Dallas-Fort Worth, TX-OK
population 7,095,411 (2012)
In 1996 and 1997, Dallas Area Rapid Transit opened a 20-mile light rail “starter system.” The modest name concealed great ambitions.
In 1988, 58 percent of voters had rejected DART’s plan to issue bonds for a 93-mile light-rail system. Despite that huge margin, the plan never went away. The “starter” line, built without bonds, was designed to be the core of that system, and it was built accordingly. On both ends of the downtown section are massive structures: a 3.5-mile tunnel under the North Central Expressway on the north and a 0.9-mile bridge over the Trinity River on the south. These were expensive projects, but they provide critical links, connecting downtown to ready-made rail corridors in the form of abandoned railroad lines, of which DART owns 125 miles. Two such corridors provided the path for extensions north to Plano and Garland, which opened last year.
These extensions have resulted in an oddly lopsided system. But the shape is telling: DART is two systems, one north and one south, with different purposes and characters.
The south end serves mostly lower-income, more transit-dependent neighborhoods. Trains run past back yards and down the center of a commercial street. The stations are designed for pedestrians and as bus hubs; park-and-ride lots are small. Besides the Trinity bridge, there are few major structures. The trains generally cross streets at grade. It’s a typical light-rail system: efficient and not overly elaborate.
There’s nothing modest about the north end. After a fast passage through the tunnel, trains emerge near SMU at Mockingbird Station, which is built in a huge trench with escalators up to street level. The two northern lines split even before leaving the trench. Neither stays on the ground for long: the lines cross major streets with overpasses. As a result, several stations are elevated. The goal here is to get suburbanites out of their cars and onto trains. Fast service — the trains speeding above cars stopped at red lights, past suburban shopping strips and the mid-rise office buildings of the Telecom Corridor — encourages them. So do vast parking lots at stations.
DART’s light rail system is different things to different people: a more comfortable alternative to the bus for some, a less stressful ride than the freeway for others. Socioeconomic segregation has allowed DART to serve two very different populations in very different ways: Commuters get parking lots and fast trips; the transit-dependent get neighborhood stations. The bifurcated plan works: the first segment of the system to be opened system started with 18,000 daily riders as opposed to the projected 15,000; the entire starter system carried 7% more riders than projected.
DART also pulled off another balancing act: It pleased the voters. The 1988 rail referendum was no fluke, and DART’s unpopularity lasted through the early 1990s. Member cities regularly contemplated leaving the authority; Flower Mound and Coppell did. Now, light rail remains a hot political issue, but in a very different way: The question is not whether but where and when. (The current debate is whether to spend more to serve the Love Field terminal directly with an underground station. Dallas likes the idea, but suburban mayors don’t want the project to take priority over extensions to their cities.) In 2000, when DART asked voters to approve $2.9 million in bonds to speed up expansion, 77 percent voted in favor.
Dallas is now touted as a light-rail success story. The obvious conclusion is that once voters see trains running, they think differently about rail. But Dallas’s approach was not really incremental. It was ambitious from the start. The difference between the rail system that the voters rejected and the one they now support is not substance but perception. What Dallas is now building is essentially the same as what it would have built had DART gotten its way the first time.