Monday, July 18, 2011

Suburbs Exploring Transit and Who Pays to Park

There were some interesting tidbits in the Dallas Morning News recently pertaining to a few area suburbs exploring the options of transit service, though in a completely unusual way.

Mesquite is perhaps the furthest along of any city to actually contracting with DART for an express bus route. You can read the DART Board minutes here, page 19 of the pdf. If you can get behind the paywall of the DMN, the story is here.

In essence, Mesquite will use their economic development taxes to fund an express bus route, while simultaneously seeking to gather local, regional and federal funds to build a rail line. They are seeking a public-private partnership to get the job done. On July 5th, the city council authorized the funds to begin the express bus route, with DART providing the ride.

Then it comes out that the northern exurbs of Allen and McKinney in Collin County are in the preliminary stages of doing the same thing.  McKinney is looking to shuttle passengers from a park-n-ride lot to DART's Parker Road Station. Allen is hoping to lure shoppers from the DART service area to places like their outlet mall. In essence, McKinney wants a two stop express bus route, Allen wants a partial express, non-stop from Parker Road to a stop in Allen, where it begins a typical local route with multiple stops.

Allen hasn't decided yet who would run it, while McKinney seems to be preferring DART to run the buses. I would bet that Allen will choose DART, simply because it will connect to a rail station. Either way, DART will get revenue from this.

If I had to pick a loser, it would be Allen's. Most (I'm talking 99%) shoppers in this area don't use transit. Compare weekend trips at Park Lane Station to the parking garages at North Park Mall. Since a great percentage of shopping is on the weekend, I don't hold out a high hope that this three-year pilot project will be extended, despite the fact that I would use it more than the other two routes.

I am undecided about this generic idea overall. Obviously increased transit options are a plus. If the McKinney proposal mirrors Mesquite, I won't use their routes, since this would only be rush hour services. However, it would still increase transit usage, albeit in the hundreds, a very small percentage of total ridership.

So if this increases ridership, surely I can't be against it, right? Well, it is the funding that worries me. Since 1984, DART member cities have been allocating a full cent sales tax for the service. Mesquite turned down the offer in 1983 by 20 votes. Instead, they would later approve an economic development tax as an attempt to improve their tax base. I did preliminary research in graduate school using area numbers and correlated increased economic activity with transit and an actual decrease in economic activity with the ED taxes. In short, they are ineffective at best. In essence, these three cities are proving that point. Why use your ED taxes on transit unless they aren't working in the traditional way? I said it then before the paper and I repeat, transit is an economic development tool.

If this is replicated on a much larger scale, there could literally be a dozen cities buying the Pinto package of transit service, rather than the Ford (New York would be the Lexus). It will also primarily be a commuter system, that is ineffective in long term transportation changes. I certainly have made more trips to Plano in my 4+ years of living in downtown Dallas than Mesquite. That won't change with this proposal, but it could (and almost certainly would given its proximity to me) if they flat out joined DART.

But the timing may be fortuitous for the northern burbs. DART has announced a pilot program for the two northern terminus stations where folks who live outside the service area will have to pay two dollars to park at those stations. While folks who use the Green Line have the DCTA as an option, the Red Line currently doesn't. This may give those folks an option.

This policy is one I can actually get behind. While some have suggested DART is a villain for this, I believe it is fair, if only in the current financing scheme. I have always been leery of individual cities deciding who gets to have a transit service. TxDoT doesn't ask cities if they want a highway. They plan it as a regional need. Why does transit get a different approach? Yes freeways are interstate infrastructure with national implications, but the vast, vast, vast majority of users are regional.

Given that restraint, I support DART's approach to recouping revenue that the resident's aren't paying when they make purchases in non-member cities and then drive to a DART station and use the system. Yes they pay a fare, but it pales to the sales tax, which is the primary revenue source for DART. It will drive some away, but not much. Some will travel one mile down and park, some won't, but some will switch to the DCTA A-Train and the new routes from Allen and McKinney, and that isn't that bad of an option, if not perfect.

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