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DART to study driverless buses

We’ll see what this means in practice.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit has joined a national association of transit and transportation agencies to explore how autonomous buses could shuttle people around cities in the future.

The Automated Bus Consortium plans to research driverless buses and run pilot projects with “full-sized, full-speed buses” to better understand how they could be rolled out nationwide, according to a news release. The group will study the safety of the buses and how they could reduce congestion. By working together, the transit agencies aim to lower the cost of testing and share best practices, the news release said.

The group is made up of about a dozen members, including the transit agencies of Los Angeles County and Atlanta and the Michigan Department of Transportation. The group was created by Los Angeles-based engineering firm AECOM.

For the first 12 months, the consortium plans to study the feasibility of the autonomous buses, according to the news release. It will buy an initial fleet of 75 to 100 full-sized, automated buses, which it will test in 2021 or 2022 on routes chosen by the transit and transportation agencies.

DART does not have a timetable for testing autonomous buses, spokesman Gordon Shattles said. He said joining the group is another way that DART can keep up with emerging transportation technologies.

This feels more like pie in the sky noodling than a practical roadmap, but whatever. There’s value in looking for current applications of existing technology, and seeing where that can take you. I lean towards that timeline for testing being overly optimistic, but we’ll see. Ask me again in 2021 or so.

The Dallas and Houston rail experiences

It’s useful to compare, but mostly as an academic exercise.

The new Dallas Area Rapid Transit line links riders to the region’s major airport. Houston’s new Purple and Green lines, years in the making, come up far short of what’s been laid in the Dallas area, but they open up rail to new parts of town.

Since 1983, and some argue even longer than that, the cities have been on vastly different trajectories when it comes to rail transit. Dallas has enjoyed a much less fractious political climate. That relative calm compared to Houston has given Dallas officials more latitude to invest and leverage local money to capture federal funds.

Officials in North Texas spent money on suburban routes rather than key urban connections. DART will soon have 90 miles serving 62 stations, while Houston later this year will have 22 miles of track and 38 major stops.

Houston’s population is twice that of Dallas, though their respective metropolitan areas are similar in size.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials decline to call the light rail lines competitors. But from time to time, as a sales pitch for more tracks, they compare DART’s apparent ease of laying lines to Houston’s perennial controversy.

“Dallas has almost 100 miles of light rail,” Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia once said at a business luncheon. “Certainly we can get to The Galleria.”

The race for more lines isn’t much of a competition because many Gulf Coast area elected leaders don’t want rail, or more specifically they don’t want to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars associated with trains. As a result, Houston has taken a different tack, choosing politically palatable downtown city lines that in some respects are harder to build but carry many more riders per mile.

Which system is more successful, and which will be better off in the long run, is less clear.

I’ve sat on this one for awhile as I’ve gone through several revisions in my head of what I’ve wanted to say. I agree with the story’s premise that Dallas and Houston each took the most viable path available to them given the resources and needs they had. We’ve had plenty of arguments in Houston about whether commuter rail should have been prioritized over light rail. To me it’s ultimately a chicken-or-egg question, but to me the fact that we already have a muscular park-and-ride network that covers much of the ground that commuter rail would plus the fact that mobility in town keeps getting worse with nothing other than light rail available to help mitigate it tips the scales. Commuter rail has a place and if we can make like Dallas and leverage some existing tracks to do it at a low cost, I’m all over it. Just remember that the value of a rail network increases greatly as the network grows, so commuter rail + a robust light rail system > commuter rail by itself.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about since Metro announced the reimagined bus routes is how any future expansion of the current light rail network might fit with it. If the new routes deliver on their promise of faster and better service systemwide, then perhaps we should rethink where new rail lines might go to ensure we get the most out of them and not be redundant. The new #7 bus line on Richmond, which goes to the Eastwood Transit Center, will be one of the high-frequency routes. Will it be good enough to undercut the case for the Universities Line? Maybe, but even if the buses run every ten minutes at peak times, they’re still going to crawl along in the traffic morass that is Richmond Avenue. Light rail, with its dedicated right of way, should easily beat its travel times. Still, that’s a point I expect the light rail critics of the future to haul out someday, once they remember they’re supposed to be pro-bus and they notice there’s better bus service available now. I still think an Inner Katy line connecting downtown to the Galleria via the Uptown BRT would have a lot of value, especially as a continuation of either the Harrisburg or Southeast lines. I also think the US90 extension into Fort Bend, hopefully all the way to Sugar Land if the politics can be worked out, should be a high priority. Beyond that, who knows? The point is that the whole system continues to evolve, and we ought to evolve our thinking along with it. The need for rail transit in Houston is not going to go down anytime soon.

