Trains and trafficWhile I was in Dallas recently for a cousin's wedding, I came across this cover story in the Dallas Observer (their version of the Houston Press) about downtown traffic snarls caused by DART's too-frequent light-rail trains and the blockages they create. Evidently, DART promised - in writing - a subway conversion when it became necessary, but now seems to be having trouble meeting that obligation.
This debate has not really been on the radar at all in Houston, even though new lines will create new north-south crossings in addition to the existing east-west ones for the Main St line. I'd like to think that Metro, the City, and the downtown boosters are on top of this and have it all worked out, but I don't know. If you have some insight, comments are appreciated (Christof, this means you in particular ;-).
On to the story excerpts:
The real story is that DART could be on the verge of severely shafting downtown Dallas for the next decade. I mean the big shaft. The do-or-die shaft for downtown.In addition, let's hope Metro isn't heading down this same path, despite recent turmoil indicating it might:
DART must build a second rail line through downtown, some of it in a subway, or downtown is screwed. Unpleasantly, aberrantly so.
Unless DART moves quickly to build the second downtown line, the existing downtown line is going to become a solid wall of trains down Pacific Avenue from the east end of downtown to the west end, with car and bus traffic stacked up at the crossings like cordwood.
That second line downtown is the big story. It has been for nearly 20 years. In 1990 after years of debate, the Dallas City Council forced DART to sign a contract promising to build a second line downtown with a subway when train traffic on Pacific Avenue reaches a certain point.What do you do? I know what I'd do. I'd say screw downtown. I've got enough aggravation. If I am a major employer, I don't think I'm going to rent three floors of a high-rise if it's going to take me and my employees an hour to get out of downtown.
Now imagine putting a solid wall of trains down Pacific and Bryan streets. Then the only way you can drive from City Hall to McKinney Avenue is by going all the way out of downtown, either west to Industrial Boulevard or east somewhere in deepest East Dallas, because the stupid trains have got you totally blocked off.
According to DART's own published traffic projections, peak capacity for the Pacific Avenue "transit mall" is 24 train trips per hour. DART figures that if 24 trains an hour pass up and down Pacific, that will leave two and a half minutes between them, which should be enough for the cars and buses to barely squeeze through.
(side note: I believe the Main St line is currently running at six minute headways)
Any more trains than that, and the cars and buses are dead in the water. All day long, crossing Pacific will be like trying to cross an eight-lane boulevard at rush hour without a light.
The solution? Don't put all those new trains to the suburbs down Pacific. Build a "second alignment" through downtown with a subway. Why a subway? Well, otherwise the second alignment will still have a tendency to screw up traffic, even if you put it 10 blocks from the first one. It's like two long lines of hurdles 10 blocks apart.
In fact, it could be even worse. You could get caught between the two, so you wouldn't even have the option of turning round and giving up. Then your only option would be to climb up on the roof of your car and hurl imprecations at the Fates. That would be a memorable way to spend your last visit to downtown Dallas. Ever.
The 'burbs will never admit this, but I have been talking to DART board members on both sides, off the record, for months: The truth is the 'burbs don't care if downtown traffic gets backed up. They want their lines. No matter what. If traffic downtown gets messy, too bad. Downtown Dallas is for the City of Dallas to figure out. The 'burbanites are just passin' through anyway.
I won't dredge too deeply through the rest of the DART budget, but it also assumes major new borrowing levels based on two types of costly loans the agency has never taken out before. And it assumes the Texas Legislature will change the law to let DART borrow money without voter approval. (similar rumblings from Metro?)
Listen. If I had to bet right this minute whether they will come up with the money for the second downtown alignment, or they won't—I would put my chips on won't. And they'll tell us they are very, very sorry about it.
On November 22, DART CEO Gary Thomas reveals to the DART board that DART has under-estimated its capital construction costs by, uh, let's see...100 percent. Instead of costing $1 billion, DART's current expansion plans will cost $2 billion, Thomas says.So far, DART is making Metro look pretty good by comparison. Let's hope it stays that way...
Thomas explains he has kept the shortfall a secret from his board for a year, because he was hoping it would go away. I submit this is like a guy with a large tusk growing from his forehead. You say, "Gary, pardon me, but you have a tusk on your head." He puts his fingers to his lips and says, "Shhh."
The DART bureaucracy and the suburban members, meanwhile, have come to a peace agreement on Thomas' billion-dollar boo-boo. There will be no formal external audit of DART. A few underlings have been fired. Thomas will keep his job. It's all forgiven and forgotten.
Update: Christof responds with his very good analysis (as always).