Sunday, November 4, 2007

Mass transit, HOV lanes do little to ease Dallas traffic

By BRUCE TOMASO - The Dallas Morning News - Saturday, November 3, 2007
The question comes up often at debates about the Trinity toll road:

What about mass transit?

In fact, Dallas Area Rapid Transit is doing precisely that. By 2030, the agency plans to double its light-rail mileage and ridership. Included in those plans are a new Green Line and its offshoot Orange Line that will, in places, roughly parallel the route of the Trinity toll road.

But transportation planners caution that neither those added rail lines nor other mass-transit improvements in the works – such as greatly increased use of HOV lanes – can, by themselves, address the region's growing traffic problems.

"Any kind of solution that we implement to fix traffic congestion in downtown Dallas has to be done with multiple modes," said Jeff Neal, principal transportation planner for the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

"We can't do it just with rail, and we can't do it just with road construction, and we can't do it just by improving bicycle and pedestrian access. We have to use all of the tools at our disposal."

He said that in determining the need for the Trinity Parkway, as the toll road is officially named, regional planners factored in all of the improvements that DART plans to make – every mile of rail that will be built between now and 2030.

And even taking those into account, he said, "we still end up with 110,000 cars a day on the Trinity Parkway."

That figure is the high estimate for what the toll road would carry.

By comparison, DART's total existing rail system, stretching from Plano and Garland to South Dallas and west Oak Cliff, carries about 60,000 people a day.

Doubling that ridership in the next 20 years or so would certainly help with road congestion.

But like it or not, planners say, new highways will continue to be part of any solution.

"We have 100,000 to 150,000 people moving into our region every year," said Doug Allen, DART's executive vice president for program development.

"They're not bringing their highways with them, and they're not bringing rail cars with them. But they are bringing their automobiles."

On Tuesday, Dallas voters will consider a ballot proposal that would kill a planned high-speed toll road inside the Trinity River levees. That measure, Proposition 1, was placed on the ballot by TrinityVote, a group led by Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt.

Ms. Hunt and other TrinityVote supporters say the proposed highway would spoil the downtown park that is also planned inside the levees, part of the city's overall effort to improve the Trinity River corridor.

Opponents of the ballot measure, led by Mayor Tom Leppert, say the toll road is needed if Dallas is to have any hope of addressing its ever-worsening highway congestion.

A report issued in September by the Texas Transportation Institute at Texas A&M University ranked the Dallas area as the nation's fifth worst for traffic delays. Drivers here waste an average of 58 hours a year in stalled traffic, the study found.

And no one expects that to get better, at least not before it gets a lot worse. North-central Texas remains one of the fastest growing and most rapidly sprawling urban areas in the U.S.

The Trinity toll road would run from U.S. Highway 175 southeast of downtown Dallas to where State Highway 183 branches off from the Stemmons Freeway near Texas Stadium. It's envisioned as a reliever route that would help ease congestion along the Stemmons and in the knot of overcrowded freeways that come together just south of downtown.

In public forums, Ms. Hunt does not dispute the need to deal with downtown traffic. But if the toll road is the answer, she contends, it can go somewhere else.

"We're not saying don't built it – we're saying don't put it in our park," she said.

The mayor and other opponents of Proposition 1 steadfastly maintain that there are no good alternative routes. The best of a bad lot, they say, would be to run the toll road up Industrial Boulevard and Irving Boulevard.

That would require relocating hundreds of existing businesses and the condemnation of hundreds of parcels of privately held land. According to estimates from the North Texas Tollway Authority, which would build and operate the Trinity toll road, putting it along Industrial would cost about $300 million more than building it inside the levees: $1.6 billion for the Industrial route, vs. $1.3 billion inside the levees.

DART's new Green Line will run from north Carrollton, along a route just east of the Stemmons Freeway, to the Victory rail station near American Airlines Center. From there, the line will head through downtown (along the Pacific Avenue route now used by DART's Red and Blue lines) and turn south to serve Deep Ellum, Baylor University Medical Center at Dallas and Fair Park. The Green Line will end at Buckner Boulevard and Elam Road in Pleasant Grove.

The first leg, from Victory to Fair Park, is to open in 2009. The line is to be completed by 2010.

An offshoot, the Orange Line, will branch off from the Green Line in the Bachman Lake area, then head west, crossing the river near Storey Lane (Spur 482) not far from Texas Stadium. From there, it will have stops serving the University of Dallas, Las Colinas, North Lake College and Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

The first leg of the Orange Line is to open by 2012, with completion of the line by 2014.

Other improvements planned throughout the DART system include extensions of rail lines into South Dallas, West Dallas and Rowlett; development of an east-west express line through Far North Dallas and northern suburbs out to D/FW along the Cotton Belt freight line corridor; bus service improvements; and dozens more miles of HOV lanes along highways including Interstate 30, North Central Expressway and LBJ Freeway.

"We have a very full plate between now and 2030," DART spokesman Morgan Lyons said.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments predicts that by that year, the population of the 10-county region around Dallas and Fort Worth will swell to 9.1 million, up from 5.1 million in 2000. Employment is expected to grow similarly. (The 10 counties are Dallas, Tarrant, Wise, Denton, Collin, Rockwall, Kaufman, Ellis, Johnson and Parker.)

DART's long-range plan, unanimously adopted by the agency's board a year ago, outlines the Sisyphean challenge that such growth presents.

"Nearly doubling the region's population and employment translates into a comparable increase in vehicle miles of travel and fuel consumption," the plan says.

"Although these factors increase by a factor of nearly two, congestion delay – the amount of time people are stuck in traffic – is expected to increase by a factor of five.

"This means that transportation improvements in the region cannot keep pace with population growth."

Does that mean that no matter what's done, fighting congestion is a losing battle?

Mr. Allen, the DART vice president, wouldn't concede as much.

"But," he said, "it is certainly a daunting task."

Transportation writer Michael A. Lindenberger contributed to this report.

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