Dallas has spent more than $5 billion (more than $8 billion in today’s dollars) building the nation’s longest light-rail system, and has very little to show for it. In 1991, just before Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) began building its first light-rail line, the region’s transit systems (including Ft. Worth and various suburban lines) carried 19.4 transit trips per capita. That’s not much, but it’s more than they carry today: despite having 93 miles of light rail and a 34-mile commuter-rail line, the region carries just 14.1 trips per capita.
At first, the public seemed to respond to the light rail. In 1995, the year before it opened, DART buses carried 44 million trips. By 2001, with 23 miles of light rail, buses plus light rail carried more than 60 million trips. Per capita ridership peaked in that year at 20.1 trips.
Ridership continued to grow and reached 75 million trips in 2004. But it wasn’t keeping up with population growth, as trips per capita had fallen back down to 19. After the financial crisis, DART bus and light-rail ridership fell to 55 million and today has only partially recovered to 66 million. One reason for the decline was financial: vehicle miles of bus service have fallen by nearly 10 percent since 2005.
DART was planning a downtown subway and another commuter-rail line, both of which would cost roughly a billion dollars. But some Dallas officials are beginning to question the wisdom of building light-rail to the suburbs at the expense of bus service in the urban core, where transit’s real market is located.
Newspaper columnist Jim Schutze argues that Dallas has the worst transit system in America because it is focused on “building a slow-poke, light rail, surface-running system that screws up traffic, takes forever, attracts miserably few riders and, as a result, operates at an ungodly subsidy.” The real purpose of that system, he says, is “to serve as an amenity and sales-pitch bauble for suburban apartment developers” (who, incidentally, are likely to also get TIF subsidies for developing near light-rail stations).
Last week, the Dallas city council replaced three DART board members with people more interested in focusing on the urban core than the suburbs. Unfortunately, that means they want to build the downtown subway, which is an even stupider idea than building more surface light rail. This would be a light-rail subway, more aimed at reducing downtown congestion than at moving large numbers of people.
According to the FTA’s 2015 analysis, this subway would be three-quarters of a mile long and be part of a 2.4-mile extension that would cost $650 million. The project depends on 50 percent support from the federal government, which the Trump administration does not want to provide.
It appears that, rather than being sensible about offering transit service where it is really needed, the Dallas city council just wants more pork barrel and developer amenity baubles coming into the city rather than its suburbs. This is missing the point of a transit system, which should be about transportation, not pork or social engineering.
Dallas should get off the light-rail kick and concentrate on providing a decent bus system. Such a system could provide better service to a lot more people for a lot less money.