We’ll take it if you don’t want it

Dallas would like the FTA to know that they will gladly take any federal streetcar funds that Fort Worth doesn’t want.

That’s the message the Regional Transportation Council, with the support of Dallas leaders, is sending to the Federal Transit Administration this month in the wake of Fort Worth’s decision to shelve its streetcar plan.

“We’re going to write a letter, and we hope the FTA sees it our way,” said Dallas City Council member Linda Koop, who is also a member of the RTC.


Dallas won its own $23 million grant back in February, when [Transportation Secretary Ray] LaHood announced that the government would help build a loop beginning at Union Station and traveling across the Trinity to Oak Cliff, near Methodist Dallas Health Center and back.

Dallas leaders, working with the RTC and DART, soon must send the FTA a clear plan for how it would spend the money and where the additional $15.8 million in required local funds will come from.

Koop said those funds have been identified and that the $38.8 million project will proceed alongside a more ambitious effort to develop a full network of downtown streetcars. That system will likely connect to the soon-to-be-upgraded M-Line trolleys that run between Uptown and the Arts District, as well as tie into downtown light-rail service.

Some of the money earmarked for the starter line to Oak Cliff will pay for planning that can also lay the groundwork for that larger effort, Koop and others said. In all, the larger project could easily cost more than $100 million.

The RTC is also soliciting private funds to get this going, which is something that will be worth watching. All I know is that I felt this same way about high-speed rail funds after watching Republican governors in Ohio and Wisconsin turn their noses up at them, but sadly Texas didn’t get a piece of it. I wish Dallas better luck.

You need more than more miles to get more riders

The new 28-mile Green Line in Dallas has begun full service, and it is expected to add about 30,000 daily boardings, bringing DART’s total rail ridership to about 90,000 per day. That’s for 72 miles of rail lines, which is nearly ten times as long as Houston’s Main Street line, but less than triple the Main Street line’s 34,000 daily boardings. Why does DART get so little for its mileage? Yonah Freemark explains.

The clearest answer is that density matters a whole lot more than overall length of rail lines. As demonstrated by Strasbourg’s tramway network, which serves 300,000 daily users on 34.7 miles of track, in terms of attracting ridership it is more important to have a densely packed system in the inner city than it is to have an extensive series of suburban extensions. This, however, requires the existence of a dense urban core.

Dallas’ downtown is filled with jobs — 138,224, more than most cities’ — so it would seem in theory to be a popular place for transit users. But consider parking policies: The city’s downtown district actively encourages visitors to drive there and then park for just a dollar an hour. There’s no need to drive around looking for a space, because virtually every block is consumed at least partially by parking. When it’s this easy to get around by car, the fact is that transit options are unlikely to succeed.

Meanwhile, what Dallas really lacks is residential compactness: The downtown itself has grown from 1,654 residents in 2000 to 10,446 today (that’s pretty impressive!), but neighborhoods immediately adjacent to this area are primarily made up of single-family homes. Moreover, the alignment of the rail corridors, generally following existing highway or rail rights-of-way, often do not reach the densest areas or the biggest destinations. The well-populated (and popular) neighborhoods north of downtown, including Uptown and Oak Lawn, are mostly inaccessible to light rail. An underground station on the Red Line originally planned for Knox Street, which likely would have attracted plenty of riders, was not built because of local opposition. Even Love Field, the city’s second airport, is not directly on the route of the Green Line because a connection would have been too expensive to construct.

Because of the adherence to corridors that are intentionally designed to do as little as possible to challenge the movement of automobiles, trains run in industrial zones north of Love Field and along a forested edge zone along much of the southeast segments of the route. These were wasted opportunities: Those routes could have been designed to run in the boulevard medians in the center of neighborhoods, attracting more users, but instead they’re generally at the periphery of built-up zones.

Each and every decision about station location matters: The best-used light rail networks are those in which people have the ability to walk from their homes to the train and the truth is that that’s mostly impossible to do in Dallas’ system.

