DART rolls in new era with Green Line opening
07:04 AM CDT on Monday, September 14, 2009
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News
When the trains begin running today on the opening segment of DART's new Green Line, the transit agency will unveil the longest expansion of light rail in North America.
It triggers four years of growth that by 2013 will double daily rail riders and double the length of a DART rail network that has been 26 years in the making. And it finally will begin to deliver on an old promise to make Dallas Area Rapid Transit mean more than just a way for some downtown Dallas commuters to get to work and back.
The new stations that will open just ahead of the State Fair of Texas will attract fewer than 2,000 round-trip riders per day in the first couple of years – and they certainly won't end Dallas' dependence on the automobile.
But over the next 15 months, the four stations east of downtown will be followed by 16 more along the 28-mile Green Line, stringing communities together from as far north as Carrollton to as far south as Pleasant Grove.
And that's only a beginning: The $1.8 billion Green Line may be the longest light rail project on the continent, but it's just the vanguard for what will be four solid years of expansion.
By 2013, DART will have spent $3.3 billion in construction, adding service to Irving, Las Colinas and D/FW International Airport on the Orange Line. Downtown Rowlett and Lake Highlands will welcome new stations as well on the expanded Blue Line.
The flurry of activity has employed thousands of workers. Within four years it will result in a transit system that runs 48 trains through downtown Dallas every hour – already prompting more frequent red lights. That's 62 rail stations and about 90 miles of track.
"This is the largest light-rail construction project in America," DART president Gary Thomas said. "Nobody is doing what we are doing right now. That's exciting. It really is."
Paying the price
It also is expensive.
Residents of Dallas and 12 nearby cities – many of which are still waiting for rail service – have paid about $5 billion in local sales taxes toward DART since 1983, when voters agreed to raise local rates by a penny.
The opening of the Green Line has thrilled DART supporters and given new hope to neighborhoods where the trains are seen as the best bet for an economic lift.
Downtown Dallas resident Branden Helms said the rail line has changed his life. Three years ago, he moved downtown and quickly found that he and his wife no longer needed two cars.
"More and more, I was using the car less and less," said Helms, 29. "One day I went down to the car and there was a layer of dust on there."
But stories like Helms' remain lonely exceptions.
After 26 years of collecting taxes, and more than 12 years of running trains, DART's rail lines have had only limited impact on the daily commutes of most of the 2.4 million people who live within the agency's 13-city service area. The biggest impact has been felt along the Red Line, which DART says moves enough rail passengers during rush hours to fill more than a full lane of traffic on Central Expressway.
But for most DART city residents, the light rail has done little to change the way they get to work. The U.S. Census Bureau estimated in 2007 that in Dallas, only 24,045 of the 552,220 workers over age 16 – about 4.5 percent – used public transportation to get to work. By far, most of those used the bus, and some 409,256 others drove themselves to work alone in a vehicle. About 81,000 carpooled.
That's not a fair measure of DART's impact, transit officials say, insisting that its trains provide 60,000 one-way trips every day. DART officials hope daily ridership will double to about 130,000 trips by 2013.
But no matter how you measure DART's popularity, Mayor Tom Leppert said it is simply going to take more time, and more dollars, before DART realizes its full promise.
"This is clearly an important step," Leppert said of the Green Line. "But I stop short of saying that this is a magical point where all the sudden it is all there. It is part of the journey."
The journey toward a Dallas where residents could more easily manage without a car wasn't supposed to be quite so long.
A few bumps
When voters created DART in 1983, they thought they were getting 147 miles of rail. And as late as 1988, the agency was promising 93 miles of rail – and 57 stations along nine separate lines – by 2010.
But it was voters who slammed on the brakes that year. In Dallas and the 15 suburbs that were then part of DART, voters said no to a $1 billion bond package.
Experts said that DART's ambitions were simply too large.
"In postwar experience, only one system has been planned and built on the scale of Dallas, and that was Washington, D.C.," Kenneth Orski, a Washington-based consultant and former federal mass transit official, told The Dallas Morning News at the time. "All other rail systems – San Francisco, Atlanta, Baltimore, Buffalo, Sacramento, San Jose – all have been far more modest in scale. Dallas should try to come back with a more modest, scoped-down proposal."
DART took his advice, settling on a 20-mile starter line that would open in 1997.
Since then, DART has continued to add light rail, but slowly, totaling only about 45 miles on the eve of today's opening.
Still, Leppert said that progress shouldn't be taken for granted.
"You have to be realistic. In Dallas, we have an area that was already built out significantly by the time transit was developed," he said.
"You wish you could just wave a magic wand and build it and see the results overnight. But that doesn't happen."
Even with only two light-rail lines operating, some big changes have been made to some of Dallas' busiest neighborhoods.
When companies such as Comerica and AT&T moved downtown – along with thousands of residents in the past decade – they often cited proximity to rail as one factor.
It's a mistake, transportation experts say, to think that light rail – no matter how many billions are spent on it – can by itself change the fundamental character of a region as large as Dallas and its suburbs.
"Rail is one of the tools metro areas are using," said Robert Puentes, a transportation scholar at the Brookings Institution in Washington. "But transit investment by itself is not enough."
Instead, regions like North Texas must link transportation policies with housing, land-use and environmental initiatives, Puentes said.
Special tax districts
With those ideas in mind, Dallas last year created special taxing districts around existing and planned rail stations, all to attract high-density development that will boost property values and add jobs.
Other cities, too, are racing to make the most of light-rail stations, and developments similar to Mockingbird Station are under way in Richardson.
Carrollton has major plans to attract development near its new Green Line stations when they open in 2010. And by the time the Orange Line passes through Irving on its way to the airport by 2013, the city hopes to attract billions of dollars in development through a special taxing district larger than the central business district in downtown Dallas.
But those efforts won't change Dallas, or its suburbs, overnight. The Red Line has been open for 12 years, and few stops other than Mockingbird Station have attracted the kind of mixed-used development that planners say North Texas needs.
As the Green Line opens, Leppert said he's optimistic. But he concedes that even if the economy recovers, the new developments could take a decade to affect Dallas.
"You'll see signs of that within five years, and real progress within 10," he said.
Still, Puentes said Dallas has good company in pouring big dollars into transit in hopes of triggering changes that go beyond transportation. Portland, Denver and Salt Lake City are all betting big on transit, he said.
"It's never too late to start," he said.
Thomas, who has led DART since 2001, couldn't agree more. The Green Line, and all it represents, might have taken 26 years to get here, he said, but Dallas-area residents can be proud of what their sales tax dollars have bought.
And today, they'll get a taste of what they've been waiting for all these years.
"I am always asking people I run into, 'Do you use DART?' And sometimes they tell me, 'Gary, it just doesn't go where I need it to go.' I tell them that the system isn't complete yet. But the Green Line opening, well it really does start to give some meaning to the word 'system.' "
"I do not feel obliged to believe that the same God who has endowed us with sense, reason, and intellect has intended us to forgo their use." -- Galileo