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InTransition Magazine : Transportation Planning, Practice & Progress

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A First Down for Transit in Arlington?

Cowboys Stadium Project Helps Put Rail, Bus Talks Back in Play

By Greg Henry

Mass transit has long been relegated to the sidelines in Arlington, Texas, where voters have rejected bus transit plans three times over the past 23 years. But with the Dallas Cowboys coming to town in 2009, transit is back on the playing field.


HKS, Inc.

An artist's rendering of the Dallas Cowboys' new stadium,

currently under construction in Arlington, Texas.

The Cowboys plan to move from their current home in Irving to a $1 billion, 80,000-seat new stadium in time for the 2009 season. The National Football League recently announced Super Bowl XLV will be played at the facility in 2011. The neighboring Glorypark retail and entertainment center—which will include luxury apartments, a 36-story Westin hotel and a boutique hotel called Aloft, among other amenities—is expected to open after the stadium.

Arlington, home of Major League Baseball’s Texas Rangers, Six Flags and various other family amusement facilities, has entered the big leagues in the sports and entertainment business. But when it comes to mass transit, the city midway between Dallas and Fort Worth along Interstate 30 remains an amateur. With some 360,000 residents, Arlington is the largest American city without a mass transit system, according to The Wall Street Journal. The city’s lone transit feature is Handitran, vans for handicapped and senior citizens.

According to a June study by the traffic information company Inrix, the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex is the fifth-worst congested city in America. From 1980-90, Arlington grew 64 percent to 261,000, and roughly 100,000 more residents have been added over the past 18 years.

Arlington voters last nixed a mass transit plan in 2002. Because of rising gas prices and the impending opening of the stadium—which will host its first big event, the Cotton Bowl, in January 2010—there seems to be more support, especially for rail proposals.

“I’ve had more calls of, ‘When can we get a public transit system here?’ in the last three months than I’ve ever had,” Arlington Mayor Robert Cluck said in May. “And I’ve not had a negative word about it. People are very concerned about the gas issue. I filled my car this week. I paid $4.10 [a gallon] and filling up my car was $75. I can afford it but many people can’t.”

Public Passes on Transit Tax

Local business leaders have opposed mass transit proposals because sales tax increases were part of the funding plan. Before the May 2008 elections, Arlington City Council candidate Joseph Farah told The Dallas Morning News he supported a light-rail system but opposed any bus plan, noting, “We don’t want to attract a city full of poor people.” Farah garnered just 374 votes in a failed election bid.

Arlington is trying to change its reputation as a mass-transit wasteland, at least. In September, the city hired its first chief transportation planner. Part of Alicia Winkelblech’s job will be “to educate the public on the positive aspects of mass transit,” she said.

“A railway line means a lot more than that you can get to work without driving your car,” she said. “It can be used as an economic development tool. Because having a mass transit system can motivate businesses to come here and develop around the [mass transit stops].”

Selling mass transit to business leaders won’t be easy. The Texas sales tax, one of the country’s highest, has a cap at 8.25 cents on the dollar. According to Morgan Lyons, senior manager of media relations for Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), the first 6.25 cents goes to the state; the rest goes to individual cities that use it at their discretion. Most cities use at least some of that money for mass transit. Arlington has used its share for other purposes—luring sports franchises, fighting crime and public works projects. Lyons said Arlington voters would have to approve using 1 cent on each dollar to join DART, and that’s unlikely because no DART rail line goes near Arlington, so it would be a bus system.

Arlington has agreed to a one-year trial commuter bus service from Arlington to downtown Fort Worth that is expected to start after Labor Day, Winkelblech said. Arlington is paying $75,000 to the Fort Worth Transportation Authority for three commuter buses in the mornings and afternoons between the two Tarrant County cities.

Arlington also is looking at other options, like Rail North Texas, a proposed $4 billion rail initiative that would provide service to the metroplex and other North Texas communities. State legislators failed to make progress on Rail North Texas this year because the proposal was tied to sales tax increases. A revised plan, backed by the North Central Texas Council of Governments and several municipalities, has a variety of funding options, including gas taxes, visitors’ taxes, property taxes and other sources. Still, it is years from implementation and has to be approved by the Texas Legislature in January.

“The [sales tax] is the only approach so far until this year and several of us strongly advocated developing another plan,” Cluck said. “We have to try for a sales tax, but have a plan in our pocket we can resort to, because if it [doesn’t] make it this time it will be two more years, and we can’t keep working down that two-year path.”


DART

Planners are already working on the logistics for transporting

fans to and from the Dallas Cowboys' $1 billion new stadium

for the 2011 Super Bowl. Shuttle service will take Trinity

Railway Express passengers to Arlington for the game.

The Trinity Railway Express (TRE), which opened with a 10-mile line from Dallas in 1996 and expanded to Fort Worth in 2001, is another potential option for Arlington. The TRE rolls by Arlington’s northern border but has no stop in the city. Part of the transportation plan for the 2011 Super Bowl includes using shuttle buses from a TRE stop. North Central Texas Council of Governments Transportation Director Michael Morris said adding a stop in Arlington is feasible, but he could not say when that would occur. Former Cowboys quarterback Roger Staubach, the Dallas Super Bowl bid committee chairman, said after winning the event in Arlington, “There will be rail access out to Arlington, supposedly, by the time this happens.” Other options under discussion are temporarily using Union Pacific tracks near Stadium Drive, just south of Rangers Ballpark in Arlington, only a five- to 10-minute walk to the football stadium.

Morris said Staubach won’t have to eat his words. Morris, Cluck and other regional officials have met with Union Pacific on opening its tracks to passenger rail. “The key or the crux of the situation is the Union Pacific railroad goes right through Arlington in the heart of the city,” Morris says. “It continues to the east and goes to the Houston port. It is a very active freight corridor.”

Time for a Change?

The new Cowboys stadium may not inspire fans to appreciate mass transit in Arlington—after all, DART canceled bus service to Texas Stadium games in Irving in 2003 because of lack of ridership—but Super Bowl visitors from the Dallas/Fort Worth Metroplex may see the benefits, and that may filter down to the public. That’s what Mayor Cluck is hoping.

“I think it will help because people will see the success [and] advantage of having a transportation system,” Cluck said. “We have a lot of new roads being put in, and that will help relieve some of the congestion, but there’s still going to be a problem. Especially when you have 150,000 people in for the Super Bowl, it is going to be a problem. We do have a temporary solution for it, but it’s only going to be temporary.”


Aerial Photography, Inc.

The Cowboys' new stadium, which is expected to be open

for the 2009 season, will include a retractable roof for inclement

weather.

Arlington voters approved a $400,000 bond issue in 2003 to install traffic management cameras to improve congestion, especially around the entertainment district that will draw bigger crowds with the addition of the Cowboys’ stadium and the Glorypark development, due to open in March 2010. Arlington’s streets remain relatively uncongested compared to the rest of the metroplex, but the I-30 corridor near the Rangers and Cowboys stadiums could become a problem if both teams are playing on the same day or night.

Texans’ penchant for driving over mass transit may be ending, thanks to higher gas prices and changing attitudes. Winkelblech, for one, thinks Arlington is ready for a change.

“Definitely individuals are making different choices,” she said. “There unfortunately are people that may never give in and cut down on their driving. We’re seeing trends all over the nation that more people are using mass transit. DART ridership on its buses and light rail have gone up because of higher gas prices and we’re going to see more and more people using mass transit. I think there’s just a more open mind about mass transit.”

Greg Henry is a Denver-based freelance writer who lived in Dallas in the 1980s and has visited the area several times since, including for the 2008 Cotton Bowl.

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