DART Has Spent $5 Billion on Light Rail. Is It Worth It?

How much is DART rail worth?
How much is DART rail worth?
RadicalBender via English Wikipedia

Twenty years ago on Tuesday, Dallas Area Rapid Transit officially got into the light-rail business, opening an 11-mile “starter system” that carried passengers between downtown’s Pearl Station on the north and Oak Cliff in the south (Westmoreland Station on the Red Line, Illinois Station on the Blue Line). Since then, the system has grown to truly prodigious proportions, adding lines and snaking deep into the suburbs.

With 90 miles of track, DART boasts the longest light-rail system in the country, as the transit agency will happily point out. New York’s MTA operates 660 miles of track, the Chicago Transit Authority has 224 miles and Washington D.C.’s Metro has 117 miles, but those are all “heavy rail” in transit parlance and so don’t count when tallying up superlatives.

DART is also happy to cite impressive-sounding statistics that highlight the light-rail system’s transformative effect. According to DART, it has carried 360 million passenger trips, had $8 billion in economic impact and generated $5 billion in transit-oriented development around its 62 stations. More than that, “changing the way the region grows and how North Texans live,” according to DART CEO Gary Thomas.

What DART is less eager to boast about is how much the system cost. You won’t find the information on DART’s website, at least not in a place that a normal human being can find it, which leaves the inexact but good-enough method of tallying up figures from old news reports.

The first 20 miles cost $860 million. Extending the Red Line to Plano and Blue Line to Garland a few years later came to $1 billion. The green line, connecting Carrollton and Farmers Branch with Pleasant Grove, debuted in 2010 with a total price tag of $1.8 billion. The Orange Line opened in 2012 and pushed to the airport in 2014 and seems to have cost somewhere around $1.8 billion.

The grand total, then, is in the ballpark of $5.5 billion — not adjusting for inflation — or the price of 11 new Rangers ballparks. (Update on June 13: According to DART spokesman Mark Ball, who points us to DART's handy, 88-page Reference Book, the figure is $5.1 billion.)

That figure doesn’t mean much on its own. Assessing transit systems purely based on dollars is misguided and misses the whole point of transit systems. They are a public good that enables the non-trivial (even in Dallas) segment of the population who can’t or don’t want to drive to navigate an urban area. Light rail specifically is an investment in the future, a piece of infrastructure around which a city can partially be reshaped and a modest corrective to the untold billions in public dollars spent to accommodate cars.

Still, it’s worth evaluating how effectively DART and the cities that run it have leveraged the investment, both in terms of how well and how efficiently the light-rail system serves the needs of travelers and whether it’s really created the type of development the agency claims.

Usability
DART is a hub-and-spoke system. Trains radiate outward from downtown Dallas, and bus lines radiate outward from the train stations.

This setup is pretty damn good for 9-5 commuters who live within walking distance of a rail station or can easily drive to the park-and-ride lots up in Plano, Richardson or the other suburbs. It’s OK for 9-5 commuters who live near a bus line. It sucks for anyone who doesn’t or is trying to get places during off-peak hours, when buses and trains run less frequently, or who commute to somewhere other than downtown.

DART would probably be more useful for more purposes if its service was organized as a grid, with frequent coverage over a less expansive area, but the sprawling hub-and-spoke system was its destiny. DART is funded and governed by a coalition of Dallas and a dozen suburbs, each of which coveted light rail. DART would have faced revolt had it not plastered the map with light-rail, as is currently happening in rail-less Addison.

Accepting that the existing light-rail alignment, or something close to it, was inevitable, the question then becomes how well DART uses the infrastructure it has. The answer is, pretty well.

A 2014 paper out of Florida State University compared DART’s light-rail system with seven peer transit systems: Denver, Phoenix, Portland, Sacramento, Salt Lake City, San Diego and St. Louis. All eight cities came of age in the automobile era (Portland is the outlier thanks to aggressive anti-sprawl policies) and have light rail as the backbones of their transit systems. The data is from 2011, so it doesn’t capture some later additions, but the character of the system is the same then as now.

When the authors look at operational measures, which seek to capture some of the actual experience of using the system, DART does fairly well. It ranks in the middle of the pack for hours and frequency of service. Its fares, however, are relatively low, the two-hour transfer window is relatively generous, and the trains go pretty fast.

Of course, the main reason the trains go fast is that DART stations are 1.3 miles apart on average, 30 percent more than its closest peer agencies and 30 percent more than the one-mile spacing generally considered to strike an optimal balance between speed and accessibility, a symptom of the system’s sprawl.

Cost Effectiveness
Of the transit systems reviewed by the Florida State researchers, DART gets the least bang for its buck by a considerable margin. In 2011, it spent $140 million operating light rail, or 77 cents per passenger mile. Sacramento, the second least cost-effective of the group, spent 60 cents per passenger mile. DART has become more efficient since; it’s operating cost had dropped to 68 cents per passenger mile in 2014 despite the advent of the Orange Line and a short Blue Line extension, presumably because of efficiencies gained by having the Orange Line and Red Line double up north of downtown.

Upcoming Events

The number will improve if DART can start packing more people onto its trains, but …

Ridership
To get some perspective on the 360 million-passenger number DART threw out to tout its success, consider that DART spent two decades to tally the number of passengers that New York City’s MTA sees in six months.

