If Dallas Can Do It, Why Can't Detroit?

Posted on July 28, 2011

They said it would never happen in Dallas. They said it was a city that loved its cars too much, that its massive system of freeways obliterated the need for trains, and that Dallas’ suburban sprawl was too entrenched for it to ever go the way of more densely populated cities and regions that were long accustomed to getting places by rail.

Sound familiar?

The same arguments – and then some – are raised again and again when it comes to bringing light rail to metro Detroit. And yet Dallas built it and we’re still arguing.

So why The Big D, the not The D? Why can’t metro Detroit, despite its love affair with cars, sprawl, and freeways (the very first was built in Detroit) follow Dallas – or Cleveland, Phoenix, St. Louis, Portland, Denver, Minneapolis, Salt Lake City, Seattle, Charlotte, etc – and make light rail a reality?

As a native Dallasite, and a Detroiter for the last 14 years, I remember all-too well the Big D naysayers. Blue lines, red lines, green lines were foreign, and sometimes hostile, territory in Cow Country. But now it’s plain to see how misguided the fears and criticisms were.
You can see it on the trains headed to and from downtown Dallas, packed with commuters. You can see it in the popularity of light rail riders heading to Mavericks games, the theater or downtown museums, and places in between. You can see it in the 55 stations, 72 miles of track (and growing!) and city’s underground rail – the first subway in the Southwest . You can see it in the booming transit village that’s grown up near downtown. You can see it in the studies that have documented the job growth and economic spin-offs in neighborhoods near DART stations.

As the naysayers in the Motor City and nearby suburbs fill the air with doubts and disagreements and predictions of doom, I can’t help but think how similar they are to the Dallas naysayers, and how equally wrong. After all, once upon a time Detroit’s streetcar system was an international model, duplicated by cities around the world.

Federal officials see the same promise for Detroit today, with U.S. Transportation Secretary Ray LaHood, saying on a visit here last summer that the public-private business-foundation financing model of Woodward Light Rail will play a crucial part in the “development of livable communities that new transit will foster.”

The current plan, and one most likely to succeed, is the $528-million Woodward Avenue Light Rail, a line that would run from Campus Martius in downtown Detroit to 8 Mile Road at the city’s border. The streetcar style trains would cover 9.3 miles and, if dollars and planners come together, eventually connect to the inner ring suburbs. There will be 19 stops, 10 in downtown on the Woodward line in Detroit.

“Dallas and Detroit is a good comparison,” says Megan Owens, executive director of Transportation Riders United, an advocate for regional mass transit in metro Detroit. “Dallas is another big sprawling car-based city just like Detroit. It certainly has, or had, an industry focus that would not generally lean toward transit – whether it’s auto or oil.”

Different is the new same

While Detroit’s transit planning seems to take one step forward and two steps back, in Dallas, DART (Dallas Area Rapid Transit), stayed resolute and on task, despite the critics, despite the expenses, despite the heavily funded opposition, despite road blocks to land use ,and despite refusal by some cities to participate in the system. Today it’s seen as one of the country’s biggest light rail success stories. It took more than a decade – planning started in 1983 and the first train left the station in 1996 – but the city’s transit plans are viewed by many as ambitious and forward-thinking.

Like Dallas and any other city new to rail community, many of the delays come down to funding. Of the $528 million needed for the Woodward Avenue Light Rail, about $318 million is expected to come from the federal transit administration, much of it from a New Starts grant. However, a local match of $210 million is needed.

Detroit’s Downtown Development Authority is kicking in $9 million. The private investor group, M-1 Rail, has committed $100 million. M-1 includes some of the city’s most successful businesspeople and boosters, the Illitch family, Roger Penske, Dan Gilbert and Peter Karmanos. The Kresge Foundation has promised $35 million. The Detroit City Council has approved $75 million in bonds.
Wayne State University, DMC, Illitch and others are buying naming rights to stations for $3 million each.

“Most cities, including Dallas, have a dedicated sales tax or other funding source. What usually happens is the city, the state or the region will put up the rest of it,” Owens says. “Our municipality hasn’t been able to come up with quite enough.”

Nevertheless, with agreements completed recently in Detroit, “we are closer now than we probably have ever been. I really think we are on the cusp of seeing it happen,” Owens says. “Obviously this is just the first phase. As has happened in Dallas, you start with the first phase…and expand with more lines.”

One recent milestone was the approval of an environmental impact assessment that was streamlined by the feds to help Detroit pick up the pace on the project . In another positive development, the city of Detroit and the U.S. Department of Transportation signed off on what will be the final route and station stops. The Woodward Avenue Light Rail trains would run on overhead electric wires with some of the trains traveling down a center median and others curbside.

