By Hayley Enoch
[Editor’s note: The now free Dallas Festival of Ideas kicks off tomorrow and runs through Saturday, with speakers and panels focusing on the future of our city. One subject that comes up time and again is the need for walkable cities and more accessible mass transit. To facilitate that discussion, we asked rail journalist Hayley Enoch to break down the long process of how mass transit ideas become reality.]
Dallas-area residents don’t have to travel too far from their driveways to see that our local highway system has not kept up with demand. One hour drive times, even for small errands, have created a population eager to invest in light rail, streetcars, and other forms of public transportation.
Despite the demand, new public transportation projects and expansions to the existing system have been slow to materialize. This gives ammunition to those who call for wider highways and more toll roads, and believe that public transportation cannot efficiently serve Dallas-area residents. However, what makes expanding the system to keep up with demand difficult isn’t so much that civic planners are unaware of the need for additional capacity, but that there is a complex pre-planning process that must be carried out before any new construction can begin. A better understanding of the process could help residents of Dallas-Fort Worth plan for our transportation future.
Before proposing a new light rail or streetcar route, public transportation agencies will first examine population data and traffic patterns to identify where there is a need for additional services. It must be physically feasible to build a new route, and there must be both a regular customer base large enough to justify the substantial cost of construction and maintenance in the future. During this stage, the agencies identify the projected cost of the project, the preferred route of the tracks and any possible alternatives, and how many riders they expect to patronize their services. This information is then presented to possible investors, and used to make an argument that the new route should receive funding from a local, state, or even federal level.
When the transit agency has identified the preferred location for a new route and has formed an idea of where the initial funding will come from, the agency must then conduct exhaustive environmental impact studies (EIS) to identify how the new construction will affect the surrounding area. This step of the process allows members of the public to provide feedback on issues such as noise abatement, vibration reduction, pollution, and concerns about the specific location of the preferred route. The public transit agency is expected to accommodate public concerns as appropriate. Some issues discovered during the EIS project, such as the presence of endangered species within the proposed construction area, can significantly lengthen the pre-planning process. DART is currently in the process of finalizing the EIS for its D-2 Downtown Dallas expansion project, and is soliciting public input to decide on the exact location of the rerouted light rail tracks and the new stations.
After the EIS period is completed and any significant issues that it reveals are addressed, the transit agency must then acquire the land where it will construct the new route. This can also be a lengthy process, since the agency is typically not purchasing one piece of land, but rather small parcels of land held by many different owners.
Transit agencies are usually able to invoke eminent domain if it is particularly difficult to acquire land needed for their project, but this brings controversy into the project if the public feels that the eminent domain process is favoring private enterprises, or that property owners are not being properly compensated for their land. Despite robust support at its endpoints in Dallas and Houston, the high-speed Texas Central Railway has engendered substantial opposition in East Texas because of the possibility it may have to forcefully requisition private land.
In the best-case scenario, transit agencies can construct or operate on an existing railroad corridor. This reduces the number of real estate purchases and usually does not require existing buildings to be destroyed, but still requires a complex negotiation process to establish a usage agreement that satisfies all of the transportation agencies involved. The operating agreement that DART, the Trinity Rail Express, Union Pacific, and the Fort Worth & Western Railroad finalized for the forthcoming Texrail train between Fort Worth and DFW Airport was the product of several years of negotiations.
Even though many of these aspects of the process tend to happen simultaneously, they are all so complex that even the most straightforward and uncontested pre-planning process can take a decade or more to fully complete before the transit agency can actually begin construction. Considering this, Dallas-Fort Worth’s insufficient public transit situation doesn’t come from poor planning by our civic engineers, but that no one in the early 2000s could have anticipated and planned for just how dramatically Texas’ population would swell after the Great Recession.
DART and the other local transit agencies have expedited their expansion projects as much as possible to cope with the increased population, but given its complexity, the planning process can only be shortened so much.
Hayley Enoch is a D-FW resident who specializes in writing about railroads and public transportation. She is the owner and editor of Friends of the Flange, and is a frequent contributor to Trains Magazine.