A Streetcar Named Desire: Connecting the Dots in Downtown Dallas

See? I’m already fulfilling my New Year’s Resolution. Good for me.

For my first legitimate blog post of the new year, I want to focus on Downtown and the next step in its evolution.

Not to get all Andy Rooney at the very start of the new year, but you know what bugs me? Folks who criticize Downtown Dallas when they haven’t visited in a decade.

My husband and I lived in Downtown between 1998 and the end of 2000. NOTHING was going on. There were fewer than 500 residents and little to do. The last decade has seen incredible changes: Today, Downtown is home to more than 3700 residents and growing. Our Arts District is exploding with three new venues, a renovated arts magnet high school, two awesome historic churches (one just renovated, another about to begin), new offices, and new residential development. We’re about to get not one, not two, but THREE major new parks in Downtown (Woodall Rodgers, Main Street, and Belo). Stone Street Gardens is taking off, and we’ve got the Farmers Market, Dealey Plaza, the West End, and the Convention Center rounding out the mix.

Add to the that the projects just outside the loop: Victory, Deep Ellum, Uptown, the Cedars, Old City Park, the Katy Trail, and the Trinity Park. Cranes are everywhere. The Merc’s lights are back on. Great things are happening. We should have an amazing Downtown.

So why doesn’t it feel that way?

Lack of connectivity.

Having islands of activity isn’t enough. To have an amazing Downtown, to see the benefit of all the energy and work and money that’s gone into getting Downtown to this point, we have to connect the dots. We’ve got to make it easy and enjoyable to get from Victory to the West End over to the Nasher and on to the Farmers Market. We have to give people the opportunity to check out Dealey Plaza, head over to a picnic at Woodall Rodgers Park, then venture to Deep Ellum for some great live music.

It’s only then that our Downtown will feel amazingly active, vibrant, and interesting. It’s that combustion of intense connectivity that will ignite our Downtown. This is the next CRITICAL STEP for Downtown success.

How do we do that? Create a streetcar SYSTEM. I emphasize “system” because it can’t just be one line. Or two. It needs to be at least three lines to connect enough points of interest to ignite this transformation. We can’t half-ass it and then wonder why it didn’t work.

It also needs to be free. People will ride it if it’s free. A payment system is cumbersome, hard to enforce, and will reduce ridership – especially of tourists. The point isn’t to make money, it’s to attract passengers, encourage cross-pollination of venue visitors, and bring our Downtown closer together.

Whatever the ultimate routes selected, the streetcar system needs to be composed of simple, straight shots. No complex loops or labyrinthine twists and turns. Make it simple and people will feel confident that if they get on, they will get exactly where they want to go.

We also need to make sure all the streetcars are air-conditioned and heated. People will ride it if they are comfortable.

Most importantly, most critically, we’ve got to ensure that the system hits all the major points of interest in Downtown and that it complements the second DART light rail alignment. Here’s where I’d like to see the streetcar go:

A Map With Some Ideas for Where a Downtown Streetcar Could Go

Why streetcars and not just buses? The rails embedded in concrete provide a sense of certainty as to where the trolley’s going. People are more comfortable getting on a streetcar than a bus, especially if they are unfamiliar with the area. Buses are a crapshoot — Is it the right bus number? Why is the bus turning here? Where will I wind up? With a streetcar, you know what you’re getting.

Aside from bringing Downtown points of interest closer together, a streetcar system will offer other benefits as well, both economic and environmental. Other cities have found remarkable redevelopment resulting from streetcar lines, and we can see the same here, particularly in areas in need of revitalization like Deep Ellum. Getting people out of their cars and onto a trolley will also help improve our air quality.

There’s already some support on the council for a streetcar system in Downtown, including Councilmember Linda Koop, who is chair of the Transportation Committee. Linda has so much transportation experience and has visited other cities with streetcar systems. Her knowledge about mass transit, funding processes, and streetcar systems will be very helpful as we go forward. Councilmember Pauline Medrano also represents Downtown (including Victory, the West End, the Cedars, and Deep Ellum) and along with Linda and I is serving on the DART policy group for the second rail alignment.

There are a lot of details to figure out, not the least of which is finding funding sources (DART is tapped). By August, we’ll have an “alternatives analysis” for the streetcar system, which is really the first step in securing federal funding. It’s also a critical step in figuring out where we can and can’t put the rail lines.

Now, here’s the thing. I’m impatient. I want to see this streetcar up and running tomorrow. Today, if possible. But that’s not going to happen. We’ll push as fast as we can, but getting the funding, figuring out technical issues, creating an organization to oversee the system, building the thing, all of this will take a few years (how many, we don’t know yet — we’ll get a better handle on a realistic timeline as we go through the streetcar analysis).

Our need for a connector can’t wait several years. Too much is happening in our Downtown now, and we need to capitalize on the successful islands of activity right now. So, we’re going to look at an intermediate solution. I was cold to this idea at first, but have warmed up to it: We’re going to investigate a “trolley on wheels” system that will mimic the trolley line until the streetcar gets up and running. Right now we’re at the very, very initial stage of investigation, looking at how much a system like this would cost and how we’d pay for it. We’d like to do a study run to see how well it works, then expand it. We can’t, however, become satisfied with our trolley-on-wheels system and lose sight of our ultimate goal of creating a true streetcar system.

Just collecting this info and figuring out funding is several months away, so this isn’t going to happen overnight. But it will happen.