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In car-centric Texas, cities reap economic boon from light rail

October 11, 2015 at 4:30 PM EDT
Light rail train systems across the U.S. are growing by luring economic development around new tracks and stations. In Dallas and Houston, mass transit systems have spurred billions in development. Special Correspondent Karla Murthy reports in this installment of "Urban Ideas," our ongoing series on how cities are taking innovative steps to solve problems.

KARLA MURTHY: Well before dawn, Adriuanna Hughes is starting her commute to work from a suburb south of Dallas, Texas.

ADRIUANNA HUGHES: There’s always a bit of congestion here.

KARLA MURTHY: Hughes loves her car, but the rush hour commute in Dallas, even this early, can be painful. On a bad day, it can take her two hours each way. So she’s changed how she gets to work.

She parks here, on the outskirts of Downtown Dallas and boards a train.

ADRIUANNA HUGHES: When I did drive, I was a nervous wreck because of traffic. My commute varied too much. Just some days it’d be really easy and really short.  Some days it’d be really long and I’d be late.

KARLA MURTHY: Now she curls up with her train blanket, listens to music and texts as she makes the journey to Richardson, Texas, 18 miles north of Downtown Dallas.

That’s where her job at insurance giant State Farm is based. From her door to her desk takes just over an hour.

Did you ever think you would be taking a train in Texas?

ADRIUANNA HUGHES: I didn’t. I really didn’t. I was certainly one of those people, ‘No, I just need my car. I’ve certainly changed that. Because I’ve been able to do everything that I’ve done before.

GARY THOMAS: You don’t have to figure out how to use the machine. It’s pretty easy.

KARLA MURTHY: Getting car lovers like Huges to give light rail a try is one of the main challenges for Gary Thomas, who runs Dallas Area Rapid Transit, known as DART.

He took me on a ride on Dallas’ red line, which stretches from the northern suburb of Plano to south of Dallas.

KARLA MURTHY: What’s the greatest barrier to getting people on to the train?

GARY THOMAS: It’s really getting people comfortable with it.

KARLA MURTHY: For decades, Sunbelt and Western cities, including Dallas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City and Denver have grown along with their highways into sprawling metropolitan areas.

Today, many cities are building out their own light rail systems and they’re hoping to create magnets for economic development. And Dallas has become an unlikely leader.

Since launching in 1996, DART has become the longest light rail system in the country, with 62 stations and 90 miles of track stretching all the way to DFW Airport. Adjusting for inflation, it cost more than $8 billion to build.

Here in Downtown Dallas, DART’s four light rail lines converge, and this is one of their busiest stations. About 100,000 riders use DART light rail each weekday.

But that’s in a region of more than 6 million people. The system, designed as traditional hub and spokes, stretches far out into the surrounding suburbs.

Residents of 13 municipalities voted to impose a one cent sales tax on themselves to help pay for the system. The tax began in 1984 and continues today, contributing $486 million in 2014. That covers the entire operating budget of DART, which also includes busses.

Getting Texans to tax themselves for public transportation — that doesn’t seem like something that would go over easily around here?

GARY THOMAS: Well, certainly when you say it out loud in today’s times, you think, ‘Gosh, how did that ever happen,’ right? Folks realized then that our region was growing so quickly that they had to do something different.

And it’s not like transit is brand new to North Texas. Transit was here in the late 1800s and all the way through the first half of the 20th century. And now you’re seeing history kind of come back around.

KARLA MURTHY: Open land around the new train lines and stations presented new opportunities for development — another selling point. One of the first developments to take shape in the 1990s was Mockingbird Station, just north of Downtown.

Just steps away from Mockingbird Station behind me, you can find a movie theater, shops, restaurants, apartments and office space. This is what DART points to as a model for the kind of development that can be built around train stations.

GARY THOMAS: As these developments started to take off, we thought, ‘Oh, now we’re starting to get this. This is more than just transportation. This is bigger than just transportation.

KARLA MURTHY: But Mockingbird Station is located next to a major highway and has ample parking for people not taking DART.

How can you be sure that these developments wouldn’t have happened anyway, even without the light rail system put in place?

GARY THOMAS: Some of the developments probably would have happened even without the light rail. But they probably would have looked different as well.

KARLA MURTHY: A study commissioned by DART found developments built between 1993 and 2013 near light rail stations, like Mockingbird, are worth more than twice as much as developments built in comparable places without rail.

