Dallas DART Desperation: Cost is Growing but Ridership is Not

COST Commentary: Below is an article from the June 10 Dallas Morning News. It is a story of the Dallas Dart light rail nearing the end of its planned expansion to a 90 mile system, the longest in North America. Following the reporter’s article is a Dallas Morning News editorial dated the following day, June 11.

DART’s light rail investment is more that $5 billion is today’s dollars and its annual bond debt service is greater than the current annual cost of operating all of Cap Metro’s transit system for the Austin region. This debt would be much higher if interest rates were at more “normal,” higher levels.

Several key statements from the article below point to the simple conclusion that rail: COSTS TOO MUCH and DOES TO LITTLE. Experience has proven this again and again, yet the city of Austin and Cap Metro continue the wasteful spending of millions to plan the spending of billions on rail systems to follow in the tracks of Dallas and numerous other cities.

Statements from the Dallas Morning News article below:

“The longer many stations are in service, the less people use them.”

“Plano has collected nearly $1 billion in sales taxes to support DART, and its two rail stations opened a decade ago. But the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent estimate is that, of the city’s 133,000 or so workers, only about 2,000 used mass transit of any kind — buses or rail — in 2010. That’s down a third since 2005.”

“The use of mass transit [total bus and train] in Dallas appears to be falling, too. In 2005, 23,180 workers, or about 4.35 percent, commuted by bus or rail. By 2010, that had fallen below 20,000—“

Cost Comment on quotes above: DART light rail has clearly not been cost effective for Plano or Dallas residents. This money could have been used on far more important priorities. Dallas, Houston and Austin overall transit ridership is flat to down over the past dozen years while they are among the fastest growing cities in the nation and have spent billions to encourage transit ridership, primarily with new train systems. The underline and insert above is by COST.

“Money and ridership have been on DART officials’ minds lately because fares are slated to go up in December, pending a board vote in August. The increase will chase some riders away, officials acknowledge, but they need the money.”

COST Comment on quote above: Transit fares increase more rapidly in almost all rail cities, including Austin. This reduces lower income ridership and degrade overall social equity.

DART management’s answer to its lack of ridership growth and poor cost-effectiveness seems to be the same as in other regions: Give us a chance and more time. DART President Gary Thomas also laments no control over certain factors: “Our region is very different from many others. We are among the fastest-growing regions in America, and a lot of that growth is outside the DART service area.” An often stated excuse for rail’s failure to meet exaggerated ridership projections is that it must be expanded further. The proven fact is: The more rail is expanded the less cost-effective it is as ridership per track mile decreases. The other factor, Mr. Thomas is ignoring is that that population growth in the vast majority of all major city regions is predominately in the outer portions of the region. People in these areas are not attracted to train transit in significant numbers because the train does not go where they wish to go.

Missing from this article and editorial is a major future issue facing many rail cities. Dallas is more than half-way through the life of its original train segment which began 16 years ago. Just as DART pays off early debt bonds, new bonds will be required to replace and refurbish aging equipment. There is no identified source of funding for this in most rail cities. The FTA has estimated about $80 billion is required now and it will grow rapidly. The federal government paid a major portion of most of the original light rail train systems but will likely be unable to support their replacement.

The editorial below contains a very naïve list of suggestions for promoting greater DART ridership. Most have no basis for their success and would cost more than their benefit. Suggesting that “using mass transit saves money” is a complete misunderstanding of the situation. It may save money for the rider, but not for society, because it is highly subsidized by taxpayers who receive little or no benefit. Trends in population living and destinations dispersion are also counter to the densities and inflexible fixed routes of rail transit.
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As rail expansion nears end, DART faces challenge: how to add riders

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER
Dallas Morning News, Transportation Writer
Published: 10 June 2012 11:11 PM

Dallas Area Rapid Transit has a problem. As it approaches its 30th birthday, the agency is about to run out of rail lines to build. And building rail lines is what DART does best.

By 2014, it will have built four lines, creating a modern light-rail system that, at 90 miles, is the largest in North America.

But when the construction crews go home and riders can navigate among 61 rail stations spread across much of the region, DART will confront a challenge as old as its oldest rail cars: How to grow ridership?

DART light-rail ridership has grown significantly since the first cars began moving 16 years ago this month, but that growth has been dependent on a stream of groundbreakings. Largely obscured by all the ribbon-cuttings: The longer many stations are in service, the less people use them.

