Thursday, April 03, 2014

DART delivers

Written by  Douglas John Bowen, Managing Editor
DART delivers DART
Thirty years in existence, 18 of those with light rail transit, Dallas Area Rapid Transit has established itself as a stellar U.S. rail transit operator.

In just three decades, or roughly one generation, DART has smashed numerous “conventional wisdom” shibboleths—Texans won’t use public transit, won’t use light rail transit, won’t support LRT, won’t choose to live in urban centers—as it continues to succeed, and grow.

And for those skeptics (in North Texas and elsewhere) who still hold to those beliefs, DART President and CEO Gary Thomas notes, “Our biggest challenge today is addressing the question, ‘How can we get this [DART service] in our community?’”

Thomas, overseeing DART since August 2001, says DART’s growth reflects the drive by hometown Dallas to meet its 21st century needs. “It’s been a very fast 30 years, and it’s amazing to think of where we started, convincing the region to vote for something that it had no idea what we were going to deliver,” he says. “People had confidence and trust of the leadership at that time, and they had a vision.” But it was, he acknowledges, a leap of faith for many as DART sought to employ a 1% sales tax among 13 North Texas municipalities “when we didn’t know what was going to happen.”

What happened was growth in Dallas, which necessitated growth in bus and LRT service. Says Thomas, “Thirty years ago, traffic wasn’t as bad, and we weren’t yet the fourth-largest metro region in the country.”

Airport access, downtown doings

DART HiRes map dec12And grow DART has, with current daily ridership hovering between 100,000 and 110,000 customers on its four LRT lines, stretching over roughly 85 miles, larger than many other highly touted (“and often equally excellent,” Thomas notes) U.S. LRT operations.

With the first 24 miles of DART’s Red Line debuting in 1996, “I think it cemented that confidence level,” Thomas says. DART LRT operations roughly doubled by 2002, and it is “doubling that again, to where we’ll have the longest light rail system in North America.”

That growth includes an anticipated DART Orange Line link to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport, one of the nation’s busiest air hubs, now scheduled to open Aug. 18, 2014. The official target opening date had been set for December, but Thomas notes that with the DART airport station “coming along” and with live catenary testing slated to occur this month, “Our goal is to have it open before the State Fair of Texas in late September.”

“You’ll see a 12-month rollout,” Thomas points out, adding that the significance of airport access is a belief shared not just by himself and DART, but by D/FW Airport CEO Sean Donohue, who upon meeting Thomas for the first time remarked, “Every world-class airport has a good rail connection.” With airport access generating more anticipated ridership, DART and Dallas officials are also eyeing capacity constraints in DART’s downtown route structure, used by all four LRT lines. Though not yet decided, plans lean toward a second LRT route through downtown Dallas. “It is critical to long-term success of the organization; no one’s questioning that,” Thomas says.

“The questions are: Where does it go, how do we pay? As DART [LRT] continues to grow, as people ride it, there’ll be more pressure,” Thomas says. And a second route also will offer positive redundancy in case one downtown right-of-way suffers any disruption and becomes blocked off or truncated for any considerable period of time.

LRT capacity downtown also will aid any private, state, or federal plans for high speed rail serving Dallas in the future. “People are talking about HSR between Houston and downtown Dallas,” says Thomas, and if that’s ever to be done, DART must be ready to handle the passenger intermodal potential. “We want to be able to look back and have people say, ‘Somebody was really paying attention.’”

Consideration was given to the use of a downtown streetcar line to augment and alleviate LRT access, “but it is a core capacity project, so it likely will be LRT,” Thomas says. “But we’ve got streetcar opportunities.”

Modal diversity embraced

Indeed, unlike many U.S. public transit agencies, DART has embraced the idea of rail submodes, particularly streetcar operations, as part of the transit mix.

