Traffic Thicket

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Now, she has become an advocate of the Phoenix plan. "I wish we would put everyone in Phoenix on a light rail car. They would see the benefits."

The Dallas system, with its mix of services (including better bus service and van service for the disabled), is comparable to the one before Phoenix voters. Even the history of Dallas' transit struggle is a parallel to the Phoenix experience.

Over the years, as the Dallas metro area continued to grow and the air pollution problems worsened, wary voters turned down efforts to fund mass transit improvements there. Officials were forced to find smaller projects that appealed to citizens.

Roger Snoble, president of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit system (DART), says even after a 1 cent sales tax was finally approved, no one was certain whether people would abandon their cars and trucks to try a bus, light rail or commuter train.

But in 1998, a year after the 20-mile light rail line was finished, overall transit ridership jumped by 44 percent -- from 48.5 million to 70 million passengers a year. (Now, about 28 million passengers a year use Phoenix transit.)

The fledgling light rail system continues to be a resounding success, with ridership (now at 38,000 a day) growing each year and far exceeding expectations. Dallas is adding another 21 miles of light rail into neighboring communities. And Dallas-area residents are also using other components of the transit plan -- including an expanded bus system and a new diesel-powered commuter train.

DART records indicate bus ridership (about 159,000 each weekday) has increased steadily each month for the past two years after six years of declining ridership.

Polls show overwhelming support for the system among riders and nonriders. A Dallas Morning News poll in October revealed that about 81 percent of Dallas-area residents believe the system is worth the tax. Among riders, that approval rate climbed to 92 percent. Community referendums to decide whether to renew participation in the system have passed by a 2-to-1 margin. And other cities near Dallas are considering joining the 13 members of the Dallas-hubbed system.

Honored by the American Public Transit Association and touted as a national model for improving urban transit systems, DART has succeeded because it is a comprehensive plan. "It saves people time and money," says Snoble.

He says officials have learned that affordability is the key factor in getting new riders to try the bus or rail. In downtown Dallas, he says, parking fees can cost between $80 and $150 a month, while a monthly DART pass costs $30. And many employers are offering lower-cost annual passes as part of their benefits plan. (In Phoenix, Brian Kearney says, downtown parking rates are cheaper, averaging about $60 to $70 a month; still, he says, transit passes will offer a savings to commuters.)

Snoble says the main leg of the light rail system going into downtown Dallas carries 25 percent of the commuters.

Studies are just beginning to determine the exact effect of the new transit system on traffic congestion and air pollution. So far, regional air pollution seems to be about the same, while air quality along the main transit thoroughfares seems to be improving, according to Snoble and Barbara Leaman of the Dallas-Fort Worth chapter of the American Lung Association.

Leaman says her organization supports the program and hopes more surrounding communities will join the system.

Of all new riders, Snoble says, two-thirds own cars that they choose not to use. He says people have adopted a new attitude toward their vehicles, one that he himself espouses.

"I love my car, but I'd just as soon keep it in the garage and keep it nice," he says.

Other reported side benefits to the Dallas system have included: a 25 percent increase in property values along the rail lines (according to a University of North Texas study), new development and renovations of commercial and high-density residential properties along the route, and increased business at stores or recreational facilities (like the Dallas Zoo) that are located along the light rail route.

But will people really use buses or trains here? The cultural shift remains to be seen.

Other cities besides Dallas that have bolstered their bus service and added light rail have found that better systems do entice new riders.

Now, even with poor service, about 1 percent of all the daily trips in the Valley are on mass transit. In areas of sparse service, like along Bell Road, where a bus comes along every hour, only about 1 percent of all travelers get onboard. But in areas where buses run more regularly, like along Central Avenue during rush hour, about 25 percent of all commuters use public transit, according to the city.

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Laura Laughlin
Contact: Laura Laughlin