By Hayley Enoch
To many, public transportation is a fixture of large Eastern cities like New York or Washington, D.C.
It might come as a surprise to learn that Dallas Area Rapid Transit holds its own when measured against more established public transportation systems. Let’s take a look at why DART’s system is unique, and how it is essential to the future of the Dallas-Fort Worth area.
DART is a big system …
This isn’t your standard Texan jingoism — with four different trains and a total of 93 miles of track, DART really IS the biggest light rail operator in the country. Count in the Fort Worth Transportation Agency’s heavy-rail Trinity Railway Express and the Denton County Transportation Authority’s A-Train, and there are more than 140 miles of commuter rail serving the Dallas-Fort Worth Area.
DART is the largest light-rail operator in terms of system miles. It also demonstrates impressive ridership: It logs more than 30 million yearly riders, making it the sixth largest light rail agency in terms of ridership.
… And it’s also a young system.
There is, simply put, no other urban area in the United States that has embraced commuter rail with the enthusiasm that Dallas has. DART had only two lines when it opened in 1996 — the Red and Blue Lines — but in 20 years has expanded to four separate lines. No other agency that has commenced light-rail service within the past 20 years has established a system that comes close to DART’s miles and number of different routes.
Establishing such a large system only two decades is a respectable feat in and of itself, but is even more so in the context of the region’s general reluctance to accept public transportation. Let’s compare DART’s statistics to other cities in the region of comparable size and population.
Houston’s METRORail, the second-largest light rail system in the state, claims a mere 22 miles of tracks. Their two trains began operations in 2004, and only after a protracted political and legal battle. A single 32-mile route operated by Capital Metro serves Austin — commuter rail arrived in the state’s capital only in 2010, and has been mired in controversy about spending, ridership, and schedules ever sense. El Paso and Oklahoma City are both taking some tepid steps into the game with the construction of streetcars. San Antonio — the second largest city in Texas in terms of population and third in terms of geographic area — has no light rail whatsoever.
DART’s planners have always had the future in mind.
The Dallas-Fort Worth area owes its robust commuter rail system to some very forward-thinking people. To really appreciate their contributions, though, we have to get into a bit of railroad history.
Prior to the 1970s, dozens of individual railroad companies served our nation. The industry found itself in significant financial trouble during this decade, and eventually the federal government allowed the railroads to merge into larger companies to keep them from going bankrupt. By the late 1990s, several rounds of mergers reduced the number to a mere seven long-distance railroads operating in the United States, two of which are based in Canada.
Merging so many small companies together meant that the newly rearranged railroad companies were often in possession of multiple routes between the same two cities. To cut costs, many of these routes were abandoned.
That’s where the forward thinking of public transportation planners came in. Way back in 1989, DART officials had the foresight to establish operating rights along the routes that would no longer be needed to move freight. DART’s Green Line and the A Train, for instance, both operate on track that was the Missouri, Kansas & Texas Railroad’s primary route to Dallas until the company was absorbed into the Union Pacific.
The pre-existing access to these unbroken rail corridors removed one of the biggest stumbling blocks light rail projects typically encounter — the need to negotiate purchases of small parcels of land with many different property owners, and invoke eminent domain proceedings where an agreement cannot be reached. Most of the system expansions under consideration now (we’ll get to those in a moment) are being considered with future population growth in mind.
DART is tailored to the local population
The traditional model of public transportation assumes large volumes of daily riders. It works well in Eastern cities, where the urban design tends to be very dense and there is a large carless population, but is at odds with the firmly entrenched driving culture in North Texas.
DART’s approach to public transportation takes that into account. The agency’s numerous park-and-ride stations allow trains and busses to become a part of daily commutes without attempting to convince riders to give up their personal transportation.
The agency’s real brilliance, though, is in tailoring the schedule to riders who take advantage of their services infrequently, particularly for special events where the cost and availability of parking would be at a premium. All three transportation agencies serving DFW log their highest ridership during the State Fair in October, particularly during the football game between the University of Texas and University of Oklahoma held at Cotton Bowl Stadium .
There’s still plenty of room to grow.
DART cites the additional leeway to add more trains during peak hours as one of their primary motivations behind the recently approved D2 subway expansion. By the time the new route through Downtown Dallas opens in the early 2020s, though, a number of ongoing projects will have improved public transportation through the area for the better.
Take, for instance, the Cotton Belt Route expansion recently approved in DART’s operating budget. This long-awaited system expansion will link suburbs north of Dallas into the light rail system and provide direct service to DFW Airport. The FWTA’s Texrail train, which broke ground over the summer, will connect to the airport from the west.
Perhaps the most significant of all the projects scheduled to begin service within the next decade, though, is the high-speed Texas Central Railway intended to connect Dallas and Houston. With a 90-minute travel time between the two cities, this train will be the first truly high-speed train anywhere in the United States.
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.