Sunday, February 24, 2013

Politics at Play in D2

Last Wednesday, DART hosted a public meeting on the progress of D2, the second downtown Dallas rail line. The planning effort faded when DART's finances were on shaky ground after the sales tax that funds the majority of the agency declined during the recession.

DART planners narrowed the alternatives a few years ago to four options (seen in this PDF on page 4). They all run on the surface through Victory Park, submerge in a tunnel just south of Woodall Rogers and have a station at Lamar and Pacific. From there, they take different routes before rejoining the current Green Line at Good-Latimer and Commerce.

B7 runs in a subway under Commerce, B4 surfaces after the West End and runs in the old Santa Fe ROW by the current Aloft Hotel and proceeds east in the median of Young. B4a runs in the same Santa Fe ROW, but underground with a subway stop at City Hall before resurfacing on Marilla Street headed out of downtown. The final alignment was B4b, which stayed in a subway to the Omni, made a roughly 300 degree turn to City Hall and then headed out of downtown as B4a.

Those four are still in the running, but thanks in large part to the Downtown 360 plan, DART was forced to look at Union Station, regardless of the fact that they already looked at in the preliminary rounds prior to the four finalists. I talked about that specific section in a 2011 post. Ironically enough, much of what will come when I dissect the "new" alignments has already been posted there.

The preferred alternative for many city officials now is the C3a option, here the line would run at-grade on the current ROW of the Green and Orange Line from Victory Station to Woodall Rogers, where it would submerge into a tunnel towards Union. It would turn east after Union and run in the subway under property owned by Belo. If Marilla were extended west, it would roughly run under it. It would proceed east under Marilla using the similar routing as B4a.

Described as the poor man's version of the previous alignment, C3 has a similar feel. It too would run in a subway from Victory, but instead of having a station underneath the current platforms, it would veer east at the northern part of Reunion Boulevard/Young Street, surface between Market and Lamar Streets and proceed east in the median of Young.

Finally, to appease concerns from First Presbyterian Church, planners are looking at elevating the entire portion of the B4 option, as well another option eliminating the station at Harwood Street. This was done to "protect" their garage. It could be a casualty of ROW requirements for any Young-running option. I don't think either of these option are viable. Elevated railways have disappeared across the country in urban areas for good reasons. Minus a few exceptions, the are basically extinct. And not having a station at Harwood Street would be a terrible idea. What good is the rail line in the neighborhood to increase coverage if there isn't a station for those there to ride?

For me, any favored alignment will depend heavily on ridership. For other folks, different factors could be economic development, geographic/neighborhood coverage, cost or owned properties. Neither of those reasons are better than the other, but is just a point-of-view.

If we are talking ridership, the Commerce Street option is my favored alignment. It is closest to the dense section of downtown. AT&T is one of the largest employers in the region, and it is right on the alignment. Visitors are also more likely to ride the system than any other demographic and there would be a station at the 428-room Adolphus Hotel and the 330-room Magnolia directly adjacent to it. Within a block or two sits the 125-room Joule (they are currently expanding) and 169-room Indigo (at the Harwood Station), while the old Grand hotel is being redeveloped. The vast majority of residential buildings are in the Main Street core, of which this line is directly adjacent. The majority of offices are above Commerce Street, with the exception of AT&T, which is directly adjacent to a station, and Dallas City Hall. Add in the fact that Commerce, despite being too wide with too many one-way traffic lanes, is relatively walkable, it adds to the viability of the transit line. Simply put, this alignment is the most urban of all of them. If riders feel comfortable walking, then they will. Of all the options, this one is the most urban with the most compatible land uses and urban design.

Coming in a close second for me is the B4 Young alignment. It lacks the urban vibrancy of the Commerce alignment, and therefore will detract from potential ridership right there. It is also further away from the big drivers of transit ridership.

