5 Things Worth Noting as DART Rail Turns 20

This year, DART is celebrating 20 years of the agency's yellow and white light-rail trains moving people around North Texas in one form or another.  DART's system traverses more than 90 miles of track, making it the longest light rail system in the country, and claims more than $8 billion in economic impact and $5 billion in transit-oriented development, according to the agency.

"DART rail is delivering new development in every community we serve. Dallas is enjoying a renewed downtown, new destinations, and better access to healthcare. Carrollton, Farmers Branch, Garland, Irving, Plano, Richardson and Rowlett each have new, vibrant transit-oriented communities that are gaining national attention," DART President Gary Thomas said in a statement issued Monday.

For all that DART has accomplished through its rail system, however, there are still parts of the system that drive commuters crazy — like Green Line's failure to actually take riders inside the perimeter of Love Field, the system's lack of late night service and general lack of frequency especially at night and on the weekends. As the rail system ages out of being a teenager, we thought we'd take a look back at it's long, halting history.

1. There was a time when it seemed like DART rail wasn't going to get built. — In the late '80s are early '90s, DART's plans for light rail were stuck in a limbo that should be familiar to anyone who's witnessed the fight over what to do with the Trinity River basin over the last 20 years. Voters defeated a plan to fund light rail with $1 billion in bonds in June 1988, leaving the agency to figure out a way to fund the project on its own. DART pared down its original vision for rail, which included 160 miles of tracks covering the vast majority of North Texas, and began building the system using primarily sales tax revenue from the 1 cent tax it charges member cities, in addition to some federal cash.

2.. DART rail has grown. A lot: When DART rail transported its first passengers 20 years ago, they could go all the way from the station at the intersection of Eighth and Corinth Streets in Oak Cliff to what was then known simply as Pearl Station, across the street from the Plaza of the America's. By the time the full first phase of the project opened early in January 1997, riders could get from the system's southern termini, the Westmoreland Station on the Red Line or the Illinois Station on the Blue Line, to as far north as the Park Lane Station on the Red Line and Mockingbird Station.

When the long-awaited UNT Dallas Station opens later this year, riders will be able to travel well over twice as far, from as far south as the college campus near Interstate 20 to DART's northernmost point at Parker Road Station in Plano. If you're willing to sit through a very long ride, you can even take the Orange Line northwest to DFW Airport. What started as a 20-mile system is now four times that size.
3. We could have had a monorail: In between the failed bond election in 1998 and DART breaking ground on the first piece of the light rail system (the tunnel along San Jacinto Street in downtown that connects trains from Pearl Station to Cityplace Station) in 1990 there was a push to replace the inner-core of the rail system with a monorail.

"The question is, will DART switch horses in midstream? DART insists it was handed a mandate in June to cut expenses and build something quick and cheap. It is a cynical retreat that does not respond to what citizens have been saying in the latest round of community meetings: It is hard to be a DART user. Bus service is sketchy, and, if you follow their reasoning, anything else DART runs will be equally frustrating unless something bold, like line-haul monorail, is adopted for the new plan, constructed and operated by people who understand monorail technology," Anne Dickson wrote in The Dallas Morning News in 1989, which can't help but make us think of this: 
4. DART has done a pretty good job of following through on the vision it started building: Chastened by the bond election, DART stripped down its vision for rail to something like the map you can see below. Despite delays in opening what are now known as the Orange and Green Lines (the northwest and southeast lines on the map), we did finally get trains going to the State Fair in 2009 and DFW Airport's Terminal A in 2014. About all that didn't happen that was initially projected is door-to-door rail at Love Field and the rail connection from the Trinity Railway Express' CentrePort station to DFW's terminals.
5. That being said, we're still missing the Cotton Belt and D2. After the UNT-Dallas station opens, that will be it for awhile. Thanks to stagnant sales tax revenues, DART was forced to indefinitely postpone much of its followup for the rail system, the 2030 Plan. The long awaited Cotton Belt line, the one that was supposed to form an east-west connection across the northern suburbs to DFW Airport and finally bring Addison into the rail fold, sits in limbo, with the most hopeful projections predicting service that could begin on a portion of the line by 2035. D2, the second rail line through downtown, still faces fighting over its routing and funding challenges — DART needs federal money to build the second downtown line, and the feds want the city to commit before forking over the cash. 
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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