Another positive step toward extending the line into the suburbs north of 8 Mile was taken last week when the Woodward Avenue Action Association hired Royal Oak consultant, LSL Planning Inc. to help the cites of Ferndale, Berkley, Birmingham, Huntington Woods and Royal Oak, study zoning, land use and master plan changes needed to support transit oriented development. Still, Oakland County executive L. Brooks Patterson has remained a persistent skeptic and critic, going so far as to blog about the virtues of sprawl.

Nevertheless, getting suburban Dallas on board with rail wasn’t quick or pretty, but most cities are part of the system. I missed how DART was able to bring many suburban communities on board because I left Dallas in December 1995. What I didn’t miss beforehand were politicians calling each other crazy and opponents saying commuter trains were for Yankees. Granted, this was not a universal feeling, but the rhetoric could get quite heated.

Had I remained in Dallas I fairly certain I would have become a regular light rail rider. I’ve always loved riding trains when vacationing in Chicago, New York, and Paris. I can’t wait to jump aboard the hometown express when I visit Dallas in October.

Rider of choice

A former high school classmate, John Kelly, became a regular DART train commuter in February and has a deep fondness for Dallas’ trains. Kelly lives in suburban Allen and works in downtown Dallas, a XX minute commute by car. He is in advertising, the vice president of insights and planning for the Marketing Arm. He took the job, in part, because of the train stop right outside his office.

Ironically, Kelly’s community opted out of DART so there’s no station there. He drives about X miles to Plano, parks his car and takes the train in from there. Unfortunately, he soon may have to pay to park in Plano because Allen refused to join the system.
Kelly has seen not only trains fill up with workers and weekend fun-seekers, but also watched bike use increase as DART struggled to keep up with bike storage lockers for its commuters.

“I think it’s definitely been a success. I don’t even think DART has been prepared for the level of interest…DART claims it’s financially not a success.”

True, DART is slowing or postponing expansion plans due to current economic strains, but ridership continues to increase and economic development has grown up around the rail, with one University of North Texas study determining that property values near stations increased at a greater rate than property farther out. It also charted job increases in neighborhoods near light rail stations.

On the personal front, Kelly is feeling the economic benefits. He has calculated that taking the train instead of his car, which included tolls and parking, is saving him roughly $5,000-$6,000 a year, and also bringing him much-needed peace of mind.

During his 39-minute commute home on DART, “I basically decompress. I have colleagues who use the time to work. I tell people there’s certainly been the monetary benefits, but for me it’s almost as valuable to have the stress reliever.”

Kelly was a commuter train virgin when he boarded a DART train for the first time. “I wouldn’t say it’s completely mainstream…Gas prices have made people take it seriously.”

Kelly admits that he has it easier than most. Some train riders must find a way from the station to their final destination, which may not be within easy walking distance. Unlike a Chicago or a San Francisco or a Manhattan, where there are numerous transit options, Dallas is more limited.

“When people talk about Dallas being a car city it’s because we’re so spread out. I think they’ve done a good job with the trains, but if you have to have a vehicle at this point the trains don’t work for everyone.”

The limits of success

Tracy Everbach, a Bostonian who moved to Dallas in the mid-80s, is one of those who can’t rely on the train day to day but does use it for special events and going out.

A newer, extended line goes all the way to Denton, where she is an associate journalism professor at the University of North Texas, but Everbach drives. Because of limited local options, the train ride is takes nearly twice as long as driving.

“It’s really not practical” she says. “I thought that it would be really nice to get work done and just ride. It takes less time for people to ride (by rail) from the suburbs of New Jersey to Manhattan.”

When Everbach came to Dallas from Boston in the mid-1980s to work as a reporter at The Dallas Morning News, she left a city where she didn’t need a car to get around. Boston’s trains provided her with all the options she needed.

“I had relied mainly on mass transportation. When I came to Dallas I was really shocked how much people relied on their cars, how people would get in their car just to go two blocks to a 7-11. So I was really surprised when light rail opened and so many people really embraced it.”

Everbach has seen neighborhoods change for the better, and she thinks DART is part of it.

“You’d be impressed at how nice it is downtown. I think the DART rail is part of it, I think there is definitely a movement of people wanting to live downtown and that’s part of it. But I think rail was part of the attraction for people who didn’t want to have a car.”

Owens of Transportation Riders United is hoping Detroit comes around like Dallas.

“The other thing we’re going to need… and one of the reasons we haven’t had major opposition is we aren’t asking for a tax at this time,” Owens says. “In order to expand this, provide new lines, do something more holistic, we will have to ask for something like a sales tax. Hopefully people will have a chance to experience what it’s like, to ride it to a ball game or the theater or whatever…Hopefully that experience will make a difference as far as how people see it.”

by Kim North Shine, MetroMode Detroit