Texans making tracks
Dallas-Ft. Worth region sees a robust transit network as part of providing options for commuters in this pickup truck-loving state. Atlanta can draw lessons from this conservative competitor.
By the AJC Editorial Board
PLANO, Texas — Even without verdant hills, the heart of this suburb looks much like some OTP towns around Atlanta.
A block from the downtown street that’s home to a trendy tea room, antique stores and offices stands a white frame house with a wooden rocker on the porch. A large, open field and a tin-roofed shed are next door. Birds’ song carries across the humid air.
A pair of railroad tracks separates the two scenes and the bustle of Dallas seems a world away.
Then the rail crossing bells begin to clang and gates lower. A light-rail train appears and comes to a stop, doors opening onto a platform shared with a low, modern apartment building built to blend with nearby vintage architecture.
The standing room-only Dallas Area Rapid Transit train unloads a respectable number of passengers, who quickly disperse into the quiet evening. Then the train moves on.
Bedroom community linked to job centers. This could be Atlanta, if we choose progress over the problematic present.
Dallas-Ft. Worth is similar to the Atlanta metro in significant ways. They’re an estimable competitor for businesses and jobs. Population density’s remained low in both regions, even with rapid growth. As a result, like us, they endure the hassle and economic cost imposed by slow going along overworked roads.
Yet, they’ve taken large steps on transit in recent years while we’ve largely stood still. Since MARTA opened its most recent stops in 2000, Dallas-Ft. Worth has begun or expanded multiple rail and road options to ease congestion and ease commutes. They’re moving into the 21st-century while elements here stubbornly cling to a mid-1950’s model.
It’s valuable to study rivals, especially when much of our economic future rides on the July 31 vote on the penny transportation sales tax.
That realization sparked a trip last week to Dallas to observe its operation of the nation’s largest light rail system by route miles. To be sure, not all of this conservative region of 6 million people has warmed to rail transit.
Yet, as a Texas opinion writer observed, even conservatives hate to be stuck in traffic. So, in the years since voters approved a penny transportation tax in 1983, the Metroplex has set about creating options to ease traffic on tick-tight roads, while improving air quality and access to job centers, especially for workers without cars.
Options. The word has a nice ring to it. The Dallas North Tollway and the President George Bush Turnpike offer a 65 mph ride — for a price. DART also manages 84 miles of freeway HOV lanes.
There are lessons here for Atlanta, we believe. That’s because a great perch to observe morning congestion on Interstate 35E and other main roads in Big D is from the windows of a Trinity Rail Express commuter train, galloping between Ft. Worth and Dallas. Onboard a Wi-Fi-equipped railcar last week, riders stared into laptops or tapped on smartphones. The double-deck train was mostly full, with slim chances of getting a seat all to yourself.
Perhaps Brenda Cuellar’s 1996 experience with MARTA influenced her decision to use the TRE to travel between her Bedford, Texas, home and a new IT job in Dallas. “We went to the Olympics and we utilized MARTA and I realized it got us everywhere we needed to go,” she said.
Dallas-Ft. Worth’s transit moves reflect both current realities and projections for the future, said Mabrie Jackson, president and CEO of the North Texas Commission, a group of business and government entities that promotes the region. The Metroplex continues to add a resident, on average, about every four minutes. “The only way for us to keep up with this growth is to have a robust regional transit system,” she said. “We needed to start looking into the future and how we move people around.”
She acknowledged resistance in some quarters to this ongoing work. “Southerners usually have not had to take a train anywhere — it’s cultural,” she said. Still, the entities that’ve supported transit see it as a sound investment.
Gary Elmore, of Plano, was happy to trade his truck for a DART train. “I love it,” he said while waiting for a train home. “Like everybody in Texas, I drive a big old truck and it gets lousy gas mileage.” Using transit to and from work “saves wear and tear on my truck, mileage and everything else.”
And, no, this suburbanite doesn’t believe transit’s part of a socialist-style scheme to remake how or where we live. “Oh hell no,” he said when asked that question.
Dallas-Ft. Worth has provided choices and continues to build options for its future in the belief that tomorrow won’t mimic the present. Capitalism tends to work that way.
Transit seems an enabler of lifestyles here, not a harsh remaker.
That observation validates the strategic potential of building out a better multimodal transportation network for Atlanta if we want to remain competitive in an ever-evolving nation and world.
No one should understand that better than metro Atlantans, given that a willingness to pursue life on the leading edge pushed us onto the list of great metro areas.
We must remember that on Election Day.
