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The Dallas and Houston rail experiences

It’s useful to compare, but mostly as an academic exercise.

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.”

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.

I’ve sat on this one for awhile as I’ve gone through several revisions in my head of what I’ve wanted to say. I agree with the story’s premise that Dallas and Houston each took the most viable path available to them given the resources and needs they had. We’ve had plenty of arguments in Houston about whether commuter rail should have been prioritized over light rail. To me it’s ultimately a chicken-or-egg question, but to me the fact that we already have a muscular park-and-ride network that covers much of the ground that commuter rail would plus the fact that mobility in town keeps getting worse with nothing other than light rail available to help mitigate it tips the scales. Commuter rail has a place and if we can make like Dallas and leverage some existing tracks to do it at a low cost, I’m all over it. Just remember that the value of a rail network increases greatly as the network grows, so commuter rail + a robust light rail system > commuter rail by itself.

One of the things I’ve been thinking about since Metro announced the reimagined bus routes is how any future expansion of the current light rail network might fit with it. If the new routes deliver on their promise of faster and better service systemwide, then perhaps we should rethink where new rail lines might go to ensure we get the most out of them and not be redundant. The new #7 bus line on Richmond, which goes to the Eastwood Transit Center, will be one of the high-frequency routes. Will it be good enough to undercut the case for the Universities Line? Maybe, but even if the buses run every ten minutes at peak times, they’re still going to crawl along in the traffic morass that is Richmond Avenue. Light rail, with its dedicated right of way, should easily beat its travel times. Still, that’s a point I expect the light rail critics of the future to haul out someday, once they remember they’re supposed to be pro-bus and they notice there’s better bus service available now. I still think an Inner Katy line connecting downtown to the Galleria via the Uptown BRT would have a lot of value, especially as a continuation of either the Harrisburg or Southeast lines. I also think the US90 extension into Fort Bend, hopefully all the way to Sugar Land if the politics can be worked out, should be a high priority. Beyond that, who knows? The point is that the whole system continues to evolve, and we ought to evolve our thinking along with it. The need for rail transit in Houston is not going to go down anytime soon.

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One Comment

  1. Ralfff says:

    At the last My Houston 2040 meeting, I asked Christof Spieler if METRO had any plans to install bus traffic priority signals. He said they hadn’t discussed it, but had been approached by the Public Works department in Houston asking them the same question, so traffic priority for buses is something that at least has been thought about in the City. Interestingly, he volunteered earlier in the meeting that the rail traffic priority signals already installed were by Siemens, and that they had apparently had some defect that was now being fixed (as I understand it this was by Siemens at no additional cost to METRO), which was causing extra rail downtime lately and required some progress on new rail lines to be halted and the installed signals replaced.

    Commuter rail is not chicken and egg nor is it a mystery: commuter rail in a low density city which is near-totally unwalkable coming in from even lower density suburbs is a massive money-loser. If it’s not even electrified, it’s very questionable how much money or greenhouse gases it would ever possibly save over buses, which already have dedicated infrastructure they can use closer to where people live. It would require building a dedicated maintenance infrastructure that is incompatible with everything else, for a train that is only used a few hours a day. Giant commuter rail park and rides, even if successful, only perpetuate sprawl further and accelerate the city’s tax base drain anyway.

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