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Dallas, Houston and San Antonio transit leaders grappling with light rail

Thursday, April 6, 2000 by

Dallas leads the pack with system in operation nearly four years

While Charles Dickens penned a Tale of Two Cities the Downtown Austin Alliance yesterday brought speakers to tell the tales of Three Cities, in terms of experience with light rail systems. Dallas has it. Houston's about to build it. San Antonio will vote on it May 6. The fourth city of course is Austin, which has a vote on light rail scheduled for November and is trying to learn from larger cities that are blazing a trail it hopes to follow.

Roger Snoble had bragging rights at yesterday's hour-long program in front of a packed house at Austin's Four Seasons Hotel. Snoble is president of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART), the agency that began carrying its first light rail passengers in June 1996. The 20-mile system cost $860 million ($700 million paid locally and $160 million from the federal government) and has ushered in claimed benefits of $800 million in less than four years of operation. Expansion of the successful light rail operation is underway for service to Richardson and Garland in 2002, Plano in 2003. The Richardson and Plano expansions are being paid for with a $333 million federal grant obtained in 1999 obtained under the Transportation Equity Act for the 21st Century. Local sales taxes are funding the Garland expansion.

In addition, the 10 mile Trinity Railway Express commuter rail line opened in December 1996 and will be extended to downtown Fort Worth in 2001. Long-range plans call for building 115 miles of light rail and commuter rail serving the area's busiest corridors.

Snoble said the rail projects made increasing population density workable, creating an urban center that's more vibrant and more exciting, "in contrast to expansion of freeways that bring sprawl and destroys precious open space and habitat. "Trying to cure congestion by adding more vehicle lanes is like curing obesity by loosening your belt," he said.

A study by Dr. Bernard Weinstein of the University of North Texas Center for Economic Development and Research showed that values of properties adjoining DART light rail stations are 25 percent higher than similar properties not served by a rail system, and from 1994 to 1998 rents in Class A space near rail lines increased from an average of $15.60 a square foot to $23. Light rail benefits include a massive list of residential and commercial property restorations. The study indicates that DART's five-year expansion program is generating an estimated $3.7 billion in economic activity and some 32,000 jobs.

DART has partnered with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to build high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) lanes as well, and has already opened the first portions of a planned 110 mile network of HOV lanes.

Houston's experience

Shirley A. DeLibero, president and chief executive officer of the Metropolitan Transit Authority of Harris County, better known as Houston Metro, was with Dallas DART when the idea of light rail was introduced. "They said it would not work and no one would ride it," she said. Metro plans a 7.5 mile starter line that will require no debt and no election. The cost is pegged at $300 million, half paid by Metro and half by the Federal Transit Administration. By the end of this year, 30 percent of the design is scheduled for completion, with the maiden voyage slated for 2004–although maybe not in time for the Super Bowl to be played there. Voter approval will be required if light rail is expanded further because that would require debt.

Even without light rail, Metro carries 30 percent of Houston's 140,000 downtown employees to work and back, says DeLibero, who's been at the Houston agency a little over a year.

Light rail is just one part of the Millennium Mobility Plan that includes $1 billion in street construction over 10 years, another $1 billion for upgraded bus service, and more than $100 million in other transit improvements. In addition, an interagency TransStar effort staffed by TxDOT, the City of Houston and Harris County runs a 160 mile freeway management system and 86 miles of HOV lanes, operating out of a 52,000-square-foot Traffic Management Center modeled after NASA.

DeLibero said, "There's no way to estimate the folks who will ride rail who will not ride the bus." But she said fewer cars on the road mean less air pollution. "Light rail will take 1,200 bus trips out of the corridor daily," she said, adding that a bus carries the passenger load equivalent to 50 cars. "That eliminates 60,000 cars a day and the toxic fumes" that go with them.

