North Texas has bet big on passenger rail. Since 1996, Dallas Area Rapid Transit has spent $5 billion on the longest light rail network in the U.S.
The region also has three commuter rail lines: Trinity Railway Express from Dallas to Fort Worth, the A-train from Denton to Carrollton, and, since last year, TEXRail from Fort Worth to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.
In two years, DART will finish the Silver Line commuter rail from the airport to Plano, which it predicts will draw 5,630 riders per day. DART budgets $1.2 billion for the line, or $220,000 per rider.
Despite this investment, trains in DFW have few riders. In the last quarter of 2018, DART averaged 1,030 daily light rail rides per mile of route length, far below Houston (2,651) and Phoenix (1,800).
DART’s worst lines are often pricey recent extensions. For example, the Orange Line to DFW, finished in 2014, received only 2,975 riders per weekday in 2018. The line cost about $1.8 billion, or $600,000 per weekday rider.
Commuter rail does even worse. From July to September 2019, TEXRail got only 1,300 riders per weekday, one-sixth the original estimate. The line cost $1.03 billion to build, or $800,000 per weekday rider. The A-train got only 1,400 riders per weekday; each A-train ride costs $32.62 to provide, 96% of it from tax subsidies. TRE does a bit better, with 6,600 riders per weekday, but its operations are still 70% subsidized.
High public-transit ridership depends on dense, large-scale development, but DFW rail lines stretch into sparse suburbs and other areas with little demand. DART’s Green and Blue lines run along freight railroads surrounded by low-value, land-intensive industries; many commuter rail stops are in industrial parks or even open fields. Several DART lines run along freeways, which compete with train ridership and consume large amounts of otherwise developable land.
DFW transit agencies argue that population growth will provide rail riders, but development around remote rail stations has scarcely boosted ridership so far. For example, the Las Colinas Urban Center DART station, which serves mixed-use development twelve miles from downtown Dallas, gets the second lowest ridership in DART’s light rail network.
Despite extensive construction, ridership there inched up from 236 boardings per weekday in 2014 to only 266 in 2018. The reason is simple: Small developments can’t provide everything residents need, and when they need to travel elsewhere, cars are much faster than light rail or buses for most long trips.
It’s time for DFW transit agencies to stop expanding rail lines, consider closing low-performing existing lines, and use the money for better purposes. More than 85% of DART’s bus stops, for instance, lack simple amenities such as benches or shelters, even though a basic shelter costs only $5,000 to $10,000 to install.
Rail construction funds could also be redirected to completing the HOV lane network on DFW freeways, making express bus trips far more reliable.
If rail projects are justified anywhere in DFW, it’s in dense downtown and near-downtown areas, whose residents can benefit from concentrations of amenities that let them live with only rare car travel.
In DFW, these areas are growing rapidly. Developers are spending billions of dollars on projects in central Dallas: One vacant office tower is getting a $450 million residential conversion, and high-rises in Deep Ellum are drawing high-profile tenants such as Uber. Several new high-rises have also been announced in downtown Fort Worth.
DFW should have better public transit, but this doesn’t mean spending billions on trains for a few rich suburbanites. Transit agencies need to end their mindless rail expansions and focus on cost-effective investments for dense areas and transit-dependent poor residents.
This piece originally appeared in The Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Connor Harris is a policy analyst at the Manhattan Institute. Nathaniel Barrett leads Barrett Urban Development, which specializes in adaptive reuses of old buildings in East Dallas.
Photo by TerryJ/iStock