DART, America's Longest Light Rail System, Turns 30

Long-time executive director Gary Thomas reflects on the milestone and the future of mass transit in North Texas.
by | September 3, 2013 AT 11:00 AM

In 1983, voters in Dallas County and 14 cities approved the a 1-cent sales tax and the creation of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, or DART.

Today, DART is all grown up -- it turned 30 last month -- and is now the longest light-rail system in the country, with 85 miles of railway and 61 stations.

Governing spoke with DART Executive Director Gary Thomas on the milestone and what the future holds for transit in the rapidly growing region. Thomas, who's led the agency for more than 12 years, was involved in the original design of the system and has worked for DART since 1998. This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity.

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What made the conditions right for Dallas, of all places, to develop such an extensive light rail system?

There were some visionaries in Dallas and the suburbs around Dallas who said we can't continue to grow like we are and expect the highway system to move these people. They knew that you just can't pave everything. They were bold by saying we need another choice.

They realized there needed to be a plan before we went to the voters in 1983. We had to say 'this is what we envision this to look like in 30 years.' And that's where we are. Most of what we've got today is the result of that plan.

People voted to dedicate a 1 percent sales tax. We locked up a lot of the railroad right of way. I hate to say "simply" anything, but it was simply a matter of scheduling the projects to match the revenue. We were doing all this on a cash basis. In 2000, we went to the voters and asked if we could issue long-term debt and speed it up. People said yes. They had had a taste of light by then.

Was it difficult to get Texans, who hadn't had much experience with transit, to give it a shot?

Certainly not the first day: June 14, 1996. It was probably 100 degrees. The trains were air conditioned. They were new. There was a lot of conversation on the news that day. You couldn't squeeze another person on the train if you tried. Even after that, people embraced the system. They looked for ways to use the system.

Our biggest challenge is that it doesn't go everywhere people want it go. Our starter system did well. We had good ridership. It was better than what was expected. But the one thing is, people say 'it doesn't go where I want it to go.' That's one of the challenges with the region. We're not constrained by rivers, oceans or mountains. We sprawl everywhere. Consequently, you've got a lot of people living a long way from the employment centers.

Everyone wants a transportation choice. They might not always use it. But they say, 'give me a choice so I can get out of my car and not have to deal with traffic and not have to pay for gas.' That's what we're all about.

With some of the older systems around the country, there's a lot more compelling reason (to use them). The density is higher. The congestion is worse. The parking fees are higher. You go to New York or Boston and you think 'why would I even think about driving here?' Here, we have traffic... but it's not horrible. You get downtown, and parking is reasonable. But you start looking at quality-of-life decisions. The train is normally every bit as quick and sometimes quicker than driving your car. It's going to be cool and comfortable and clean. And you can be more productive on the train.

How do you deal with the criticism that, even with all the time and money spent on DART, congestion is still a huge problem in the Dallas area?

It's an easy criticism to make. The problem is, it's not logical. The challenge we have -- that a lot of major Texas cities have -- is they're growing rapidly. We can take people off the roads, but there are so many people moving to the area, we're still losing the congestion battle. To the casual observer, they'll say 'DART didn't do anything and I'm still stuck in traffic.' That's because we're in one of the fastest growing regions in the country.

As I explain it, today there's about 98,000 trips per day on light rail. Roughly 75 percent of those are discretionary riders. So let's take 75 percent of those trips, put all those people back in cars on the highways. You tell me: does it make a difference? Of course it does. Do we solve the problem? No. Are we part of the solution? Absolutely. Ill be the first to say we can take more people off the roads, but then it gets back to communication: how do we convince people they can live without the car for the day?

How is DART going to deal with the rapid growth of Collin County, which is largely outside your service area?

It's one of the fastest growing counties in the state. Our job is to constantly communicate to those folks. Back in 1983, a lot of the cities dedicated the 1 percent sales tax to DART. Today, the cities that aren't in DART have dedicated that 1 percent to something else, and they're addicted, quite frankly, to whatever they've dedicated that penny to. What we have to do as an organization and as a region is figure out how to allow them to wean themselves off that addiction in a manner that is equitable and fair to them, and equitable and fair to the 13 cities and counties currently inside the DART service area.

Our board has adopted a policy that allows for a transition period to happen. We're working on communicating with the cities to tell them what they can do. Some are very interested in doing it. Some say we don't need a choice now, and we're happy with our toll roads and highways. The challenge will come when those highways and tolls roads are full, and they don't have options, and they'll say 'we want DART - can you make that happen tomorrow?' Large capital projects can't happen tomorrow.

What expansions are in the works, and when will the system connect to DFW Airport?

There's the Blue Line to University of North Texas - Dallas. That was accelerated to 2016 from 2019. There's the modern streetcar project that initially will go from Union Station to Methodist Hospital and ultimately to the Bishop Arts District. It will go to the restaurants and shops, and connect to downtown near the Omni Hotel. The first phase of that will open in 2014.  And the Orange Line airport connection is huge.

When we open next year at Terminal A at DFW Airport, we'll be one of a handful of cities with airport connections. As one person characterized it it: we're a big city, and big cities have airport connections. We've go the opportunity to make that work, to connect our community to the world through DFW Airport. It's a short walk into and out of the terminal from the station. It's a partnership with DFW. They're building the station, and we're building all the track into the station. Having the station right at Terminal A is going to be incredibly convenient for everybody. The other group of people this connection is going to benefit immensely is the people who work there.