Of 34 stations that were open before the Green Line came on board beginning three years ago, 15 serve fewer people now than in their first year of service. Of the stations where use has grown since they opened, most serve no more people today than they did eight to 10 years ago.

Some stations are exceptions. The four stations along Akard Street in Dallas have all posted large gains, especially West End Station. Together they serve about 4,500 more riders than they did in the first April after they opened in 1996. But those figures are boosted by the fact that downtown stations are fed by passengers on all three rail lines.

That history weighs on DART officials as they contemplate a future beyond 2014, when the last major rail expansion for many years ends with a new Orange Line station at Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. Some smaller projects, including the extension of the Blue Line to south Oak Cliff, are still planned.

Then DART will have to start winning over residents who have so far opted against using the rail options already available.

It’s a task the agency, created by popular election in 1983, has never been very good at. And it is one that’s likely to get more difficult as fares rise and the agency experiments with paid parking.
One board member thinks he has at least part of the answer — if only DART executives will act on it. Former Chairman Bill Velasco said DART must find a way to focus more on the people it was created to serve, and see them as customers.

“Our problem is that it’s been all about DART for the past 29 years,” said Velasco, an 11-year board member. “We’ve got to buy this, build that. Now it’s time to be sensitive to our riders. Our customers. We have to ask, ‘What do they need? What do they want?’”

‘Give us a chance’

Velasco said making the public case for DART should be easy, given how frustrating Dallas-area highways can be.

“I don’t believe everybody is sitting in their cars backed up for miles and miles and miles every day and saying to themselves, ‘I am glad I am sitting in traffic,’” he said. “They would ride us if we can just convince them to give us a chance.”

But to look at DART light-rail ridership over time is to see a story of success and failure.

On the one hand, the agency in 16 years has built a system that has 55 stations and in April provided an average of 76,000 trips per day. That’s roughly 34,200 passengers, about as many as Seattle, Houston and Minneapolis combined.

However, it is much less than Los Angeles, San Diego or Portland, Ore. Boston has the nation’s busiest light-rail network, providing on average 233,000 trips per day.

Stagnant ridership can be seen in the passenger numbers at many DART stations. The Arapaho station in Richardson is a good example. In the first April after its opening in late 2002, about 1,000 people used the station each weekday. By this April, the number was down to about 400.

Up the line in Plano, the downtown station has brought economic development in the form of new retail, restaurants and apartments within walking distance of the platform. Mayor Phil Dyer said that’s one major reason he remains a fan of DART, despite its inability to add more riders at the two stations in his city.

But in the nearly 10 years it has been open, the downtown Plano station has never attracted more than an average of about 350 passengers each weekday. In April, that number was about 250.

Plano has collected nearly $1 billion in sales taxes to support DART, and its two rail stations opened a decade ago. But the U.S. Census Bureau’s most recent estimate is that of the city’s 133,000 or so workers, only about 2,000 used mass transit of any kind — buses or rail — in 2010. That’s down a third since 2005.

The use of mass transit in Dallas appears to be falling, too. In 2005, 23,180 workers, or about 4.35 percent, commuted by bus or rail. By 2010, that had fallen below 20,000, though DART and other officials hope those numbers improve as unemployment in the area goes down.

Moving to stability

None of this is news to DART President Gary Thomas, who will mark 12 years at the helm in August. His agency has hired new executives and restructured management in anticipation of new challenges as it transitions from a project-oriented agency to a service-oriented one.

In addition, he said, existing facilities are getting improvements designed to make customers happier — new message boards at platforms, a new fleet of modern buses and added security on every train.

Still, he said, the biggest hurdles are beyond his power to remove.

“There are some things that we can directly control, and there are other things that we have very, very little control over,” Thomas said. “Our region is very different from many others. We are among the fastest-growing regions in America, and a lot of that growth is outside the DART service area.”

David Leininger, the agency’s chief financial officer, said one thing that should come soon is more stability. Everything about the agency — from its expansion plan to its service schedules — has been in flux in the past decade because of its growth and the bad economy.

“It’s been changing virtually every two years for 10 years,” Leininger said. “But we are moving into a period of system stability, and we should begin having a better line of sight on ridership.”

Ideas vs. money

DART still enjoys a cadre of die-hard supporters, and many have ideas for making the agency more customer-friendly.

Oak Cliff resident Jon Daniel, a manufacturer’s representative who works in Addison, said it shouldn’t be entirely on DART’s shoulders to lure riders. For example, he and others say, the city of Dallas should insist that downtown parking rates go up to make transit more attractive.

