Dallas Digs in on Doing a New Downtown Rail Line Right

We talk here about things that go wrong, do we not? Bad things, frustrating things, things gone haywire. So if something looks as if it might be headed in a right direction for a change, we could mention it just for grins, right?

OK, this is something that’s headed in just a teensy-beensy bit of a right direction now, for the moment anyway. But it could be a beginning.

Last week the top brass of DART, the regional transit agency, came trooping into City Hall. I passed them in the basement on their way to the City Council briefing room upstairs. They looked grim enough to be on their way to federal court for sentencing. And it was sort of like that. A little bit.

Just in the last several months, a whole new spirit has begun to stir on the council. The DART people know it. I’m sure they don’t like it. But from a city-dweller’s perspective, it’s what I mean by a thing beginning to go just a little bit right.

On the surface, this is about whether DART should build a subway line through downtown or a new rail line up on the surface. Boring, right? Yeah, but it’s not really boring if you know what it could mean for life in the city.

In downtown anyway, true urban living can’t be the same as suburban or neighborhood living, because it won’t work if it’s based entirely on automobiles. If the plan is to stack up thousands of people in high-rises and then stack up thousands of cars for them in parking structures, everybody winds up having to buy two high-rise homes — one for themselves and another one for their two and a half cars.

It’s expensive. Of course it can be done. With enough money and concrete, you can do anything, in theory. But you’re going to wind up with a very flat socio-economic pancake — people who can afford to buy an extra high-rise apartment for their multiple cars.

By the way, what’s the size of that universe? How many people who can afford those prices want to live in funky old asbestos-remediated mid-century office towers?

Where’s the social sizzle? Isn’t the whole idea of urban living that a certain energy and buzz will be generated by various kinds of diversity?

What about the sheer efficiency that could be offered by a truly transit-based community where people either do not have to own a car at all or at least can get away with owning only one?

And what’s the long-range game plan here anyway? A week ago Brandon Formby and Julie Fancher had a comprehensive piece in The Dallas Morning News about transportation woes faced by our uber-suburban neighbor to the north, Collin County, where the ultimate build-out finally is in view. With rooftops over the far horizons, builders and civic leaders in Collin County find themselves looking ahead to a logistical brick wall beyond which they know they will not be able to build.

You can only paint the landscape brown with so many hundreds of square miles of low-density suburban rooftops before basic infrastructure can no longer keep up, starting with water and transportation. Collin County already faces that agonizing tipping point where even new highways will only make things worse by encouraging more sprawl.

The Morning News, being the Morning News, isn’t going to ask the ultimate and obvious question, so I will: Is the answer here that Collin County doesn’t work? And can’t work? In an ever more crowded, constricted and environmentally pressured world, is the answer that sprawl is too wasteful and too inefficient and that therefore at some point sprawl must collapse inward on itself?

Or are we just jealous of their pools and schools? Hmm. Have to look in the mirror on that one.

Tell you what. Instead of talking about what’s wrong with them, why not trend back toward that thing I said was right with us? If we’re so smart, why don’t we get something going that’s right and works well in our own space, and then if they need help someday they can come study us.

DART brags about being the longest light rail line in the world, which is really stupid. Light rail — in effect a fancy trolley system — is enormously expensive to build and notably pokey and slow compared with heavy rail once it’s built. Light rail is an absolutely dumb and inefficient way to handle suburban commuter traffic, which is what DART has concentrated on doing in its third-of-a-century of rail-building.

Why have they? City taxpayers pay a little over half the cost of construction and operation of the rail system. The rest comes from the suburbs. In the competition for new rail lines since DART was formed, the suburbs have simply out-competed the city.

Why that? For one thing, the suburbs have approached rail construction the same way they approach road construction, as a tool to spur and enable more real estate development. The best transit-oriented developments on DART lines so far have been suburban raw land projects where a train station serves as a kind of cool amenity, like those fake old-fashioned downtowns they build out there.

The city, meanwhile, has looked on rail as bigger buses — a way to get people to work. That’s not a terrible idea, but it tends to be more of a social service than a money-making development scheme with a whole bunch of smart ambitious money-grubbers pushing it.

And in some ways, the city just hasn’t had its own idea in a long while. Since the late 1970s, for a half century now, City Hall has been dominated by the old Dallas Citizens Council crowd, heavily invested in the suburbs themselves with a view of the city as yesterday’s news, more of a burden than an opportunity.

I think the city has thought of itself that way sometimes, as the place you live because you can’t afford Frisco. As a bumper sticker, it would be: “DALLAS: IT’S OK FOR NOW.”

What does any of this have to do with the subway downtown? Maybe a lot. Maybe not much. Depends on how it turns out.

All of DART’s far-flung spaghetti-string rail lines have to go through downtown on its one crosstown right-of-way, creating an enormous bottleneck for the entire system. When DART was created in 1983, Dallas extracted from it a promise that a second reliever route across downtown would be built as soon as possible.

Thirty-three years later, DART lines are flung all over the far northern suburbs and the second downtown line is nonexistent. Now the pressure is on DART to get it done, in part because the downtown bottleneck is constraining the whole system.

Building a second “at-grade” or street-level rail line across downtown will be exactly like building a new highway across downtown. Once it’s in place, a new street-level rail line will disrupt businesses and institutions, stall and cut off traffic, making walking harder and generally act as a massive barrier to the ebb and flow of the city.

But a subway across downtown would be an entirely different creature. None of the surface disruptions would take place. Instead, a new self-contained, secure, climate-controlled venue would be created linking high-rise communities on its borders to the full reach of the rail line.

It’s not too far-fetched to say we could be talking about a new kind of community on the borders of the subway. Instead of inflicting a disabling wound on downtown, a subway could conceivably serve as the germ of that diverse, urban, car-free sizzle I was talking about before.

A subway costs more. DART right now is under a lot of pressure to save its money to pay for yet another far north suburban rail line, this time from east to west, hooking up with the Dallas/Fort Worth Airport. So, as always, the competition for rail dollars is on.

Always in the past, the staff of DART has been our only source of information for cost figures on rail projects and for the availability of funding. A couple of weeks ago I told you about some brilliant sleuthing work done by a group called Coalition for a New Dallas, in which they caught DART deliberately passing up available federal funds for a subway.

DART wasn’t just being stupid. DART told me they had their reasons for not asking for more money for a subway downtown, having to do with competing projects and their knowledge of the federal grant climate and so on.

But, wait. There’s more money? Yes. The coalition combed through the regs, eyeballed DART’s grant applications and came up with definitive evidence that DART could ask for enough federal money to pay for a subway downtown without making their application less competitive. But, yes, they might want to back off a little on that new suburban line.

So until the coalition cracked open that egg, this very important decision about a subway downtown was being made for us by bureaucrats at DART, not by our own elected officials. And their decision was for no subway.

Last week, by the time I saw that decidedly dejected-looking gang of top DART brass heading into City Hall to give the City Council a briefing on their upcoming budget and projects, they must already have known what they were facing upstairs.

For the first time ever, a sizable cadre on the council — at times it looked as if it could have been a majority — pushed DART hard on why it wasn’t talking about a subway. And it wasn’t just the predictable young progressive suspects on the council. If anything, it looked as if a line-crossing consensus could be building that a subway is what downtown needs and the city deserves.

I hope I’m not blowing it out of proportion. But if this is a consensus that can strengthen and endure, it may bode well for the entire city, not only downtown. It could be the beginning of a whole new attitude. We could use some attitude in this city.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze

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