TX: Dallas, Houston Follow Different Paths on Rail Development

June 22--Dallas and Houston are rarely content to confine their rivalries to the football field or the baseball diamond.

Their citizens debate which has the best restaurants, the most impressive skyline, the richest economic outlook. They're the big boys and fighting brothers of Texas, 240 miles apart.

When it comes to rail development, however, it's not just miles, but long-running philosophies dating back more than 30 years that divide Houston and Dallas as both open new rail lines this year.

The new Dallas Area Rapid Transit line links riders to the region's major airport. Houston's new Purple and Green lines, years in the making, come up far short of what's been laid in the Dallas area, but they open up rail to new parts of town.

Since 1983, and some argue even longer than that, the cities have been on vastly different trajectories when it comes to rail transit. Dallas has enjoyed a much less fractious political climate. That relative calm compared to Houston has given Dallas officials more latitude to invest and leverage local money to capture federal funds.

Officials in North Texas spent money on suburban routes rather than key urban connections. DART will soon have 90 miles serving 62 stations, while Houston later this year will have 22 miles of track and 38 major stops.

Houston's population is twice that of Dallas, though their respective metropolitan areas are similar in size.

Metropolitan Transit Authority officials decline to call the light rail lines competitors. But from time to time, as a sales pitch for more tracks, they compare DART's apparent ease of laying lines to Houston's perennial controversy.

"Dallas has almost 100 miles of light rail," Metro board chairman Gilbert Garcia once said at a business luncheon. "Certainly we can get to The Galleria."

Wide-open spaces

The race for more lines isn't much of a competition because many Gulf Coast area elected leaders don't want rail, or more specifically they don't want to spend the hundreds of millions of dollars associated with trains. As a result, Houston has taken a different tack, choosing politically palatable downtown city lines that in some respects are harder to build but carry many more riders per mile.

Which system is more successful, and which will be better off in the long run, is less clear.

The Houston and Dallas areas grew across acres of Texas prairie following World War II at similar times, similar paces, and for many of the same reasons. Jobs and opportunities were abundant, and those seeking work flocked to the cities and started putting down roots across wide regions where cars and trucks, rather than buses or trains, are the main mode of travel.

More cars, more traffic

Home builders and car dealers were happy to oblige newcomers and natives alike, and homes proliferated farther and farther from the city centers. Traffic worsened. More and wider freeways were the common solution.

By the 1980s, Greater Houston and the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex were home to more than 3 million people each, and officials were looking to light rail as a possible next step. Both metro areas pitched massive plans in 1983 after previous defeats.

North Texas voters approved a 1-cent tax and a huge overhaul of transit that ultimately would make the new DART light rail system the nation's largest by mileage of track.

Houston voters, meanwhile, turned down a plan to spend $2.35 billion to double the region's bus fleet and build an 18-mile rail system.

Subsequent years of refining and executing the ideas laid out by officials have led Dallas and Houston to different realities. Once its new Orange Line station at Dallas-Fort Worth Airport opens in August, DART will have 90 miles of light rail, all laid within the last 18 years.

Houston will not have 22 miles open until a few months later. The development disparity hasn't been lost on officials for the past few years, as DART held ribbon-cuttings and Metro nearly lost its federal funding for rail projects.

Critics unconvinced

In February, two months after an extension of Metro's Red Line opened, Houston had a little more than one-seventh Dallas' track mileage but almost half as much ridership. In Dallas, with 85 miles of track, DART logged almost 2.2 million trips in February. Metro recorded 1.03 million trips on 12.8 miles.

Skeptics argue that no matter how the numbers are parsed, rail has yet to prove its worth anywhere in Texas. Barry Klein, a rail critic for decades, said Metro and local politicians might actually have an edge on Dallas when it comes to trains.

"We have invested less, and have not replaced as much of our system with something vastly more expensive than what a bus is already providing," Klein said.

Metro's first line connected downtown to the Texas Medical Center and the NRG Park area, serving three enormous job centers and destinations. Trains arrived every six to 12 minutes at efficient little station platforms.

Dallas, meanwhile, has a system that allows riders to hop on at its Parker Road Station -- about 20 miles from downtown -- and take a train every 15 to 20 minutes for most of the day.

It took Rod Bailey's car breaking down to persuade him to hop aboard.

"I would have been one of those people thinking it was a big waste of money, until I used it," said Bailey, of Plano.

