Counting DART's Light Rail in Heavy Traffic Leads to One Inescapable Conclusion: Downtown Gridlock

What am I doing here with a notebook, waiting for DART trains and being abused by people? I've been out here trainspotting for the last few days, and it's not much fun.

They made a movie about trainspotting, I know, but I think all the people in that movie were heroin addicts. Maybe that's the secret.

For my part, I am lurking around DART stations, systematically writing down the times when DART light rail trains come in. Or not.

No need to hurry completion of the Routh Connector because, as you can see from this picture, cars are never going to be able to get through the trains anyway.
Jim Schutze
No need to hurry completion of the Routh Connector because, as you can see from this picture, cars are never going to be able to get through the trains anyway.

A couple of times guys in suits coming off the trains see me standing here, and they start shaking their heads no as they pass. They think I'm some kind of panhandler or phone-card salesman or something!

Look, the timing of the DART trains through downtown is where suburban push comes to urban shove in this city. Dallas has always been dominated by its 'burbs. In the late 1970s, Dallas was still electing major suburban real estate developers as its mayors.

Mayor Robert Folsom ('77-'81) and Mayor Starke Taylor ('83-'87), in fact, were the two biggest independent suburban tract-home developers in the entire region. They devoted their tenures, not surprisingly, to ramming thoroughfares through inner-city neighborhoods in order to get more people out to the boonies faster, the best examples being the cross-town expressway and an infamous failed plot to double-deck Central Expressway.

For decades even when Dallas invested in downtown, the developments it favored tended to be monolithic, fascist-scale shopping mall projects like "Victory" at the American Airlines Center arena, instead of small-scale, diverse urban shop fronts, of which we still have precious few downtown.

But that's changing. Look around the borders of downtown—from Uptown to Henderson Avenue, the Design District to The Cedars—and you'll see dense thickets of development crowding in from the periphery, thriving on a lifestyle that is decidedly urban. It's so un-suburban, it's actually anti-suburban.

So, the trainspotting. On September 14, when DART opened service on a segment of its new Green Line from Carrollton to Pleasant Grove, all the trains in the entire region slowed to a near standstill, choked by a rail traffic jam in downtown. DART said it was just first-day jitters. Now, they say, everything is back to normal.

I say we won't see normal again for about seven years.

I wrote about this last July 23 ("Tracks of My Tears"), and also in April 2008, both times citing DART's own studies predicting havoc if all its new suburban rail lines wind up going through downtown before DART builds a second downtown rail alignment.

In fact, people knew about this when DART first began laying out its rail lines. It was pretty simple. If all of the regional rail lines have to connect through downtown Dallas by passing east and west on the one existing rail corridor on Pacific Avenue, then at some point there will be too many trains trying to get through the bottleneck.

DART promised to take care of the problem by signing a pact with the city almost 20 years ago agreeing to get a second reliever route built through downtown before hooking up its two new train routes—the Green Line and the Orange Line (from DFW Airport to downtown).

But that promise has continued to slip as the more aggressive (and smarter) suburban members of the DART board have pushed for money for line extensions into their own backyards.

Uh...the trainspotting. Getting to it.

I am out here two days before the lightbulb comes on. At first I think DART is doing the impossible—shoehorning all its regular traffic on the existing Red and Blue Lines through downtown, sticking fairly close to schedules, also managing to get the new Green Line trains up and down Pacific without too much disruption.

But I have been timing the wrong thing. I am looking at how often each train shows up—the gaps between trains. Does a train show up every five minutes if a train is scheduled to show up every five minutes?

Kinda sorta. But that's the wrong thing to look at. I should have been looking at when they show up precisely. How close to their schedules are they?

Not at all. They're all over the map. A train that's supposed to be here at 7:26 shows up at 7:30. Train scheduled for 7:34 shows up at 7:32.

So what possible difference does that make? You can wait an extra minute or two.

But the difference is downtown. What I am really looking at is one giant traffic implosion getting ready to happen downtown in December 2011. That's when the final branch of the system, the Orange Line from DFW, comes on line. Here's the deal.

The trains go up and down Pacific Avenue. Cars go back and forth across Pacific Avenue. If cars can't cross Pacific, vehicular traffic can't cross downtown, especially since our city council in its stupefying un-wisdom has agreed to a pernicious scheme called "signal prioritization."

DART trains drive on the streets downtown. They have to stop for red lights just like cars. Or they did. Now with signal prioritization the driver of a DART train can push a button and turn the light ahead of him green.

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