The Metro 2012 Solutions plan, by virtue of being an inner city system that hits a number of dense areas as well as several universities, does a lot better on this score, though there is plenty of room to improve even more. If we put as much planning effort and resources into maximizing the potential of our rail transit as we do for roads in currently uninhabited outlying areas, we could really have something. Thanks to Houston Tomorrow for the links.

DART reverses course, will keep building

Back in June, Dallas Area Rapid Transit presented a 20-year financial plan that said it could no longer afford to build several new light rail lines that it had intended to do. Now it’s got an updated projection that says it can build them after all.

Just six weeks after telling board members that it couldn’t be done, DART executives on Tuesday presented their bosses with a 20-year financial plan that keeps the Orange Line rail service on track to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

They also presented a $1.25 billion budget for 2011 that cuts 87 jobs next year but will delay, for a year at least, layoffs.

The 20-year plan would allow room for a second major rail project, an extension of the Blue Line to southern Oak Cliff by the end of this decade. That’s a possibility that promised to draw a fight, or at least a debate, from some board members who think the agency should save its money to build a long-promised second downtown Dallas rail line that is now on hold.


Chief Financial Officer David Leininger told board members that the budget and the proposed 20-year plan represented a much better picture than he had presented June 22, when he told DART board members that all major construction projects not already under way would have to be put on hold.

The DMN editorial board is a bit skeptical.

This newspaper hopes DART, which has an unfortunate history of badly missing financial projections, isn’t whistling past the graveyard again. On paper, the 2011 budget and 20-year financial plan back the completion of the Orange Line to Dallas Fort Worth International Airport and planning for the Oak Cliff extension of the Blue Line. This newspaper supports both projects as crucial economic catalysts.

But how DART has made its numbers add up raises an eyebrow. In late June, DART said it probably couldn’t find the dollars for some projects and threatened massive layoffs and service cuts. The layoff numbers were projected to be in the hundreds.


DART’s plans, however, depend heavily on steady improvement in the overall economy and other wildcards that are difficult to predict, including some that seem to defy recent history. Sales-tax receipts have been flat for several years. Passenger revenue has been down significantly since 2008. Yet, DART anticipates both will improve over the next few years as the economy picks up and new rail lines are completed. DART also is counting on an increase in federal grants and other aid to help finance some projects, a revenue source that is getting harder to tap.

Via Houston Tomorrow, there’s another issue of concern here, which is that DART is moving resources around in a way that may make more political sense than transit sense.

But one can imagine the political pressure in which DART decision-makers find themselves: The agency must fulfill the interests of its most suburban constituents, many of whom are frustrated that they have yet to receive their personalized light rail line. Meanwhile, because the airport connection appeals most strongly to the political leaders of the region because it is the only transit line most of them will ever use, it is essential for DART to pursue its construction if it wants to remain in the funding game.

Yet operations cutbacks do have their negative consequences. The decision to cut headways on light rail operations has justified DART’s decision to permanently postpone the D2 downtown light rail link, which would have relieved the existing center-city trunk route used by all lines. That project, it seems, is not necessary if all lines are running only every fifteen minutes; in addition, the creation of a new streetcar system already partially funded through the federal TIGER program will add capacity for downtown riders. So the agency has determined that it is preferable to divert spending on an extension of the Blue Line south to the University of North Texas instead.

That project, though, will only further enforce the already very suburban orientation of DART’s expansion program rather than improve the circulation of people within the densest parts of Dallas. In addition, it seems to imply that fifteen-minute frequencies are acceptable in the long-term; they certainly are not if Dallas ever intends to encourage significantly increased public use of its light rail system, which has cost more than $2.5 billion to build so far. Why not, some will likely argue, save up and spend on the new downtown alignment as soon as possible, which would allow an eventual ramp-up in services to meet growing demand?

We’ll see how it goes. If nothing else, I figure we can learn some lessons for Metro from their experience.

Another setback for DART

More bad news from Dallas.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit can’t afford to build light-rail service to D/FW International Airport by 2013 as it has long said it would, the agency’s chief financial officer said Tuesday.

The news comes as a sharp reversal, but CFO David Leininger said the only way the project can be built in the near future will be if new revenues can be found, either through a new tax or, more likely but still uncertain, a federal grant that would cover the approximately $275 million cost of the final leg of the Orange Line.

“We are not abandoning these projects by any means, but there simply isn’t room for them in your current plan,” he told board members.


Irving has counted on the line to anchor more than $4 billion in planned developments near rail stations. That includes a $385 million convention and entertainment complex in the Las Colinas Urban Center. The city is shouldering the lion’s share of those construction costs.