The first time around I was a bit more opposed, but because it splits the big employers of downtown (AT&T and Dallas City Hall) and it fits in with the fact that DART is a commuter system, I am a little less so now. That statement may confuse loyal readers, as I have railed against DART for designing a commuter system over an urban-style rail system (that's why I prefer the Commerce option), but that was before the streetcar became a serious option.

There were rumors at the time, but there has been concrete progress on the Oak Cliff line since and the momentum to connect it to MATA in Uptown is growing. The streetcar has the chance to be the true urban transportation system. It currently runs in the heart of Uptown. Though the first phase of the Oak Cliff portion isn't the greatest, the subsequent phases will run through the urban heart of Oak Cliff (I also have more faith that the folks running it "get" urban design, and therefore will produce a great product). So the DART rail system will function as the commuter system and the streetcar could function as the urban system, especially if the downtown portion is routed properly. As such, the Young option would be a good commuter line. Coupled with the Orange Line, the North Central corridor and the Northwest corridor from Bachman Station into downtown would reach both the current transit mall and the new line. With B4, it would split the difference, providing adequate coverage.

While I don't think it will produce as many riders as the Commerce subway would, the urban design, land-use and density just aren't there, it will do a decent job as a commuter option. Another big detractor for me is the lack of a quality pedestrian environment between Young Street and the walkable part of downtown. This would almost assuredly have to be addressed if this was the chosen alignment.

From here, there is a big drop off between second and third. The Commerce option is like getting a hundred dollar bill, the Young nine ten dollar bills. My third choice is like getting two $20's.

B4a is okay, but will lack for riders compared to the previous two. The only real draw is the City Hall Station, though even that is tempered by the possibility of closure after hours for security reasons. After that, there isn't much to attract any riders. The potential Farmers Market Station at roughly north of Canton and Ceasar Chavez is near some residential (though with huge suburban parking ratios) but that is it. The Farmers Market is actually several blocks to the south, on some of the most auto-dominated streets in downtown. The walk would be unfriendly and the current land-use and urban design won't help attract many riders.

Of the original four, B4b is my least favorite (maybe worth $15). I am glad to see that city officials are backing away from this option (though maybe not, since they are favoring a worse one). The Omni will not attract many riders to the rail system. As I chronicled in this post, across the country, regardless of the mode of rail, the airport stations carry a very small fraction of total system ridership. This was true in the bigger more traditional east coast cities, to the newer light rail systems similar to Dallas. This is likely that the regular everyday users aren't going to the airport and those using the airport aren't likely to take a load of luggage on a rail system. Those that do use the system are airport employees (and since airports are sprawled and decidedly low on the density scale,  they don't use it in any high proportion) and some business travelers. Most of the riders the Omni will attract is employees, and since there are greater concentrations of workers in other parts of downtown, it just doesn't make sense. It suffers from the same problems as the Marilla option, but will take way more time for riders to go from point A to B (reducing ridership) and cost a lot more to build.

Sadly, when adding either C3 option, nothing changes for me. Since their routing and station placements are so similar, the drawbacks are the same. If the other four were worth something, this feels like we have to pay something.

My biggest problem is directly tied to ridership. With most alternatives taking a near direct path through downtown with a central transfer point at Pacific and Lamar. That point is in the middle of downtown. And being direct, it will have no adverse effect on ridership. The C3's will avoid the heart of downtown. Having a central transfer point is great, but Union Station should not be it. Even if all the redevelopment talk materializes, most riders will still be destined for other parts of downtown. So picture yourself an Orange or Green Line rider, with a destination that is the most common, the center to northern part of downtown. From the north, they have to travel from Victory to Union, transfer at Union, then take a train up to at least the West End Station. Because either station is a subway, the transfer will take a bit more time, C3a will be directly under the current Union platform, C3 will be on the other side of the building. The trip length for most riders will be at least ten minutes longer than any other option, and likely closer to twenty. For captive riders, they will take it no matter what, but for most choice riders coming from outside of downtown it will be a deal breaker. Downtown doesn't need rail service on the outskirts. It needs it to be where it is most convenient for riders, not developers.

