail transit system will require the creation of a new downtown trunk line, since the current system relies on a single corridor running through the central business district; otherwise, it would be overloaded by trains running at 30 second frequencies at rush hour. DART has allocated $500 million to the creation of such a corridor by 2016, called D2, in time to match the expected increases in ridership resulting from the opening of the Green and Orange Lines. In addition, the city is planning to invest in a downtown streetcar project that would supplement the existing M-Line trolley.

D2 would run from the environs of Victory Station northwest of downtown to Deep Ellum east of it, paving a new path through a less-developed part of the core than that currently served along Pacific Avenue and Bryan Street by the existing light rail. This summer, the Dallas City Council debated the issue, eventually stating a preference for an alignment along Lamar and Young Streets, with the primary goal of serving a new convention center hotel. Council members claimed during deliberations that the corridor was necessary because convention center users had to be able to get directly from the airport to the hotel.

This decision, however, comes despite the fact that the existing light rail service already has a convention center stop that could be improved relatively easily to allow for direct connections to the hotel. In addition, the hotel route would cost around $839 million to build because of the fact that it would have to be partially underground, compared to $500 million for a surface level route slightly further away from the hotel but which would attract more walk-up riders according to DART projections. In this case, the cheaper route seems like a better choice, and it may be one the city is forced to make, because Dallas doesn’t have any reserved fund to make up the remaining costs necessary to pay for the hotel route.

As in Oakland, where an airport shuttle train is being built instead of a bus rapid transit line that would serve far more people, Dallas’ politicians seem more interested in serving the city’s elite — people using the airport and convention center — than in building a rail project that would attract the largest number of riders. This emphasis on “choice” riders is the result of putting people who rarely use public transit in charge of deciding how future lines are routed, a problem common to almost every city.

No matter the route chosen, downtown Dallas is likely to become a construction mess over the next few years if the D2 project is built along with a planned streetcar. The city currently has a trolley service along McKinney Avenue north of downtown, and that M-Line is planned to be extended into downtown along Pearl Street, via the Woodall Rogers Park, which is being built on a deck over a freeway. The trolley would connect to the Dallas Arts Center just completed in northeast downtown.

DART has proposed a modern streetcar for other corridors downtown, not necessarily as extensions of the M-Line, as shown in the dotted green lines on the map above. The primary east-west route being suggested would triple the east-west travel corridors through downtown, making its construction seem superfluous; as a result, a north-south extension of the trolley to an area south of downtown seems like a good bet for a first investment.

A group from Oak Cliff, a neighborhood located on the opposite side of the Trinity River from downtown, has proposed the Trinity Lakes Streetcar Loop, which would operate along 4.75 miles of one-way trackage mostly along Beckley Avenue. The project would require the construction or improvement of bridges across the river, but it has the strong support of the Oak Cliff community, which sees it as an opportunity to improve connections into downtown and revive a declining retail district.

Though the one-way nature of the streetcar loop would doom it to low ridership, a two-way version might be useful enough to justify its construction here, as it would expand downtown’s reach across the river and make possible future connections into West Dallas. The city should be sure to coordinate construction between the D2 light rail line and the streetcar, though, because it makes little sense to have two rail services providing the same access to adjacent areas. If you’re paying for both, the investment should be maximized so that they provide complementary transportation, rather than competitive offerings.

Unlike many of the dozens of American cities planning streetcars, Dallas actually appears likely to complete its project. The city has developed a business plan that would rely on the creation of a local government corporation called Dallas Streetcar, Inc. That company would be given initial “advances” to build the project that would be repaid in new tax revenue from development spurred by the project. It’s creative accounting; an easier way to put it would be to say that the government believes that its investment in infrastructure will pay off through more development downtown. A fine assumption.

Dallas Light Rail

First Phase of New Green Line Expands Service to South Dallas

Dallas Green Line Map» Full $1.8 billion project will extend further southeast as well as northwest to North Carrollton.

It’s the weekend of Green Lines. Yesterday, as Portland was celebrating its light rail extension along I-205 to Clackamas County, Dallas previewed the first 2.7-mile segment of its new transit corridor, which will provide rail links to the southeast side of the city for the first time in decades. Revenue service begins tomorrow. The full line, running 28 miles from Carrollton to Buckner, will open for customers in December 2010.

Dallas has one of the most ambitious rail programs under development today, with a new Orange Line planned to reach the airport in 2013, a circumferential Cotton Belt Line running around the north side of the city, a west Dallas corridor, and further extensions of the Red, Blue, and Green lines. But the first phase of the Green Line may be one of the most important, as it connects some of the city’s most important assets directly to the central business district, including Baylor University Hospital and the state fairgrounds.

