Dallas Area Rapid Transit turns the Big 3-0 this month as the agency celebrates the 30th anniversary of the vote to create DART. On Aug. 13, 1983, residents in Dallas and 13 other cities elected to be a part of the new transit agency and contribute 1 percent in sales tax to fund it. Later, Cockrell Hill would opt in and Coppell and Flower Mound would drop out.
More than 101,000 people, out of 175,000 voters, cast their vote for transit. In Dallas County, it was the largest turnout for a referendum to date.
“Light rail, commuter trains, or bus lanes: I didn’t have it firm in my mind, but I knew that this city needed to do something about transportation because we were growing fast,” Adlene Harrison, chairwoman of the first DART Board, said recently of the historic vote.
The voter-approved 1-cent sales tax took effect in January 1984 and DART officially began operations. The fledgling agency promptly initiated suburban express bus service to connect residents from throughout the service area to downtown Dallas.
On June 14, 1996, the first 11.2 miles of the 20-mile light rail transit starter system opened on time and within budget. Later that year, the Trinity Railway Express opened the first 10-mile segment between downtown Dallas and Irving.
Thirty years after the historic vote, DART is one of the largest transit agencies in the Southwest, with the longest light rail system in the country. The multimodal network of bus, rail, paratransit and HOV lanes generates nearly 105 million passenger trips a year.
“For the first 30 years, the agency has focused on getting the infrastructure in place and working together effectively,” said Gary Thomas, DART president/executive director. “Now that the integrated bus and rail systems cover a broad geographic area, we’re influencing how our region grows and how people get around.”
To DFW Airport and Beyond
The Orange Line through Irving is now one stop away from the most highly anticipated destination: Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport. DFW Station, adjacent to Terminal A, is on track to open in December 2014.
A 2.6-mile extension of the Blue Line from the Ledbetter Station to the University of North Texas at Dallas will add new connectivity in southern Dallas. The Camp Wisdom and UNT Dallas stations are scheduled to open in 2016, a three-year acceleration from previous plans.
Dallas soon will have another mode of public transportation: modern streetcars. DART is assisting the city in planning and building a 1.6-mile streetcar line from Union Station to Methodist Dallas Medical Center in Oak Cliff, with extensions planned to the Bishop Arts District and Dallas Convention Center. The first phase will open in early 2015.
A full-scale replacement of the bus fleet is underway as the agency takes delivery through 2015 of up to 575 buses – a mix of smaller and larger vehicles – an investment of nearly $235 million.
Looking Ahead to the Next 30 Years: the best is yet to come
Construction of the original transit plan is nearly complete, and DART is shifting much of its focus to increasing passenger capacity and maintaining the capital assets of a maturing transit system. Nonetheless, the agency is keenly aware that most of the population growth in North Texas is outside of the cities of the service area – and that many of those residents commute into the DART System.
“Significantly expanding beyond the borders of the 13 service-area cities will increase rider access over a wider area, help sustain regional growth, enhance the economy, and improve the quality of life through reduced congestion, pollution and urban sprawl,” said Walt Humann, the businessman known as the “father of DART,” who led the charge for the agency’s creation 30 years ago.
In March, the DART Board of Directors amended its policy on contracting for transit service outside its current service area. The new policy gives cities a gradual way to join the transit authority while being fair to residents of the 13 cities that have contributed the 1-cent sales tax since 1984.
Within the first three years, the municipality must pay DART to prepare a long-term transit system plan and a supporting financial plan. And within four years, the city must call an election so residents can vote whether to join the DART Service Area and dedicate sales tax revenue to fund transit service.
“In 1983, some people weren’t ready for public transportation, didn’t understand it or thought the need was too far out,” Thomas said. “A lot has changed in the last 30 years and now DART is looking at how to expand in a fair and equitable manner.”
DART, the North Central Texas Council of Governments and other parties also are searching for innovative financing to build commuter rail along the largely DART-owned Cotton Belt Corridor decades ahead of schedule.