This is one of the critiques thrown at planners. They see Union as the location where Red, Blue, TRE and Amtrak trains meet, with a possibility of high-speed rail one day, and say that is where every other train line needs to be routed to make it multi-modal. West End works because there already is a great concentration of places to go for a great deal of people. It naturally morphed into a great transfer place because of what was already there. One can go in any direction and find places to go. The same can not be said for Union.

As an added bonus, I will critique a loyal readers proposal.

From Ken Duble in an e-mail:
My thought: rather than tunnel under Lamar and have two separate West End stations, why not tunnel underneath the Omni -- a shorter and less costly tunnel -- and use existing track between Union Station and the West End, as well as the existing station, then send the line north into the Victory area from there? Not only would this mean less track and less expenditure, but it would make Union a transit hub.

There's a something to this, but I don't think it is feasible. It keeps the West End as a hub but it doesn't solve the time problem of the C3 options. The core of downtown workers, residents and visitors is still above Jackson Street, and tunneling under the Omni ignores these key riders. It also doesn't relieve potential bottlenecks along the existing transit mall, which is a goal of the project.  I don't know his exact routing from the Omni out, but there is a horseshoe effect here, Omni, Union, West End. That means added time, which will have an added effect on ridership reduction.

Bottom line, there really is no way to serve Union without adding time and transfers for existing riders. I think if any Union Station alternative is chosen, there is a really good possibility that overall ridership of the existing Orange Line and maybe the Green could decline. I really believe the added time to take the rail system along with an unneeded transfer will really be a deal-breaker for some current riders.

I really hope the process will be able shake off the political pressure Dallas officials are putting on DART to get this route. They look at the rail line like a freeway exit, but it doesn't work that way. Also remember there are a great many riders who do not go downtown, but just pass through it, like from Plano or Richardson to Las Colinas. Adding an extra 20-40 minutes round trip will be a deal breaker. It already is time consuming, which has put off potential ridership gains, as seen in this post.

 These are one-and-done proposition. Once the lines are laid, that is it. Here's hoping it is done right. If not, DART will still rank at the bottom of U.S. rail systems per mile.


Ken Duble said...

I'm loving this discussion! I'll make a few remarks until the wife comes home and pulls me away....

First of all, a bit of housekeeping. It wasn't declining sales tax revenue that has foundered D2. In addition to cost overruns -- the Orange line came in nearly a billion dollars over budget -- the agency's estimates on sales tax revenue has always erred on the side of optimism. Finally, a portion of the funding always comes from U.S. assistance. With the end of earmarking, and more austere times in general, there seems to be less U.S. assistance for transit than previously.

I agree with your take on the Lamar-Young alternatives. There are costs to building an LRT line through a neighborhood in pedestrian disruption, vehicular disruption and its negative impact on business development through such factors as loss of on-street parking. In eliminating the station, DART would deliver the bad without the good. I also agree with your take on the elevated line. As a point of clarification, however, even the B4 without Harwood station would require removal of the parking garage. Eliminating the station preserves some of the lot. Only the elevated scenario preserves the parking garage. Without this benefit, there would be no elevated scenario.

I agree on your Commerce comments. But, as you say yourself, the streetcar changes everything. Jim Schutze, of the Dallas Observer, has argued for the Commerce option precisely because putting two lines with alternative stations parallel to each other could be Dallas' best shot at creating a pedestrian culture downtown. I call this the tight-loop benefit. On the other hand, and I've prodded Schutze's thinking on this as well, streetcars scenarios really do change everything. Rather than a tight loop, we not have the opportunity to make the loop as large as possible, to extend rail service to as much of downtown as possible, and use streetcars to fill in the interior.

You say the walk from Farmers Market Station would be unfriendly, but the whole layout of the district is changing fast. Given the developments going on there now, I think it's safe to say that, by the time D2 comes along after 2030 or so, none of these observations of the street-scape will still be relevant.