Andre Jackson, for the Editorial Board
Pro & Con: On the transportation sales tax
Following are excerpts from a recent AJC community forum on transportation sponsored by PNC Bank. Check out video from the forum and search the AJC’s update database of proposed projects only at www.ajc.com/news/transportation-referendum.
Mayor of Norcross and chairman of the regional roundtable that chose the transportation referendum project list:
I have seen the population just explode over the years in Atlanta, and infrastructure not so much. And so it’s not necessarily something that’s going to make a great deal of difference to me being a mayor in a small town, but to my children and to my grandchildren; if we don’t do something now, then when?
And this would really give us a boost in the arm that we have needed for so long. And I think this is the way to go and I am a true believer.
Our job was to set a criteria for picking the projects, which we did. Part of the criteria includes economic development, traffic mitigation, quality of life. We didn’t just make up projects. It had to be already in the plans. For instance, let’s take Ga. 400 and I-285, which was just named the worst intersection in the country to get through. That’s a huge project for Atlanta, for everybody.
So, we looked at where the people were going. If you look at where most of the money is coming in this project, it is employment centers, Emory and CDC; downtown Atlanta, you’ve got Georgia Tech and Georgia State.
If you look at where the main projects are, it is traffic mitigation and it is options. I think it’s a great list.
Fayette County Commissioner and critic of the transportation referendum :
If you look at where Atlanta has been and how we got to where we are, I think we really took infrastructure for granted. If you look at a lot of cities who have grid patterns … where they can move traffic and do it in alternate ways if needed, there were a lot of opportunities that we had when we were a growing region where we had a lot of virgin land and we could have done a lot of things. Unfortunately, we didn’t do a lot of those things.
Everyone on my side that I have spoken to agrees we need to do something about traffic congestion. No one likes to sit in traffic and that problem is only going to get worse. What we are primarily arguing about is the projects that are on the list. And we have a problem with the projects, how they were put into that system, if those problems actually handle traffic congestion relief or not, and the bang for the dollar.
I’m not opposed to necessarily all rapid transit. I take the train into town. . I’ll take it in town if it’s near. But I don’t want to throw money away either. That’s what I’m looking at when I’m looking at these projects. For transit to work, you have to have a certain level of density. Unfortunately, in our suburban areas. we don’t have it and it would be very, very difficult to create it in a way that it would work.
Transportation policy analyst, Reason Foundation:
I would offer a nuanced view on (the merits of the T-SPLOST). I think it depends on where you live and it depends on the specific project. So, if you’re close to the Ga. 400, I-285 project, maybe you live in Sandy Springs and you work in downtown Atlanta, you’re going to get a lot of benefit because that project is going to be good for you.
But if you’re in some other parts of the region, if you’re in Gwinnett County and you have only a planning study and you really don’t have much in the way of highway improvements. If you’re in Henry County and you really don’t have much in the way of regional improvements … there’s really not a lot to benefit you.
And I’m also not a fan of some of the transit projects because I don’t think they go from home to work. So I think the answer is, it depends.
Atlanta is the least dense city in the world with more than 3 million people. We also know that what really drives development is land use and land use patterns. One of the reasons why Atlanta is not dense is because we have chosen a land use pattern that is basically somewhat friendly to suburbs … .
Now from my perspective, we should be producing the transportation system that people in this region want. But … by and large, people in Atlanta have not voted for denser development.
President of LOCUS, land use strategist and developer:
For the 6,000 years we’ve been building cities, the transportation system that we the people select dictates your future economic prospects. And this is an Olympic moment for you as far as your future economy … . And your ancestors knew the importance of transportation; you’ve forgotten it.
Again, I’ve known you for over 30 years and I’ve always known you as Hotlanta. And unfortunately, you’re not hot. You’ve gone flat-line. You’ve had a lost decade. You have fewer jobs today than you had in 2001. And it’s because you’ve not invested in what Atlanta has always invested in — it is the next transportation system. Transportation drives development.
You wouldn’t build a subdivision out on a farm if it just had a dirt road. You wouldn’t take that farm and put a subdivision there or put a business park there and say, whoa then, I’ll take care of the transportation later. The transportation had to be there first. So, the only reason you’re going to get density is by building the proper infrastructure to allow the density to come. And cities throughout this country are well in front of you. You’ve been lapped and if you don’t pass this, the only people who are going to be applauding are Charlotte and Dallas and Houston and Phoenix and St. Louis and Denver and Salt Lake City … and they want to eat your lunch.