Monday, April 30, 2012

Transit in the DFW Burbs

The Dallas Morning News ran two articles last week pertaining to transit service in some local suburban cities, both of which underscore the difficulty of providing that service in an area not built for it.

On April 23, the headline read "Mesquite's DART deal irks Garland." Ray Leszcynski outlines how the City of Garland has poured millions into DART over the past few decades with its one-cent sales tax, while Mesquite is paying $300,000 a year for one DART express bus route. John Willis, a Garland council member expresses his frustration that Garland can't use its sales tax since it goes to transit and Mesquite can, even though a fraction goes to transit. Just a note, Willis was a person who I sparred with on a message board prior to office and remember he was critical of DART no matter what they did, see here, herehere, here and here just for some quick examples (if you can figure out who I was, I want to apologize as that version of me was quite a bit more idealistic and naive).

The thinking of some DART suburbs is that they could have stronger local economies if they could use their sales tax for economic development. I don't agree because there is a strong correlation between local cities with transit and their employment numbers, while those that use their sales tax for economic development have higher resident populations than employment numbers, indicating a lower performing local economy.

I guess part of the issue for Willis is that Mesquite is paying for transit with that sales tax while also using it for other purposes, but Garland is certainly the winner in terms of transportation. They have two rail stations, 20 bus routes and paratransit service to show for the money. Mesquite gets one express route with limited service and has to pay for paratransit elsewhere. Garland carries over 10,000 trips on an average weekday, while the Mesquite service tops out near 100.

But as I warned in this post, this type of reaction was eventually going to happen. It is only natural because we leave transit up to every city to determine if they want it or not and how do they want to pay it. There will always be folks who are against the funding mechanism as we know. I even am. I don't see the state legislature authorizing the city residents to vote on if they want sewers or not, trash pickup or not, roads and highways or not. They deem that a valuable public service the state needs to allocate. However, they don't see the same for transit. It's the same 1960's thinking that has doomed much of our cities to mediocrity. How we fund and operate this system is borne out of this detrimental period.

The second bit of news came from the headline "A-train's weekend lag studied" from Friday's edition. The Denton County Transit Authority is struggling with how to schedule or even have Friday night and Saturday service on its commuter train. The agency has a goal to achieve 50% weekend ridership when compared to its weekday service. It hasn't met them consistently.

The main reason I want to bring this up is a quote in the DMN from board member Tom Spencer.

"I remind you of the statement that 'nobody ever built a successful commuter rails system catering to discretionary ridership,'" he wrote.

He's right. That's the problem. We know beforehand that by building a commuter rail system, its design has long headways, high capacity and low-density surroundings. It is no-doubt a commuter focus. But because it is cheaper than any other form of rail, it gets preference. When most of the area is suburban, it doesn't make sense to build more urban forms of rail.

This really gives ammo to the transit detractors. It is too expensive. No one will ride it. Yes, there is some increase in riders from express bus to the rail line, but is it enough to justify the added expense of rebuilding the rail line? As a voter, does the increase in cost have an effect on future ballot decisions?

In the end, any transit investment will be muted if there aren't any land use changes to accompany it. That is the struggle for the DCTA's A-Train. There would be plenty of discretionary riders if the stations and surrounding areas they served were denser. But then, they would be a more urban rail system.

Commuter rail works best when it connects to large employment centers, even if it still carries less riders than the urban forms that run in the large employment centers. This line doesn't even do that. It connects to an outlying light rail station and requires a transfer, and remembering that transfers suppress ridership, maybe the DCTA has bigger problems than weekend scheduling.

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