Regarding your comments on serving a broader arch, and how this would add ride time, it always adds ride time when you include areas people want to go.

You make the observation that "there are a great many riders who do not go downtown, but just pass through it, like from Plano or Richardson to Las Colinas. Adding an extra 20-40 minutes round trip will be a deal breaker." Yet, isn't this the same rationale for cutting freeways through the center, which you say you hate? This is a big issue: Do we build a system to serve regional commuters, or do we build a system to serve urbanites?

Regarding the Union-Convention Center options, the political pressure of Dallas only matters if Dallas brings money to the table.

Branden said...

Good points, but I have a few opinions and observations.

The no Harwood option would take some of the garage, but I believe that it would be enough to keep the structure. The center of the building is the core and vehicle traffic revolves around it. The parking row facing Young would be an ROW requirement, but I believe the garage itself would be preserved. Either way it is a bad idea.

The problem with choosing a streetcar over LRT on Commerce is capacity and connectivity. LRT is supposed to be a poor man's urban rail system, but we are designing it as a commuter rail system, which are cheaper anyway. If the goal is increased ridership, then hands down the Commerce is the best option. The streetcar is best suited for Main Street.

The problem with extending the rail all over downtown is it will suffer what the system suffers from, low ridership per mile. If Commerce has highest rider potential, then that should be where the line should go. DART has one of the lowest rider per mile numbers of any North American system, which has some of the lowest in the world. Why would we keep building an expensive type of rail and put it where it will serve fewer riders?

The walk down Ceasar Chavez will always be horrendous, it has 6-8 wide lanes for cars only at a speed of 45 mph.

There is a huge difference between rail and highway at this point. Suburb-to-suburb trips can be made out the belt highways like 635 or the Bush. For rail, it is through downtown. Anything that adds time to transfer adds time for everyone that is not a single-line rider. And it doesn't have to pertain to suburb residents. If you ive in Uptown, why is there a need to add 10-20 minutes?

If we build one for urbanites, why do you suggest using Union Station? it will be a system virtually useless to anyone who lives in the urban core. It's only value is the TRE, which is commuter or Amtrak, which is used very sparingly.

The bottom line, whether you are a suburbanite commuting or and urbanite transporting, the Commerce subway offers more destinations and have the highest ridership potential.

Ken Duble said...

“The no Harwood option would take some of the garage, but I believe that it would be enough to keep the structure.”

I attended the hearing. We were told it wouldn’t, that only the elevated option would do this. It really doesn’t matter, though. Neither of us likes this alternative.

I’ve seen proposals for a streetcar down Main. A streetcar on Commerce is something I’d neither proposed nor considered.

Were it in operation today, I agree Commerce would serve the most commuters. The problem is it isn’t in operation today, and we’re talking about something after 2030. Nobody has any idea what downtown will look like 50 years from now, and this needs to be our minimum time horizon. Highways create their own traffic. I believe rail can do the same. We need to anticipate, not just build for the present. I believe LRT can be a transformative tool if used correctly. In the case of Commerce, there would be nothing to transform. Everything is already in place.

If our intention is to build a system in which ridership would grow faster than the population, we need to anticipate the future. Flight restrictions come off Love Field in 2020. I suspect its development will follow that of Hobby, which will handle international flights in just a few years. We need to look for the money to redo Love and pass the line underneath the terminal as originally planned. We need to seek the money to bring the TRE into DFW. This was supposed to have been in place in 2008. And, we need to quit making the same mistakes and spend the money to get these connections right the first time.

I see the day when HSR passengers from East Texas could get off at Union, change trains, and take LRT straight to a station beneath the Love Field Terminal, or take the TRE to connect directly with Skylink. A pass could be included in the price of their travel booking. If we could ever build a system attractive to transit passengers, we’d have a system of value to locals.

I don’t get your reference to Cesar Chavez.

I agree Amtrak is used sparingly today. I’m not interested in building a system for today. We have to envision tomorrow.