Daniel also wonders why DART doesn’t offer more late-night trains on weekends for suburbanites who want to go downtown, or bus circulators that connect busy entertainment areas to train stations.

Such ideas are welcome, said DART’s vice president for planning, Todd Plesko. The problem isn’t a lack of enthusiasm for new options, he said, but finding the money to pay for them.

“Our service planning staff would love to have money to spend to experiment on many different models, and we have done that in the past,” he said. “But it’s not unlimited.”

Money and ridership have been on DART officials’ minds lately because fares are slated to go up in December, pending a board vote in August. The increase will chase some riders away, officials acknowledge, but they need the money.

“The easy answer … is that we could easily generate higher ridership by putting a whole lot more service on the street, particularly on the bus side,” Leininger said. “But we would incur very large losses.”

Velasco said he will oppose the fare increase, and he hopes to win converts among his board allies, but he isn’t likely to stop it. He said he is most interested in pushing DART to do more to lure commuters to DART. He knows they are out there, just waiting to be reached.

“I think there is a lot of pent-up demand as far as our riders go,” he said. “They just haven’t given us a chance. We need to spend more effort on getting our riders out of their cars and trucks and willing to try our system.”

Follow our transportation coverage on Twitter at @lindenberger and on our blog at transportationblog.dallasnews.com.
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Dallas Morning News

Editorial: Where’s the DART ridership plan?
Published: 11 June 2012 10:15 PM

Building the light-rail system with the longest reach in North America is something that Dallas Area Rapid Transit can rightly be proud of. “On time and under budget,” as the agency’s leaders like to say about the multibillion-dollar construction juggernaut.

Then there’s the really hard part: Putting riders on those trains and keeping them there. That’s one place where DART shouldn’t be crowing about its record.

In an article charting the performance of DART’s 55 light-rail stations, Dallas Morning News transportation writer Michael Lindenberger showed this week that many locations now serve far fewer riders than when they opened.

As DART gets ready to extend service to two more communities this year — Irving and Rowlett — it must forge a plan to build ridership over the long term.

In fact, board members need to put the brakes on approving higher fares sought by DART staff until the agency can get moving on a fresh ridership strategy. A new focus on attracting customers would be a wise message, given the proposal to double the cost of the day pass from just six years ago.

We know there will be no magic bullet and that DART’s jurisdiction ends at its property line. Yet it needs to partner more effectively with its 13 member cities, where possible, to build and grow a loyal customer base. Efforts fall in these general areas:

Messaging: DART needs to tell its story better with testimonials and talking points about how using mass transit saves money. The agency offers free parking in lots across most member cities, for example. Promote, promote, promote.

Amenities: How about doughnuts, bagels and coffee carts to start the day, and chilled drinks, water and taco vendors to cap it off? What about WiFi on trains?

Accessibility and signage: Some DART stations are hidden away so well that it’s hard even for locals to get there. Others are nearly inaccessible to pedestrians. Every city hall in DART’s service area must help the public find and reach these locations.

Development: Fostering dense communities around stations builds long-term, permanent ridership. Yet development and commercial activity appears stalled in several spots. Again, DART must partner with city officials to avoid avoidable transit-oriented business busts.

Promotions: DART is now offering free weekly passes to prospective riders who trade in a gasoline receipt they got for the last fill-up. Good move, but it had only limited hours and scattered sign-up locations. Do more of this, perhaps branching out to free monthly passes in the future. Get serious.

Bottom line for us is seeing DART kick it up several notches. It’s reasonable to ask whether the agency would be in its current financial squeeze had it been working as intently on attracting passengers as it has been on extending its network to 90 miles of track by 2014.

Readers’ ideas

Dallas Morning News writers asked blog readers and Twitter users how DART could build ridership. A sampling:

Jonathan Braddick: “You focus too much on the rail. … DART MUST focus on providing fast and reliable bus service in order to increase its ridership. Make it easier to catch a bus anywhere in the DART service center.”

Jon Daniel: “Late night trains on Friday and Saturday night for suburb people going downtown. DART should get Booze/Beer companies to sponsor … (and added security) as anti-drunk driving campaign.”
Randell Weatherall Jr.: “DART itself needs to take a more active role in the real estate surrounding its stations. Perhaps become a quasi development firm. I think this is most important because of the poor density of all kinds around each station.”

Ken Duble: “Dallas needs to come up with a new style of TOD [transit-oriented development] zoning. This would eliminate all parking requirements for mixed-use developments locating in close proximity to these stations, and ban big-box retail.”

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