Thursday, November 4, 2010

Missed Transit

Note: I'll just tell my regular readers (Ha!) that today's post is more for people here in Arlington who check my blog every now and then.

At a community meeting hosted by my city councilwoman, Lana Wolf, this past Tuesday, I had several conversations with fellow residents and city officials about some proposed transit plans.

As I chatted, some pencil-thin young guy kept following me around with a video recorder, and another guy with a bouncy afro kept sticking a microphone in my personal space. Finally, they introduced themselves as students at the University of Texas at Arlington working on a video documentary.

And wouldn't you know it, but their topic was why Arlington is the largest city in the United States without a mass transit system.

OK, I figured, that is a topic for which I'd be happy to share my opinion! The videographer gave me his card, and I e-mailed him the same letter I'm posting below. Oddly enough, it's as true today as it was when I wrote it in 2002:

Op-Ed piece printed in the Fort Worth Star-Telegram as part of a pro-con debate related to a pending city vote on approving a tax increase to fund a proposed mass transit system.

As printed on Wednesday, April 3, 2002:

Special to the Star-Telegram

We’ve all heard the saying: “It’s better late than never.”

Unfortunately, with Arlington’s proposed mass transit plan, it may just be too little, too late.

At the very least, our City Council should be given credit for tackling the subject at all. The fact that Arlington is the largest city in America without a bus system has been almost a point of pride for residents who are obviously content to let the automobile reign supreme in our community.

This love affair with the automobile has driven development in Arlington. Subdivisions of single-family homes, strip shopping centers, big-box retailers, and small office buildings – all products of the automobile phenomenon – have been scattered across town with hardly a thought to comprehensive density strategies or long-term transportation logistics.

Although Arlington has needed to get serious about mass transit for years, only now, when the city is approaching build-out, are people realizing that traffic congestion and air pollution are directly related to the city’s poor transportation system.

Unfortunately, our current council is living with the results of previous council mistakes, the largest of which has been to grant de facto city planning to residential and commercial developers. There are virtually no population centers, pedestrian-friendly commercial centers, or other activity-dense “destination areas” to be served by a mass transit system.

None of our streets have room for designated bus lanes, and many don’t even have sidewalks. There are no rail lines south of the Division Street corridor to utilize for light rail options. In addition, many major intersections are simply too wide and too dangerous for pedestrian traffic that might transfer from one bus line to another.

Would you want to walk across Cooper Street at Pioneer Parkway, or Collins Street at Lamar Boulevard?

There’s more: Our downtown district is years from becoming a viable destination center, and even then it won’t office the thousands of workers needed to support a cost-effective transit system.

The University of Texas at Arlington already runs its own shuttle service, and steep parking fees at The Ballpark already force many Arlington residents to carpool to games. The majority of Arlington workers commute to jobs in other cities and would benefit far more from the Trinity Railway Express than from a municipal transit service.

Arlington’s few large employers like General Motors, National Semiconductor, and AmeriCredit have facilities that sprawl over many acres with multiple entrances – not the type of buildings that mass transit easily accommodates. Even our large churches draw people from across the Metroplex, but usually only for a couple of hours one day a week.

Suppose that we did have mass transit. How long would it take you to walk from your house to the periphery of your subdivision, where a bus stop might logically be located?

For me, it would be about eight to 12 minutes, depending on where the city might put a bus stop. That’s not even including the length of time I’d need to stand around waiting for a bus. By then, I could have driven to many of my local destinations. In addition, some Arlington subdivisions are gated, some have streets that wind around forever; and some have no sidewalks.

On a scorching August day, only a fool would be willing to leave an air-conditioned car in the garage and hike for blocks to wait in the sun for a city bus.

Today, as Arlington approaches build-out, our leaders are just starting to ask questions that should have been addressed decades ago.

The problem with that strategy is obvious: Much of what might have worked back then just won’t work today. Our neighborhoods and commercial centers simply have not been designed to allow for mass transit. And too much of our city has already been built for a comprehensive, mass-transit-friendly plan to be implemented.

Viable mass transit programs need to meet at least three objectives: efficient mobility, fiscal responsibility, and economic development.

People need to be taken from Point A to Point B in as short a time as possible, for as little money as possible, and in large enough numbers so that they and the businesses where they work and shop can function properly and not be taxed out of town.

If there are mass transit options that meet these objectives, then I’d support raising taxes to fund them. Instead, we’ve been presented with a well-intentioned plan that fails in the three basic criteria.

Although that’s not surprising, it’s still unfortunate, because our entire way of life as built on the automobile will itself inevitably suffocate our community.

Answers? I don’t have any. And, with the exception of expanding Handitran, neither does the transit plan that our council has presented to us.

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