City Hall

Oak Cliff Streetcar's Dubious Utility and High Cost Bring Impatience

Watch the Dallas City Council work itself up over about $1.2 million in cost overruns stemming from the continued effort to build the the streetcar line from Union Station to Oak Cliff, it's easy to empathize with the vocal minority on the council who are critics.

Jennifer Gates' complaint that the streetcar doesn't go anywhere besides the El Fenix at the corner of Colorado Boulevard and Beckley Avenue is valid — although the money being discussed is helping the people mover delve deeper into Bishop Arts. She's rightly frustrated by the fact that the streetcar and DART's D-Link urban core circulator are largely redundant services.  Gates, her fellow North Dallas representative Sandy Greyson and southern Dallas council member Carolyn Arnold also take exception to the "free" fares on a boutique service that caters to tourists and those moving in and about downtown and nearby. The free fares come thanks in part to a $2 million annual city subsidy, and their constituents get nothing similar in their districts.

"I'm just thinking $2 million a year is a lot of money that we could be [using to fund] libraries, parks and other kinds of things instead of offering free fares to folks in one part of the city," Greyson said.

The city has procured and spent more than $30 million on the streetcar so far. This additional $1.2 million, used for the track extension and to safely remove a couple of historic trees along the route at a cost of more than $100,000, has, the council discovered Wednesday, already been spent. They were being asked to approve it after the fact — yet another reason for rancor.

"[Oak Cliff council member Scott] Griggs just told me that the trees have already been moved, that the track's already there," Gates said. "I'm like 'Why ask, if it's already been done?.'"

Griggs and council member Philip Kingston did not appreciate the threat to what they view as one of Dallas' biggest recent wins for urbanism, despite the fact that only 150-300 people ride the streetcar daily and routine services outages have afflicted the line since it began running in April 2015.

"The story of the streetcar is the story of a change in philosophy in Dallas and really the story of citizen action against entrenched power structures here and at DART. It was citizens in District 1, crazy Cliffsters who decided that they were tired of being tethered to a transportation policy that is entirely owned by the road and bridge lobby and people who want to shove freeways down our throat at the expense of all other forms of transportation," Kingston said. "What do we have now? A nascent, baby street car system and we're worried about how much formula it takes to keep that baby alive. I find that bizarre. Yes, right now it's only benefiting the residents of District 1 and those people who want to visit District 1. I got it. But, it is a nascent, baby system and we've got to keep it alive until we can connect it with the rest of the system."

The extra $1.2 million got approved, at least partially because the work it will fund had already been done, but it seems the fight over the Oak Cliff streetcar is just beginning. 
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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young