That’s on top of the previous announcements about projects being delayed or discontinued. Part of the problem, as I understand it, is that the pool of federal grant money that gave Metro funding for the North and Southeast lines is all used up. Metro got the last two available grants for that. Until there are more funds like that available from the federal government, projects like that and like the University line will at the very least experience some uncertainty. It’s high time Congress took action on this. Alternately, as the DMN editorializes, the Lege can provide funds for regional transportation projects. This is worth doing, and if DART can’t do it by itself, it should get help.

DART may take a big step back

Dallas Area Rapid Transit, which has built out a much more extensive rail network than Metro and which has plans for a lot more, may instead scrap most of those plans due to serious financial issues.

Final decisions are months away, but Chief Financial Officer David Leininger warned the board that DART probably will have to cut nearly a third of the spending it had planned between now and 2030.

Only one building project not already under construction or under contract – the final leg of the Orange Line to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport – is likely to be saved. And even that rail project will depend on how aggressively the board cuts overhead, including jobs.

Plans for a second light-rail line in downtown Dallas, until now scheduled to open in 2016, will no longer be funded and are likely to be scrapped unless other money can be found. The line has a projected cost of $505 million to $820 million.

Projects that are under construction, including the Green Line rail expansion to Carrollton, scheduled to open in December, and the first two legs of the Orange Line, due by 2012, will be unaffected.

Leininger said the board will need to trim $30 million to $50 million in annual operating expenses. The higher number will be required if DART wants to preserve the Orange Line leg to the airport, he said.


In March, DART officials said disappointing sales tax receipts had caused the agency to take a fuller look at its finances. The agency concluded that its sales tax projections were wildly optimistic.

DART’s revenue problems, the agency concluded, go beyond the recession and are unlikely to improve soon.

For 10 years, sales tax receipts have been essentially flat, Leininger said, and demographic changes in DART’s 13 member cities, especially those in Dallas County, mean sales-tax revenue will probably grow slowly even when the economy recovers.

Dallas County’s population used to be younger, richer and better educated than the national average. By all of those measures, that’s no longer the case, he said.

The new forecasts reduce the agency’s sales tax receipts by $2.7 billion over the next 20 years. But the real impact on DART’s spending will be much higher because those tax receipts would have been used to borrow nearly $4 billion more and to secure about $1.4 billion in anticipated federal grants.

DART will no longer be able to count on any of that money. As a result, it will spend nearly $7.9 billion less by 2030 than the $27.2 billion its 20-year plan calls for now. That’s a reduction of about 29 percent.

That’s a huge amount of infrastructure investment that won’t get made, which will have its own negative effect on the area’s economy and growth. It’s quite the vicious cycle.

You can look at this in a few different ways. You can say “at least we’re better off than they are”, which assuming nothing goes wrong with the FTA is at least true for future construction projects. You can say “that may be us in the future”, which would be a damn shame. Or you can look at it as I do and say “We need to find a better way to fund our infrastructure needs, because they’re not going away”. Frankly, I’d like to see the federal government allocate more money to transit, and to make the process for getting that money more like the process for getting highway money. That’s beyond DART’s scope, but I feel confident they won’t be the only transit agency doing this sort of thing if we continue with business as usual. Oh, and for those of you who sneer at rail transit, remember that TxDOT is broke, too, and for the same basic reason – the funding mechanism we have in place for it is inadequate for its needs. We can’t fix either of these problems until we admit there is a problem that needs to be fixed.

Expanding Metro

Soon-to-be-former Metro Chair David Wolff riffs off of a Chron editorial that lamented the lack of connectivity between Metro and some new bus routes in Harris County and makes the case for expanding Metro’s service area.

The first steps toward this expansion of service have already begun. Forward-thinking leaders such as Harris County Commissioner Sylvia Garcia have worked with us to provide Park & Ride service to areas outside Metro’s present boundaries through an innovative approach involving interlocal agreements. Commuters outside the Metro service area in Baytown and Pasadena now travel daily into Houston using the same fare cards, rate schedules and service features as commuters from Cypress and Missouri City. Metro will soon be offering a Park & Ride option to the south on Texas 288 through an interlocal agreement with the transit provider for Brazoria County. Ongoing discussions with officials from Fort Bend County for Park & Ride service are also under way. The emphasis has been on showing these communities what we can do for them before asking them to join our full-service area and tax base.