When his car broke down three years ago, his wife suggested he take the train to get to his job near Parkland Hospital. When her car went kaput a few months later, they became a one-car household and he switched to the train.

"I tell people all the time they should switch," Bailey said.

Among the more successful stops along the line is Mockingbird Station, where passengers disembark an escalator ride from a new multistory shopping and entertainment center, including an eight-screen movie theater.

Park and ride has fans

In Houston, park and ride buses still make the kind of connection Bailey uses to ride in from Plano by rail. Houston's commuter bus system relies on the HOV network along major freeways, making it susceptible to traffic jams, unlike rail.

On the other hand, unlike fixed rail, bus routes can be adjusted as travel patterns and locations change.

Still, for the roughly 35,000 trips it handles, Metro's park and ride system is efficient, albeit spotted with some problems.

"It's not perfect, but it beats driving," Marie Sanderson said as she waited for her park and ride bus back to Spring.

No Mockingbird Station-sized development has emerged along Houston's tracks, though the rail extension places a stop in Downtown's Theater District. Instead, bars and restaurants have clustered nearby more organically at certain stops, like the two-platform Preston Street area in the central business district.

Tying in suburbs

DART provides slightly more than 100,000 trips on an average work day, compared to about 43,000 for Metro.

The difference is that the Dallas trips often take travelers much farther. North Texas was largely unified in its plan for rail lines snaking well outside the urban core. Suburbanites sought a way to avoid driving downtown.

"There was a vision in 1983 to truly build a regional system," said DART spokesman Morgan Lyons. "We had cities coming to us."

Like Houston over the years, DART proposed ambitious growth plans, only to scale them back because of political choices or finances. Gary Thomas, DART's executive director, said sticking to the plan -- even as the design morphed -- helped the agency win credibility with elected officials after some "passionate conversations."

"Our plan has always been a long-range plan and financial plan," Thomas said. "Then the board can say, 'This is what we can do and when we can do it.'"

Metro's financial analysis for the current fiscal year has it collecting about $200 million more than DART from its 1 percent sales tax, but 25 percent of the total pays for regional roads.

Taking one-quarter of the money, commonly called the general mobility payment, was a way to appease politicians skeptical of rail. Now many supporters consider it a deal that has limited Houston's train development.

While Dallas eked out wins, Houston transit officials usually racked up losses. Politicians stymied rail development, often citing Metro's tendency to spend more and deliver less, for roughly 20 years. Often, Metro would present a plan considered too pricey or too politically unpopular.

What's left is a rail system that, even when it's expanded later this year, is barely outside Loop 610 and remains one of the most contentious issues for local elected officials and those sent from Houston to Austin and Washington.

Metro's 2003 plan for more rail won voter support, but then slowed as officials couldn't get the federal money they needed. Officials vacillated between developing rail or dedicated, frequent bus service that would later be converted to rail.

Costs spiraled as Metro moved forward. The agency's $1.23 billion total cost for four new lines in 2003 is less than the $1.4 billion officials now think the proposed east-west University Line will cost.

Hempstead beckons

Metro officials, however, say looking back won't get them anywhere.

"I don't think it's fruitful," said Garcia, the Metro board chairman. "We're very close on the two new lines. What we've completed in a few short years with them is wonderful."

Rather than focus solely on rail, Metro CEO Tom Lambert said people should be looking at all the options travelers will have. Along with the rail lines, officials are considering sweeping changes to the bus system, and increasing commuter bus use by supporting HOV lanes.

For many years, even as bus usage dipped, much of the discussion was dominated by rail. In some circles it still is.

The old debates, too, linger. At a recent meeting of the Houston-Galveston Area Council's transportation council -- the board that guides regional transportation planning -- Metro board member Dwight Jefferson urged his fellow transportation council members to support commuter rail to the suburbs. In particular, a rail line along Hempstead Road has long been a regional priority, but so far the project has sat dormant.

Jefferson noted how successful Dallas has been, stoking the competitive flame.

"On commuter rail, they are kicking our butt," Jefferson said. "We don't have any system at all."

Harris County Judge Ed Emmett was quick to lay some of that blame on Metro.

"Frankly, Metro has turned its back on commuter rail its whole existence," Emmett said. "It is a little hard to plan if Metro is not part of it."

He noted Metro doesn't even have a major bus depot near tracks where the Hempstead line would tie into buses and trains.

"That commuter rail has got to tie to something," Emmett said. "The Hempstead line can't drop people in the abandoned Eureka Yards."

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