The Green Line provides the spine for the Orange Line, which will share the former’s route until Bachman station, where it will split off to the west. The two new lines will add a total of 45 miles to the DART light rail network and an estimated 60,000 daily riders, to 120,000 systemwide.

Unlike Portland’s corridor, the Dallas Green Line runs in its own right-of-way adjacent to minor city streets, rather than a huge highway. This slows speeds a bit, since trains will have to go through intersections, though traffic lights will be automated to stop cars before trains pass through. On the other hand, the project’s routing will maximize surrounding development opportunities and make walks to and from the station convenient and comfortable, ultimately increasing ridership. Stations are generally well linked to nearby buildings and parks; each is unique in design and some even include fantastic sculptures. It says something really good about Dallas when it is building its rail lines more effectively than is Portland. Even so, stations further down the Dallas line still under construction are less interesting, more oriented around parking lots than neighborhood connections.

The project is especially consequential for the revival of the Deep Ellum neighborhood, which was the city’s underground arts center for much of the 1990s, but which lost some of its appeal as crime increased and arts-oriented businesses were replaced by clubs. The community has recently seen increasing investment in the form of high-density residential buildings along the line, and several old warehouses are being renovated for new use. The rail line could spur new vitality.

Further down the line, the inhabitants of the poor, mostly black areas around and south of Exposition Park are excited to see increased mobility coming their way. Too much excitement over the line, however, could be problematic, causing gentrification and increasing housing prices — and leading to the less weathy having to move out. Even so, with the entire Dallas region to benefit from new lines over the next few decades, this fear seems unlikely to come to fruition, so the Green Line is probably all-in-all a good thing.

The project’s opening will put added stress on Dallas’ downtown light rail route, which is already used by the Red and Blue Lines and runs on Pacific Avenue and Bryan Street. With the addition of the Orange Line and the eventual creation of a West Dallas corridor, the city will need a new route downtown to handle the number of trains. No problem: planners recognize this issue and have already allocated hundreds of millions of dollars for a second downtown corridor, complete by as early as 2014.

Note: See Human Transit for a discussion of the right place to route rail lines; See Rebuilding Place in the Urban Space for a discussion of designing for beauty in transit systems.

Image Above: Green Line Map, from DART


Dallas Evaluates Proposed Transit Connections to DFW Airport

New proposal would connect two commuter lines, a light rail line, and the airport people mover… outside of the airport

The Dallas Morning News reports that the North Texas Regional Transportation Council, which organizes transportation planning in the Dallas-Fort Worth region, is considering plans to realign the region’s proposed transit connections to the airport.

Currently, the area’s airport is the seventh largest in the world but lacks any kind of fixed guideway transit to get from the airport to the downtowns of Dallas or Fort Worth. The Trinity Railway Express, which connects the two cities via commuter rail, offers a bus service from a station several miles away, but that service is not particularly convenient. Meanwhile, the airport has a 5-mile long people mover called Skylink that since 2005 has connected the airport’s five terminals, but that service is within the security cordon and does not extend out from the airport.

Planners from both sides of the region have been formulating ways to connect their cities to the air hub, and there are several plans on the books. The 14-mile DART Orange Line light rail system will connect downtown Dallas and Irving with the airport in 2013; current plans have the system terminating between the airport’s terminals A and B. Meanwhile, Tarrant County is planning the Southwest-to-Northeast Rail Corridor, which will run from southwest Fort Worth to the airport along a former freight route; that system would connect with the Orange Line at the same stub terminal in the airport zone. Finally, a longer term project would use the “Cotton Belt” transit line between DFW and Plano, via Carrollton and Addision, to provide commuter trains to the airport by 2027.

There are several problems with those initial plans: they force commuters attempting to transfer from one commuter line to another to do so at the airport, which would cause confusion and added congestion there; they prevent through-running trains from Plano to Fort Worth; finally, they prevent the future expansion of the Orange light rail line because of the stub-end situation. Now under discussion, thus, is a proposal to connect the three lines and Skylink at a hub north of the airport that would allow through-running and an extension of the Orange Line. This would require an extension of Skylink, a realignment of the Orange Line, and an elimination of airport access by the Southwest-to-Northeast Corridor and the Cotten Belt Line. Below are schematic maps showing the proposed changes.