"Transportation is the engine that drives the community," she said. Good transportation will help the community grow, while bad transportation can grind it to a halt. Houston voters approved a light rail system in 1988. Didn't happen. That referendum didn't get the system built because a new mayor preferred roads, she said. "We think of ourselves as mobility managers who provide options to automobile drivers," DeLibero said. "Ultimately, we all want to be DART."

San Antonio's hopes

The Reverend Richard E. Tankerson chairs VIA Metropolitan Transit in the Alamo City, where voters on May 6 will decide the fate of a $1.5 billion, 53 mile light rail system that's part of VIA's Transit 2025 Plan. The ballot will ask voters to approve a dedicated quarter-cent sales tax for light rail be added to VIA's current half-cent sales tax. The quarter-cent would generate at least $30 million a year in revenue to leverage federal grants for light rail. That would make light rail a debt free, pay-as-you-go system. The half-cent sales tax that now goes to VIA would continue to pay for bus system maintenance and improvements.

Houston, Dallas and Austin already have a full penny sales tax to fund their respective metropolitan transit authorities. San Antonio Mayor Howard Peak has not endorsed the light rail measure, which will be on the ballot with an eighth-cent economic development tax, according to a March 30 article in the San Antonio Express-News.

VIA has already initiated a bus system expansion with vehicles that run on clean fuels, part of the city's long-range effort to help scrub the air. "We don't want the air pollution that Houston is now famous for," Tankerson said in a video overview of San Antonio's efforts.

San Antonio projects the population of the metropolitan area will increase by nearly 1 million people over the next quarter century.

The light rail system, if funding is approved by voters, would be augmented by HOV lanes and commuter rail, including proposed commuter rail linkages to Austin.

Though opposition to light rail has been vocal in San Antonio, Tankerson cited a survey that seems to portend voter approval for the dedicated sales tax. Performed by Mike Baselice of Baselice & Associates of Austin between Jan. 23 and Jan. 25, the survey of registered voters in Bexar County initially found 49 percent said they would vote for light rail and 41 percent said they would vote against it. But after a series of informative statements, including the consequences of nonattainment of federal air-quality standards, the support of light rail jumped to 61 percent in favor, 33 percent against. The survey was paid for by VIA and conducted before launching a campaign to gain voter approval. The results were used by VIA to justify the expense of the election.

A Q&A session with Texas' leading transit executives

Wisdom for Austin's upcoming light rail election

No questions from the audience were permitted at the Downtown Austin Alliance's panel discussion among the state's light rail bosses, but moderator Tom Spencer, producer of Austin at Issue on KLRU-TV Channel 18, asked many questions aimed at drawing out more information.

Q: What's San Antonio's message to naysayers who claim that bus ridership is a small fraction and you will not convert SUV drivers?

Richard E. Tankerson, chair of San Antonio VIA: "For some, nothing you can do will make a difference," he said, citing the survey results to show that people can be educated to accept light rail. He said rather than build stand-alone transit projects, agencies must partner with the public and private sectors to solve larger issues than purely transportation.

Q: Houston's initial light rail plan breaks the typical pattern of transporting people from bedroom communities to the city and calls for a 7.5 mile line from downtown to the Astrodome. Why?

Shirley A. DeLibero, president and chief executive officer of Houston Metro: "This is the best corridor for ridership," she said. The line will traverse downtown employment centers, colleges, universities, the Theater District, Texas Medical Center, Hermann Park and zoo, the Museum District and the Astrodome. HOV lanes will cap both ends of the route, with a park-and-ride facility at the Astrodome that gives riders a means to avoid paying for parking downtown.

Q: The price of light rail gives some people sticker shock. In Austin, some would say add lanes to MoPac Expressway and I-35. What is the reality of funding for highways vs. light rail? What's available?

Tankerson: "In San Antonio, we worked with TxDOT and would have to do new roads as toll roads. Citizens are opposed to toll roads. We don't have available right of way to expand the highway system. They're on record to support our multi-modal initiative."

