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

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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.

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.

How'd you like to have that in your car? Well, DART does have it, as of this year.

DART's deal with the city calls for trains to come by on Pacific every two and a half minutes and take maybe 30 seconds to unload and load passengers.

Not bad, eh? That leaves two minutes for car traffic to sort itself out, some of it passing north and south across Pacific, some it passing east and west on Main and Commerce and Elm.

DART says it will be able to stick to those "two-and-a-half-minute headways" when the Orange Line brings the train traffic on Pacific up to 48 trains an hour.

But wait. Forty-eight trains an hour would be a train every one and a quarter minutes, wouldn't it? Check me on that, because I am admittedly a history and political science major. But I think if you divide 60 minutes by 48 trains you get one train per minute and a quarter.

Ah, wait! Wait! I'm down here in the DART station beneath Cityplace saying, "Wait! Wait!" loudly to myself, and people walking by me are shaking their heads no, but I do think I get it.

DART intends for the trains to be sync'd so that two trains—one running east and another running west through downtown—will pass each other at precisely timed moments causing fewer traffic interruptions.

Morgan Lyons, the spokesperson for DART, explains that to me: "While the traffic signals cycle every 75 seconds (or 1.25 minutes)," he says, "it's often the case that trains in each direction will move through the intersection so you wouldn't always have that many interruptions."

If everything runs like a Swiss watch.

But what I've been finding out here the last couple days is that everything is running like musical chairs. In fact, back at the office when I put all of my times in an Excel spreadsheet, this is what I find:

Trains that are supposed to be running at 10-minute intervals are running at five minutes, seven minutes, nine minutes apart. Trains that are supposed to be running at five minute intervals are running at six, four and three minutes. And almost none of them is hitting the precisely scheduled moment when it is supposed to arrive at a given station.

If I place myself right by the point where the trains come out of the Central Expressway tunnel and rise to ground level at the east end of downtown, I can see why the timing is so jagged: two-thirds of the trains I am watching slow down and even halt for a few minutes before entering downtown.

Swiss watch, hell. They're winging it!

DART trains are entirely driver-operated. The drivers are stopping, starting and speeding up to accommodate each other through the bottleneck, but that means they're out of sync when they pass through downtown. And remember each one of them is jamming on that little button to get nothing but green lights through downtown. That means nothing but red lights for the cars.

In fact, when I go downtown and watch, that's what I see at rush hour. Already, even without the added pressure of the Orange Line, the car traffic must wait and then leap through momentary gaps in a staggered wall of trains.

Think what it will be when the Orange Line comes on line and the number of trains reaches its max.

That's another whole kettle of fish, by the way. DART claims it is running only 42 trains per hour through downtown at rush hour now. When I count using DART's own timetables, I get more like 46 to 47 trains even now, without the additional six per hour that the Orange Line will add.

It's not supposed to be this way. According to the original agreement with DART, that second alignment through downtown should already have been in place before the Green Line ever opened, definitely before the Orange Line opens.

The timing now on completing the second alignment is somewhere in the range of six to seven years and DART has only half the money in hand for it.

If Dallas were sticking up for itself, it would hire an independent agency to audit the trains running on Pacific Avenue and to audit the traffic interruptions, then demand that DART take trains out of operation until the agreements can be met on downtown traffic interruptions.

That's not going to happen now, given the current climate. Half the elected officials at City Hall are still more sympathetic with the 'burbs—only they call it "regionalism" now—than with their own city. The other half are asleep at the wheel.

The city will only be moved to defend itself when the Orange Line opens and downtown traffic goes to hell in a handbasket in December 2011. It takes a disaster to make anything happen in this town.

But we'll get there.

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