DART ridership has never quite lived up to early expectations. More telling is the fact that, when one controls for the additional stops and routes, ridership hasn’t appreciably grown. In 2004, when the Red and Blue Lines were near maturity, DART counted slightly more than three unlinked passenger trips per vehicle revenue mile, which is a jargony measure for determining how heavily trains are used. (It's the number of times passengers board a train per how many miles the trains travel while in service.) In 2014, the number was 3.2.

That matches with less formal analyses The Dallas Morning News did from time to time when Rodger Jones was on the editorial board. Total ridership would spike with the debut of a new line, but station-by-station ridership remained basically flat.

More telling, light-rail hasn’t moved the needle on commuting behavior. Packed rush-hour trains notwithstanding, there’s no evidence to show that more people are using transit now than 20 years ago. In fact, census data show the opposite. In 1990, about 40,000 working adults in Dallas County relied on public transit — all buses — to commute to work. By 2000, with 20 miles of track in operation, the number had dipped to 36,925. The most recent data, from 2014, showed a further decline to 32,368. That number leaves out commuters who may only take the train a couple of days per week, and there are obviously other places the train takes riders to, but if light rail had taken off, it would presumably have show up in commuting statistics.

A 2011 paper from researchers at the University of North Texas, the University of Texas at Arlington and elsewhere captures some of the stubbornness of automobile culture in an examination of the impact of transit-oriented development in Dallas. The authors surveyed and interviewed residents of three such developments — Mockingbird Station, downtown Plano and Southside on Lamar – on their travel behavior. Though the residents were more likely than other Dallasites to use transit, the likelihood was still low even though they lived in places supposedly built for transit use. “Cars are much faster than trains,” said one member of a focus group. Another: “I don’t want to take the time to learn how to use the system; too complicated.” A third: “At places you may get jumped or scared if you go to the wrong area.”
And these are people who have chosen to live within walking distance of a train stop.

Transit-Oriented Development
When the Mockingbird Station development, with its mix of apartments, retail, office and entertainment, opened in the early 2000s just north of where the Red and Blue Lines emerge from the CityPlace tunnel, it was like nothing else in Dallas. At the time, it seemed like a harbinger of a boom in transit-oriented development.

Mockingbird Station is still put forward locally as an example of the transformative development light rail can bring, which is less a testament to the project’s inherent excellence (it’s a good project) than to the fact that much of the hoped-for development never happened, never mind DART’s boast about spurring $5 billion in transit-oriented development.

The $5 billion is probably an accurate enough measure of the things that have been built in the general vicinity of DART stations, but it’s not all that much when spread across 62 DART stations, most of which have spurred no noticeable construction. With some notable exceptions (downtown Plano being the most prominent), many of the stops that have been graced by development either resemble ghost towns (Galatyn Park in Richardson) or are so thoroughly disconnected from the transit stop that they seem to have been placed there by coincidence (the Park Lane development).

GB Arrington, a rail consultant in Portland who has worked with DART on several projects, says that most of what’s been built next to DART stations isn’t transit-oriented development but transit-adjacent development. “That’s a development like Park Lane that’s in the presence of transit but isn’t shaped by the presence of transit.”

Even developments that do a good job of integrating with the train stations aren’t transit-oriented in the traditional sense. With Mockingbird Station, “it’s there as much because of its proximity to the freeway as it is because of its proximity to a DART station.” CityLine, the massive State Farm-anchored development at the George Bush Turnpike rail station in Richardson, makes solid nods to walkability but is also building more parking than required by the city. “The development community wants to have it both ways … They’re selling proximity to transit and they’re selling the ease to park,” Arrington says.

Arrington doesn’t think that will change until Dallas transportation decision-makers become less obsessed with highways.

The Next 20 Years
DART is still pushing to expand the rail network. A $100 million extension of the Blue Line to UNT Dallas is slated to open later this year. Beyond that, the $2 billion Cotton Belt line, which would connect Plano with DFW Airport, is still in the agency's official plan. So are a handful of spurs that would poke into West Dallas and parts of southern Dallas.

Whether DART rail's performance to date justifies a further build-out remains a matter of debate. Carrollton Mayor Matthew Marchant recently penned an op-ed for the Morning News advocating that DART forego additional rail and invest instead in Bus Rapid Transit, particularly along the Cotton Belt Corridor. Bus Rapid Transit mimics rail in that it has a fixed route, a dedicated right-of-way, and widely spaced stops, but it uses buses rather than trains and it is far cheaper than rail.

The primary drawbacks to Bus Rapid Transit are that buses aren't as cool as trains and that a bus route, which can be moved, doesn't draw in developers in the same way that fixed infrastructure like rail does. But again, light-rail hasn't exactly been a magnet for riders and its economic development potential, Marchant says, has been oversold.

"The idea that if you get a train station you're going to get Mockingbird Station is just not born out by the facts," he says.

The persistence of DART's belief in rail is that the people who make high-level transportation decisions are people like him, who use the train for occasional outings to the State Fair of Texas or a Mavericks game but otherwise get around by car. If they were regular transit users, Marchant thinks they might be more attuned to the needs of everyday DART users.

That said, Marchant thinks the Green Line's arrival in Carrollton has benefited the city and acted as a nice spur to the redevelopment of Downtown Carrollton. So he sees both sides.

It's still possible that DART's rail network hasn't yet had time to fully mature. In a generation or two, commuters exiting dense, transit-oriented neighborhoods and cramming themselves onto packed trains that come every five minutes will marvel at the foresight of DART planners circa 1996. So far, that's hard to see.


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