DART itself didn’t spearhead the effort to establish the $51 million, two-mile Oak Cliff streetcar project linking Dallas Union Station (and DART LRT) with the city’s namesake neighborhood; neighborhood activists did that. But DART quickly moved to assist the project, both financially and in the planning process, and DART has agreed to operate the new line once it becomes operational in 2014.

Thomas believes the integration of Dallas LRT and streetcars is just starting, describing the latter as “the last mile” of integrated public transit, and noting numerous Dallas neighborhoods once served by streetcars seek to restore them.

The Oak Cliff project, he points out, sought funding first through the federal TIGER grant program, awarded to the city and other non-governmental organizations (NGOs). “But as you look around the country in so many places, cities and transit agencies struggle with who’s going to do this. Here, it’s a team effort. The Council of Governments got the grant; the city said, ‘DART has the expertise to do this.’ So we’re building it; we’re operating it; we’ll maintain it, basically on behalf of the city of Dallas,” Thomas asserts.

Expanding the customer base

Future expansion also includes the Cotton Belt project. “Our system is a hub and spoke system; the Cotton Belt is one of those crosstown corridors,” Thomas says. Owned by DART, with route and specific rail mode to be determined, it offers an opportunity to connect “across the region.” “We’re shooting for a 2025 time frame, but people ask, ‘How can we speed this up?’” he observes.

Such expansion projects will cost money, and Thomas allows that generating such financial support won’t grow any easier in the years ahead. “The reality is, there’s not an endless stream of money to let the sales tax get caught up with long-term debt,” he says. DART will continue to look at grant options, and alternate funding opportunities including (but not limited to) public-private partnerships.

As for the acceptance of public transit as an everyday occurrence in North Texas, “We’re getting there,” Thomas says. “But we continue to work at it. So much of our job is to educate folks on how to ride,” and some potential customers are still discouraged by cultural confusion and a lack of knowledge of how public transit works. “When you go out on the street, and ask how would you get from here to there, people still might not understand it,” the CEO observes.

Is part of that a generational difference involving rail transit? “I think so,” Thomas says, noting DART and its regional partners, Fort Worth Transportation Authority and Denton County Transportation Authority, introduced its successful GO Pass mobile ticketing application in September 2012. “Kids get that instantly,” he says.

As in other U.S. cities with rail transit, younger DART riders also seem to transcend the limitations of “commuter” rail use, something DART seeks to exploit even more as it taps different markets. “That’s the goal,” Thomas says, “getting the word out, letting people know they can get to the mall, or where they need to go, whenever they need to go.”

Thomas is optimistic good things will happen. “We’ve got an incredible team here at DART that has an incredible reputation. Cities inside our service area are good partners, as are those in the business community. We try to do what we say we’re going to do—with projects [that] are on or ahead of schedule, and within the budget established for them.”

Weather woes recapped

Dallas and DART took a hit this past winter from severe weather, and Thomas says experience is a harsh teacher. “Every time we have a situation with weather—and we’ve had two, one in 2011 with Super Bowl, one last December—we had to shut down the light rail for a time because of ice on the catenary. We had trains out running all night long, and because of the conditions related to the temperature and precipitation, the next morning I had 25 trains stuck on tracks—they lost power,” he laments.

Answers exist, including work with ice-cutter heads on pantographs, “and we’re looking at those. But at what cost? And how often will they be needed?” Thomas asks rhetorically. “We really have to think this through.”

Commiserating with TriMet LRT operations, Thomas notes that Portland, Ore., shared a similar fate this past winter. “Sleet is no problem; snow is no problem,” he says. “It’s the odd combination of rain and cold temperatures that don’t happen in a lot of places. Freezing rain causes the major problems.”

DART can’t change the weather, “but we can communicate,” Thomas says. So as problems arose during the winter, “we told the media right away; we put out the word on Twitter and on Facebook. On the platforms, we have signs that can scroll messages. And we were better prepared to have our people out on the platforms.”

Some media remained frustrated over “no solution” results, Thomas acknowledges, “but mostly we did get some acknowledgement from our customers” that DART was doing its best in a difficult situation.