Joshua Davis performs Sting's "Fields of Gold" on the April 27 broadcast of NBC's "The Voice." (Photo: NBC)

A New Boom in Dallas: Passenger Rail

November 13, 2015 | |

Dallas is big and it’s getting bigger. It’s one of the fastest growing areas of the country. New shopping malls, freeway lanes, subdivisions, and entertainment venues line the Dallas North Tollway around Frisco, a North Texas suburb that grew from 6,000 to 150,000 people in just over 20 years.

Between 2010 and 2014, the Dallas metro added more than a half million people. Business are moving there and adding jobs by the thousands. If you’re looking for a decent job, you could move to Dallas and find one.

In order to meet the growing demand for travel, Dallas has been building a fairly robust train network, and that striking boom in rail activity made it the perfect place to host the 21st annual Railvolution, a national conference on how to build modern cities around rapid transit.

Railvolution’s roots go back to 1989 when Portland’s then City Councilman (now Congressman) Earl Blumenauer convened a group of community and transit advocates in a school gym to talk about the future of transit. Since then, Railvolution has grown into a major national conference that’s held in cities where streetcars, light rail, commuter rail, and long-distance trains line the urban fabric. Topics usually range from financing development near rail stations; building campaigns to support transit; connecting walkable, bike-friendly streets to buses and trains; and sharing knowledge about how to build world-class regions. There’s an overall sense of optimism about the future of cities.

To be sure, lots of Texans still drive.  More than 90 percent of Dallas area commuters still get to work by car, and the state’s primary infrastructure investment strategy is to add more highways and widen lanes.

But Dallas leaders also see trains as a crucial piece of The Big D’s aggressive growth strategy. Dallas has added a new or expanded rail line every year over the past seven years. It has two “commuter” rail lines; four light rail lines connecting downtown to outlying neighborhoods, including one to the DFW airport; two downtown streetcars; and business leaders are exploring a privately funded high-speed rail connection to Houston. It’s a fascinating story of one of the more car-centric cities building the civic equipment for a new generation of workers who don’t necessary want to depend on their car.

From my seat at this year’s conference, three big topics emerged that I think will impact Groundwork’s effort to connect passenger rail between Ann Arbor and Traverse City—and transportation all over Michigan:

1) The private sector’s growing interest in rail.

Business leaders are adding rail—especially high-speed rail—to their portfolios.  Private investors in Florida, Texas, Nevada, and California are pulling together together rail planners, engineers, and banks to develop business plans to build new high-speed rail lines. Investors expect to use increasing real estate values and ticket sales to cover the costs. It’s how the first rail lines were built in the 1800s and all signs indicate that’s how they’ll be built in the future.  The private sector’s interest in these projects indicates the growing demand for efficient transportation connections between cities.

2) Rethinking the fed’s role in major transit projects

Congressman Blumenauer said that for the first time ever, communities are turning down federal dollars because of all the procedural hoops, extra costs, and delays that are attached to that funding. He says it takes longer to study, plan and design a project than it does to actually build it and that’s a major problem. Blumenauer says it’s time to review the federal government’s role in transportation projects and explore how the feds can become a better partner on major transit projects like new rail service.

3) The rapidly evolving world of shared-mobility.

Companies like Google, Tesla, Lyft, and Uber are changing the way we get around as more people are sharing cars, bike, and rides. There was a lot of discussion about the impact these services will have on cities and how they can complement existing transit and rail services by adding to the menu of transportation options available to people who may not want to own a car.

These topics are changing just as fast as Dallas is growing, and Michigan communities like Traverse City need to stay up-to-date on the evolving world of transportation if they want to stay globally competitive in this century.

Groundwork plans to dig deeper into these three areas over the next few months as we continue our effort to expand Michigan’s passenger rail service and explore how tech trends will allow more people to live without depending on a car. 

About the Author

James Bruckbauer is Groundwork's transportation policy specialist. Follow him on Twitter at @jimbruckb. Reach him at [email protected].

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