WALT MOUNTFORD: We’re probably about four years from completion.

KARLA MURTHY: Walt Mountford is developing a giant mixed use project called City Line. It’s located adjacent to a DART rail station and two major highways in the suburb of Richardson.

WALT MOUNTFORD: We had a completely blank slate — 186 acres of previously undeveloped land right at the heart of a very pedestrian-friendly light rail stop, and so it allowed us to create an urban environment in the suburbs. Everything is very walkable here.

KARLA MURTHY: It’s a one-and-a-half billion-dollar development, which is still under construction. It will have nearly 4,000 rental units, a hotel, 28 restaurants, a Whole Foods supermarket, and four-and-a-half million square feet of office space, including four buildings for about 8,000 State Farm employees, like Adriuanna Hughes, who no longer has to drive more than 60 miles a day.

ADRIAUNNA HUGHES: I was filling up two times a week and having to get a little more gas to carry me through the weekend to go to the mall and run errands. I don’t have to do that. I have one tank of gas and it lasts me throughout the week.

KARLA MURTHY: Moutford says the proximity to light rail makes employers more attractive to younger workers.

WALT MOUNTFORD: This is a new trend that’ll ultimately lead to a critical mass of being able to attract companies and residents and supporting all the restaurants, hotels, theaters and really bring everyone together at one location.

JOHN TATUM: Yeah, the building is going up against that building over there.

KARLA MURTHY: While development around DART in the suburbs may have thrived, Dallas developer John Tatum says it hasn’t Downtown.

JOHN TATUM: The hope is to realize the efficiencies of using transit for a developer to avoid parking garages. The tax base in downtown could grow a multiple or two and that’s lots of billions of dollars. Now, these buildings are being repopulated and they need double the parking they were built with in the 1980s.

KARLA MURTHY: Tatum, who served on DART’s board in the 1980s, says too few people take transit.

JOHN TATUM: What is harder to see today is not the miles and how big that is and what an achievement that is that it goes through all these suburbs.

What’s harder to see is that the ridership is lackluster. What’s harder to see is that the cost per seat mile is way high.

That there’s parking lots near transit stations that aren’t being built on and people aren’t talking about building on them.

KARLA MURTHY: 240 miles to the south, Dallas’ traditional Texas rival, Houston, has taken a very different approach to light rail.

TOM LAMBERT: Although we love Dallas, we think Houston is much better, I’m going to say that…”

KARLA MURTHY: Tom Lambert runs Houston’s transit system, known as Metro, which opened its first light rail line in 2004.

TOM LAMBERT: Up until that time, we did not have rail operating. We were really a truly all-bus-based system. But then we began to see that if you really want to move people in different modes, rail really becomes a high-capacity movement of people.

But it’s really got to be in those corridors that have the density to support that.

KARLA MURTHY: And that’s a big difference with Dallas.

Houston’s main line is only about 13 miles long, but because it runs through one of the densest parts of the city, it’s ridership per mile far exceeds Dallas’. In fact, it’s one of the highest in the country.

Instead of stretching far into the suburbs, like Dallas, Houston’s system is compact, connecting a few major hubs, including NRG Stadium and the Texas Medical Center with Downtown.

Urban planner and Metro board member Christof Spieler is an avid transit user.

CHRISTOF SPIELER: If you build lines in dense, walkable cities, you get in dense, walkable neighborhoods; you get higher ridership.

KARLA MURTHY: He believes light rail has been a catalyst to Downtown development, with $8 billion of projects along a seven and a half-mile stretch of track.

For example, look at the neighborhood of Midtown in the heart of Houston. Across from the light rail station there’s a mixed-use development under construction with 363 apartments and 30,000 square feet of retail space.

CHRISTOF SPIELER: This isn’t some empty field on the outskirts of town that gets a new development. It’s a neighborhood like this. We’re seeing a real shift in the kind of places people want to live in. Neighborhoods that have not just homes but places to eat and places to shop are fun to live in. I mean, there’s a real change in the attitude toward cities.

KARLA MURTHY: Dallas is now trying to build a new line through Downtown and asking for federal funds to help pay for it. DART Chief Gary Thomas says turning car-centric Dallas into a mass transit mecca is still a work in progress.

KARLA MURTHY: Is light rail being utilized the way it should be?

GARY THOMAS: You have to start somewhere. You have to build it. You have to basically convince people to park their cars. And again, if that choice doesn’t exist, we know what they’re going to do, right.