DeLibero: Light rail in Houston will cost "$40 million a mile for 7.5 miles, but roads are not free to build and maintain. Look at the benefits of light rail. You don't have environmental benefits on more roads. We looked at an I-10 expansion and it would remove 60 homes and a strip mall. You never hear about that. You build more roads and they get saturated. But rail is not a panacea. You can't have just rail and bad roads. It's a combination."

Roger Snoble, president of Dallas DART: "Money is a big issue, but a bigger issue is congested corridors that no amount of money can widen. Central Expressway is our big example. You cannot expand it." He said, "DART will go to Plano in 2003 and will equal three additional freeway lanes in both directions," giving the corridor the equivalent of seven lanes. "So real estate remains hot."

Q: You each underscored the importance of light rail but said it was not a panacea. In Austin, the community hasn't turned its attention to the issue yet. For some it's viewed as some kind of a governmental plot, while others say it will solve all our problems.

Snoble: "In our situation this is not an issue," he said, noting nearly a "dollar-for-dollar return on the investment in only four years." He said the investment turned the tide in Dallas, triggering an infusion of money that fueled expansion. "We continue to get people who ask if it was worth it, but others say they want it now and it will keep vitality going in our area."

Tankerson: "Quite a lot of time was spent on funding options in San Antonio. We scaled it down to $28 million a mile. We're not digging tunnels. We scaled the cars down. We're committed to our ridership, the people who got us where we are now, to use the fare structure we have today, affordable." He said 70 percent of the routes would be at grade where buses now go, and buses will be redeployed. "That will speed up traffic for everybody. We can do it with no debt. We will build only what a quarter-penny will pay for."

DeLibero: "Light rail will not take all the cars off the road. It will take some. We have a port. The port relies on freight. Freight relies on trucks. This will allow those who must use the roads to do so."

Q: In the audience we have people who are responsible to move Austin rail forward. Your advice?

Tankerson: Think about road rage. "My formula is for every person riding a VIA light rail car that's one less finger you'll have to contend with."

Snoble: "Even with the Internet it's important to be able to move about freely. The more time it takes to move about, the less time you have to do things you move about for."

DeLibero: "Look at the quality of life and the environment. You've got to communicate, communicate, communicate. Talk about light rail. You've got to get out there and sell what you're doing. Sell it in terms of mobility and movement–not just light rail."

Senior moment…It was an embarrassingly long pause that Charles Betts, executive director of the Downtown Austin Association, needed at yesterday's transit forum to come up with the last name of one of the elected public officials in the audience. Among those present, he said, was " Council Member Beverly…." He finally remembered the last name, Griffith, but in return he was skewered by DAA Chair Mike Laosa, publisher of the Austin American-Statesman. "Charlie's allowed to leave the home every Tuesday and Wednesday afternoon," Laosa said, mentioning "dangling participles and dangling last names."… Publisher strikes again…The put-down at Betts' expense wasn't the only laugh drawn by Statesman Publisher Mike Laosa. In expressing the qualifications of the three transit executives on the panel for light rail discussions, he introduced Shirley A. DeLibero, president and CEO of Houston's Metro, as being "affectionately known as Queen of Transit." "We have a couple of queens in our city but they contribute nowhere as much as you do to your city," he said… Alvarez wants you…Place 2 City Council candidate Raul Alvarez holds a fund-raiser tonight at Donn's Depot, 1600 W. 5th St., 5:30 to 8 p.m. For more info, call 478-7969… Candidates on parade…The Asian American Alliance will host a candidate forum Friday, April 7, in the AFL-CIO Building at 11th and Lavaca. The event starts with the mayor's race at 6:15 p.m. says Amy Wong Mok, who as a council candidate in 1999 made the rounds herself. For more info, call Mok at 795-9444… Candidates held responsible…The "accountability session" hosted by Austin Interfaith Alliance will be held Sunday, April 9, beginning at 3 p.m. Some 1,000 people are expected to attend the event at the First United Methodist Church at 12th and Lavaca. For more info, call 916-0100.

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