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DART Needs to Shift From Building New Rail Lines to Increasing Ridership

Baruch Feigenbaum
June 19, 2012, 10:54am

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit System (DART) is singing the blues. But it is not because ridership is down, debt is increasing, or the agency is laying off staff--although these are all true. The agency is upset because in the future it will no longer be building new rail lines.

The Dallas Morning News explains below:

Dallas Area Rapid Transit has a problem. As it approaches its 30th birthday, the agency is about to run out of rail lines to build.

DART light-rail ridership has grown significantly since the first cars began moving 16 years ago this month, but that growth has been dependent on a stream of groundbreakings. Largely obscured by all the ribbon-cuttings: The longer many stations are in service, the less people use them.

Of 34 stations that were open before the Green Line came on board beginning three years ago, 15 serve fewer people now than in their first year of service. Of the stations where use has grown since they opened, most serve no more people today than they did eight to 10 years ago.

The use of mass transit in Dallas appears to be falling, too. In 2005, 23,180 workers, or about 4.35 percent, commuted by bus or rail. By 2010, that had fallen below 20,000, though DART and other officials hope those numbers improve as unemployment in the area goes down.

There are several reasons for this drop in transit ridership. First, the agency has relied on building new train service to increase ridership. The agency has never had a long-range plan for increasing service on existing rail lines. It has taken advantage of FTA funding that supports new capital projects, but not maintenance in metro areas. More on how federal funding encourages new construction is available here and here. DART believed it could build its way to higher ridership. Unfortunately while total ridership increased slightly, ridership per station decreased substantially. For example, 16 out of 20 Green Line stations have seen ridership declines compared to a year ago. The costs of operating the new rail lines caused DART to eliminate some highly patronized bus routes. As a result, the system was one of two major transit systems to add new rail service and still lose total passengers. 

The Dallas Metroplex was never a good candidate for fixed-rail. For a metro area with more than 3,000,000 people it has one of the lowest population densities in the world. Its dispersed population is a better fit for Bus-Rapid-Transit (BRT). However, Dallas builds BRT systems as temporary solutions that are then replaced by new Light-Rail-Transit (LRT) systems. Most other cities combine their BRT and rail systems to build a transit network. Dallas needs to start aggressively building BRT systems if it wants to increase its transit ridership.

Since Dallas has several business clusters, its transit system should be structured as a grid network instead of a radial network. Currently there is no rail or BRT service along I-635 nor any east-west service north of the city. The only alternative is local bus service. At present to travel between suburban areas, travelers must ride into downtown Dallas. As a result, the 3- mile trip from the Burbank to the Park Lane station becomes an 18-mile excursion as commuters must travel through downtown. Good luck getting commuters to make that trip! 

The radial rail transit network serves the downtown business community well. Since downtown businesses were major boosters for LRT construction this is not surprising. Unfortunately, this rail transit fails to serve the rest of the metro area. While downtown business activity has been declining, business activity in other areas has been increasing. The downtown-oriented transit system was built for a 20th century commuting pattern not the 21st century reality. 

The management of DART has been focused on building new rail, not increasing ridership on existing rail. To its credit DART is hiring new leadership with experience improving ridership. However, due to land use patterns building ridership in Dallas will be more challenging than building ridership in Chicago.  

DART is not responsible for all of the transit system’s problems. For example, most downtown employers offer free parking. Unpriced parking offers a substantial subsidy for automobile users. Each parking space occupies land that has value, especially in a downtown area. This parking should be priced at market rates. While land values in Dallas are not equivalent to land values in New York City or San Francisco, market pricing would encourage some commuters to switch to transit.

Unfortunately, now that the system is built, DART needs to find a way to maintain it. Since Dallas has received grants from the FTA the city is obligated to continue operating transit or pay back 100% of the grant money. Good options include distance based pricing, where customers pay different fares depending on the length of their ride, charging for suburban parking and using value capture where applicable for Transit-Oriented-Developments (TODs). These options will not raise as much money in Dallas as they would in Washington D.C. where rail transit is more appropriate. Dallas is learning what many other regions that have accepted federal money for new rail construction already know; building a system is the easy part. Growing ridership, maintenance and operations are the challenge.

Baruch Feigenbaum is Transportation Policy Analyst

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