DART Needs to Build a Subway Downtown

Look, if you're like me you don't wake up in the morning thinking, "I can't wait to find out what happened overnight in regional rail policy."

I could wait a lifetime. But I also don't want to wake up two years from now in a nightmare where downtown Dallas is a ghost town switching yard for suburban commuter trains.

That would be bad. And that could happen. Then I will be sorry I stayed in bed.

For the last five months the stories about DART, our regional transit agency, have been enough to make me want to bury my head beneath the pillow. Awful. Billion-dollar budget goof. Chairwoman tossed out in stink. Chairwoman .

But as terrible and incomprehensible as all of that may be, none of it is the real story. The real story is that DART could be on the verge of severely shafting downtown Dallas for the next decade. I mean the big shaft. The do-or-die shaft for downtown.

DART must build a second rail line through downtown, some of it in a subway, or downtown is screwed. Unpleasantly, aberrantly so.

Four extensions of DART's light rail service are in play here. Two will go out to new stations in the suburbs; the Green Line, from Pleasant Grove to Carrollton by 2010, the Orange Line from the Love Field area to Rowlett by 2012. Two will go in Dallas, one from downtown to South Oak Cliff, the other, a second rail route through downtown, which is the problem.

Unless DART moves quickly to build the second downtown line, the existing downtown line is going to become a solid wall of trains down Pacific Avenue from the east end of downtown to the west end, with car and bus traffic stacked up at the crossings like cordwood.

That second line downtown is the big story. It has been for nearly 20 years. In 1990 after years of debate, the Dallas City Council forced DART to sign a contract promising to build a second line downtown with a subway when train traffic on Pacific Avenue reaches a certain point.

A bit of history: The proper way to bring a train through downtown is underground. A subway is the only way downtown rail can reduce traffic congestion instead of making it worse. But in the late 1980s, the suburban cities that belong to DART rebelled against a subway for downtown.

It was always about money. The suburbs thought a subway downtown would cost so much that DART would never have enough cash left to build rail lines out to them in the boonies. They threatened to pull out of DART.

DART's supporters were able to fend off the desperate-housewife secessionists by striking deals with them. For one thing, DART gave the suburbs nearly $200 million for street improvements just to shut them up.

Then DART also agreed not to build a subway until absolutely necessary. In the meantime we got what we have now—a design by which all DART train routes must pass in and out of downtown on Pacific Avenue, like sand sifting through an hourglass.

Cars wait for trains. Trains wait for cars. And we have agreed to do it this way until the train traffic gets so busy that it is in danger of shutting down all of the north-south rubber-tire traffic in downtown.

Downtown is already a maze. Nothing goes exactly north-south or east-west. Sometimes the streets downtown run sort of northeast-southwest, but then you drive two blocks and the directions shift again. It's enough to melt your compass, even without trains cutting across the streets.

Now imagine putting a solid wall of trains down Pacific and Bryan streets. Then the only way you can drive from City Hall to McKinney Avenue is by going all the way out of downtown, either west to Industrial Boulevard or east somewhere in deepest East Dallas, because the stupid trains have got you totally blocked off.

What do you do? I know what I'd do. I'd say screw downtown. I've got enough aggravation. If I am a major employer, I don't think I'm going to rent three floors of a high-rise if it's going to take me and my employees an hour to get out of downtown. That's time a major employer could be playing golf, studying Greek love poetry, reading to orphans and planning for world peace.

Why is DART train traffic about to increase so dramatically downtown? Because DART is on the verge of completing and opening the Green Line, bringing new train traffic that must sift up and down Pacific Avenue with the existing lines. In 2010 when that happens, the traffic on Pacific will exceed peak capacity.

According to DART's own published traffic projections, peak capacity for the Pacific Avenue "transit mall" is 24 train trips per hour. DART figures that if 24 trains an hour pass up and down Pacific, that will leave two and a half minutes between them, which should be enough for the cars and buses to barely squeeze through.

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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