Dallas DFW Transit Access Dallas DFW Transit Access

In many ways, the changes are rational – like the Phoenix Sky Harbor’s proposed airport train, placing the airport transit hub off campus allows people commuting by transit but not attempting to access the airport fewer inconveniences, whereas airport commuters are simply suggested to transfer to an easily accessible people mover that goes to the terminals. It should be pointed out as well that many people arriving at the airport under the original transit plan would be required to switch to the terminal link buses anyway if they need to get to terminals C, D, or E, so the amount of time required to get to the gate for 3/5 of airport users will hardly increase. Meanwhile, the future expansion of the Orange Line and the interconnectivity of the two commuter rail lines are worthwhile considerations and make the new plan an improvement over the old.

That said, there will likely be roadblocks to this change in plans. For one, the city of Irving, just southeast of the airport, has been attracting developers to areas near future Orange Line stations by arguing that the light rail will serve the airport directly. Will developers still come if the Orange Line doesn’t actually connect to the airport. Yet, a direct connection to the airport’s people mover is pretty much equivalent to a direct connection to the airport, so I’m not convinced the change matters significantly for Irving.

Second, because the Skylink system is inside security, the connection from the new transit hub north of the airport to the terminals must be a separate system. Having check-in and bag carousels at the transit hub (and therefore allowing the new people mover line to be within security and connect to the existing system) is not feasible because it would require airlines to send bags to two separate baggage claims in completely different areas – not really a realizable idea. As a result, transit users would have to get out of the new Skylink connection between terminals A and B and then take a bus to terminals C, D, or E to check in; this would provide considerable inconvenience for people arriving to or departing from the airport on transit. Or, the new Skylink connection would have to extend to two more stations further into the airport to provide direct access to all of the terminals. Increasing the length of the Skylink line would also increase costs significantly.

Consequently, it seems hard to imagine changing the plans for DFW airport access unless the airport is willing to invest in a full-scale new Skylink line with stations between terminals A & B, between terminals C & D, and at terminal E. Otherwise, realigning the routes – which would provide significant improvements for non-airport transit users, would cause too much stress for air travelers on transit. Such a difficult connection would reduce ridership and make the transit-airport connection a bad idea.

Dallas Seattle

Dallas Expansion; Seattle Viaduct

Over the past twenty-five years, Dallas has been aggressively expanding its inner city light rail system, DART. This makes the city one of the top contenders in the transit space race. The construction of a second downtown rail right-of-way would solidify the city’s position.

But the city has also been considering its relationship with the surrounding counties, and it, in conjunction with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, has been planning the development of a commuter rail system extending wide out into the suburbs and greatly improving the service currently provided by the Trinity Railroad Express, which travels from Dallas to nearby Fort Worth. The proposal up for consideration currently would expand the system to 215-miles, making it one of the largest commuter rail networks in the country.

Yesterday’s vote on the Regional Transportation Council, which wasn’t unanimous, endorsed the plan. This means that counties in the Dallas area will now beginning the search for adequate tax revenues to support the proposal – no current financing exists to pay for the network. It is unclear how the system would proceed if some counties approve financing and others don’t, but this is the first step in the right direction for providing alternative mobility to the area’s population.

In Seattle, plans for the replacement of the earthquake-damaged Alaskan Way Viaduct have reached another milestone: the choice of two final options to consider. The highway, which serves 100,000 drivers a day, sits on the waterfront in the city and makes it difficult to enjoy the walk between downtown and the water, thereby limiting economic and tourist development in the area. This poses a problem for the city, which has seen the positive effects of waterfront development in cities such as Portland, Baltimore, and Boston.

But the question being considered by State Legislators and the City Council was how to replace the highway. Some wondered whether building another viaduct in its place would be the right option, or whether an underground freeway would make more sense. Others, who looked to Portland, saw the possibility of simply getting rid of the highway altogether and building a park in its place. Here’s the project webpage.

Yesterday’s action, though, implies that there are only two options under full consideration: a new set of viaducts or a “surface and transit” option that would simply build three lanes of roadway along the waterfront and dramatically slow down traffic (this would not be a highway). The surface and transit option would also provide for increases in bus service and potentially the implementation of a new waterfront streetcar.

The viaduct option makes little sense. After all, it will again desecrate the waterfront and make economic development unlikely. Some argue that a highway solution is necessary – that other roads in the city would fill up beyond capacity if a new highway weren’t built. But building the new viaducts would require first the destruction of the old ones, and in the intervening time, there would be no highway… if the city is able to survive in that intermediary without a highway along the waterfront, it would be able to do so in the years to come as well. So the surface and transit option – whose three lanes along the water wouldn’t be the most wonderful thing in the world – still makes the most sense.