Metro has little influence over how area jurisdictions receive or spend transit dollars. Nevertheless, the logic for a seamless regional approach — avoiding Balkanized service such as that found in the San Francisco Bay Area inefficiently “served” by no fewer than 13 disparate transit agencies — is inherently compelling. Sufficient common ground must be found among our area’s governmental entities as Metro constructs its five new light-rail lines. We must begin contemplating how to utilize the walking distance “delivery system” that the light rail system will create by 2013 as the framework to which commuter rail from outlying areas can be connected.

Certainly, the goal should be for all forms of mass transit in the region to connect to each other, and for things like fares and schedules to be unified and coordinated. Wolff cites DART as an example of another transit authority working on this. As it happens, the DMN has a story about how that is going.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit is considering ways to bring new cities aboard without requiring them to pay a full cent of sales tax, which has been a core membership requirement since the agency’s founding more than a quarter-century ago.

That full-penny requirement, which in recent years has meant more than $200 million a year in sales tax contributions from Dallas alone, has been the biggest obstacle to the agency’s growth. One fast-growing suburb after another has chosen to stay out of DART rather than surrender all of its discretionary sales tax revenue to pay for bus and rail service.

DART president Gary Thomas said preliminary discussions have begun among his board members and leaders in cities that border the agency’s 13 member cities.

“When we started DART in 1983, it didn’t make sense for some of these outlying cities to be part of a regional system,” Thomas said. “The revenues in those cities were not sufficient, and neither was the likely ridership. But here as we find ourselves with a lot of first-ring suburbs as part of the agency … and we have gone way beyond that.”

The situation is largely the same here. The challenge will be figuring out how to make it work across all the different boundaries and governmental entities. The natural impulse is to defend one’s own turf, but the more that happens, the less cooperation there will be. This isn’t going to be easy, that’s for sure.

Pants are overrated

If you saw a bunch of pantsless people on the DART train on Sunday, you weren’t seeing things.

In all, about 70 people – mostly in their 20s but plenty older and younger than that, too – rode DART sans pants Sunday afternoon.

According to organizers Brian Alguire and Chris Linville, it was the first time Dallas has taken part what has become a national event.

That would be the No Pants Subway Ride – honestly, how can you write a story like this without specifying what the national event is? – in which a bunch of chilly-legged people participated, all around the country. Except here in Houston, apparently. Which is pretty lame, I have to say. Can we all please remember to mark our calendars for this next year? More here and here.

New light rail line begins service in Dallas

I so look forward to the day when this story can be written for Houston.

When the trains begin running today on the opening segment of DART’s new Green Line, the transit agency will unveil the longest expansion of light rail in North America.

It triggers four years of growth that by 2013 will double daily rail riders and double the length of a DART rail network that has been 26 years in the making. And it finally will begin to deliver on an old promise to make Dallas Area Rapid Transit mean more than just a way for some downtown Dallas commuters to get to work and back.

The new stations that will open just ahead of the State Fair of Texas will attract fewer than 2,000 round-trip riders per day in the first couple of years – and they certainly won’t end Dallas’ dependence on the automobile.

But over the next 15 months, the four stations east of downtown will be followed by 16 more along the 28-mile Green Line, stringing communities together from as far north as Carrollton to as far south as Pleasant Grove.

And that’s only a beginning: The $1.8 billion Green Line may be the longest light rail project on the continent, but it’s just the vanguard for what will be four solid years of expansion.

By 2013, DART will have spent $3.3 billion in construction, adding service to Irving, Las Colinas and D/FW International Airport on the Orange Line. Downtown Rowlett and Lake Highlands will welcome new stations as well on the expanded Blue Line.

The flurry of activity has employed thousands of workers. Within four years it will result in a transit system that runs 48 trains through downtown Dallas every hour – already prompting more frequent red lights. That’s 62 rail stations and about 90 miles of track.

“This is the largest light-rail construction project in America,” DART president Gary Thomas said. “Nobody is doing what we are doing right now. That’s exciting. It really is.”

Yeah, it is, even if there still a few bumps in the road, so to speak. Here’s the DART rail system map. Theirs is more of a commuter rail system than Metro will be, though if we’re very lucky we could have a commuter rail component in place by the same time that DART’s Green Line is finished. I’m just ready to see some real, tangible progress on our lines as they have on theirs.