Romantic Transit in Dallas (and San Antonio)

Friday’s San Antonio Express-News commentary (“Streetcars will please San Antonians once they are running”) by Garl Boyd Lantham, president of the Texas Association of Rail Passengers begins:

I still remember when, as a young child, my father first pointed out the dangers inherent with the misuse of statistical information. He told me that “an astute man could prove anything he wanted” with facts and figures, then proceeded to take the same collection of data and construct two reasonable but diametrically opposed arguments.

 All this came to mind when I read Randal O’Toole’s essay entitled “Subsidies make streetcars costly,” Other Views, Dec. 3. His column manufactured an artificial reality through the manipulation of facts.

 In full disclosure, please let me point out that I’m a railroad professional and a believer in rail-based initiatives. I have worked for companies like Amtrak and Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and am intimately familiar with passenger train operations of all types.

 O’Toole emphatically stated that San Antonians are “doomed to disappointment” if we re-establish street railway service. Nothing could be further from the truth.

 There’s no need to visit Portland, Ore. to see what streetcars (and other forms of rail-based passenger transportation) can do for a region, either. Our friends up in Dallas can offer all the lessons we need.

 Lantham is responding to Cato Institute senior fellow Randal O’Toole’s previous commentary (“Subsidies make streetcars costly”) criticizing the proposed San Antonio streetcar. There are two fundamental difficulties with Lantham’s commentary.

The first difficulty is that Lantham does not even attempt to show that O’Toole has mishandled any facts. This is, of course, not surprising, because after years of following O’Toole’s work, not a single instance comes to mind. Lantham’s quantitative criticism is profoundly unserious, given that the only number in his commentary is a date.

The second difficulty is that Lantham declares the Dallas rail system (DART) as a success based upon opinions, again without reference to a single number. The DART rail system was sold to local voters in the early 1980s as a means by which traffic congestion would be reduced (as virtually all rail systems are sold).

Here are some facts about Dallas has changed since the first DART rail line opened:

 1. Transit’s journey to work market share in Dallas County has fallen by one third, from  4.2 percent to 2.8 percent (US Census and American Community Survey data). Dallas County is the core county of the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area and all DART rail lines, and the line to Fort Worth converge in downtown Dallas).

2. Transit has become less important in the larger Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area, having dropped 41 percent from a 2.4 percent work trip market share in 1990 to 1.4 percent in 2010.

3. DART’s light rail system has more than tripled in length since 2001. Yet, overall DART light rail and bus ridership was down from 2001 to 2011.

4. Traffic volumes in Dallas-Fort Worth have increased many times total transit ridership since before the first light rail line opened, and traffic congestion has risen by 65 percent.

Advocates of transit spending rarely, if ever, concern themselves about such dismal results. But if the purpose of spending money on urban rail is not to reduce traffic congestion, or to increase transit market shares, then what is it?

Lantham may provide the answer:

 Trains of all types are neat and fun and “sexy,”

 I agree. Trains are fun. I used to drive 10 miles one-way in the opposite direction to Simi Valley to catch the short-lived commuter train to downtown Los Angeles in the early 1980s (before the Chatsworth station was opened).

But “fun” and “sexy” are not responsibilities of  government. The substitution of romance for reality has led to misallocation of resources that has made traffic congestion worse in Dallas-Fort Worth. Even worse, irrational policy, driven at least in partially by romanticism, it is part of the reason that the nation (and many states) face a Fiscal Cliff.

Note: Dallas-Fort Worth: Characterized by Success

Despite the predictable failure of urban rail to transform Dallas County or Dallas-Fort Worth, the DFW Metroplex is one of the most successful metropolitan areas in the world. Workers in DFW have a work trip travel time of less than 26 minutes, according to the 2011 American Community Survey data. This is the shortest commute time of any metropolitan area with more than 5 million population in the first world. By comparison, in nearly equal sized Toronto, workers spend 33 minutes each way, despite a transit work trip market share more than 10 times as high and a population density nearly three times as high. Further, Dallas-Fort Worth (along with Atlanta and Houston) have the most affordable housing (relative to household incomes) among metropolitan areas over 5 million population in the high-income world.

 

Comments (5)

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  1. Lizze says:

    “Trains of all types are neat, fun, and “sexy”
    This must be one impressive sales pitch…

    • gblatham says:

      Lizze,

      Historically, it seems to have worked for the domestic automotive industry!

      Besides, what could be more “impressive” than the truth?!

      Garl B. Latham [sic]

  2. gblatham says:

    Mr. Cox,

    Now that you’ve shown interest in my work, I plan upon returning to this site. Some additional comments (and corrections) are in order.

    In the interim, although I found my promotion a pleasant, if unexpected, surprise (Tex-ARP President instead of Vice President), I’d appreciate it if you’d use greater care in the future when dealing with factual information – such as the spelling of my family name.

    It is Latham. I trust you’ll eventually see the need to remember that.

    Sincerely,
    Garl B. Latham

  3. gblatham says:

    Mr. Cox,

    Regarding your “two fundamental difficulties” with my commentary, it certainly doesn’t surprise me that you remain squarely in Randal O’Toole’s corner. Why else would you assert “not a single instance comes to mind” regarding O’Toole’s penchant for the mishandling of facts – unless you shared the same malady?!

    On his Antiplanner site, O’Toole stated his belief that my claims were “outlandish” (which, if I had to choose, would certainly be preferable to “profoundly unserious”); still, when replying to his op-ed piece, I had no intention of including various lists of statistical information. After all, that wasn’t the approach originally used by O’Toole, himself!

    You would have us believe that DART’s decline in market share is a valid criticism against mass transit throughout north central Texas. It is not. In fact, it stands as a wonderful example of your “mishandling of facts”!

    Dallas, Fort Worth and environs continue to experience a population boom. In response to this, most local governments are building roads with abandon, while allowing practically unrestricted greenfield development (a.k.a. “sprawl”). Worse yet, these new building sites are well outside DART’s service area. Furthermore, while no mode of transportation is successfully keeping pace with the rate of growth, at least roadway construction and maintenance is not dependent upon sales tax revenues for regional funding – unlike DART.

    I, too, regret that the promise of “reduced traffic congestion” was so thoroughly mishandled by many transit agencies during the late 20th century. Relief from congestion is a benefit derived by the USER of transit! Why should it be the responsibility of trains and buses to make travel easier for those who do not use them?!

    In closing, may I say without reservation that, as a former employee of DART and a winner of the agency’s Golden Star award (DART’s highest employee honour), my opinions concerning that organisation (specifically) and rail-based transit (in general) are certainly as valid as anyone else’s – if not more so.

    Garl B. Latham

  4. gblatham says:

    Mr. Cox,

    Before calling it a day, I’d like to address one more blatant example of your “mishandling of facts”:

    You said, “The substitution of romance for reality had led to misallocation of resources that has made traffic congestion worse in Dallas-Fort Worth. Even worse, irrational policy, driven at least partially by romanticism, …is part of the reason that the nation (and many states) face a Fiscal Cliff.”

    I’ve already told you why “traffic congestion [is] worse in Dallas,” so we’ll give that a miss.

    Now, I might agree with you concerning the “substitution of romance for reality,” if you’d actually be willing to apply that logic fairly and admit what exists in these United States today: the reality of autocentrism, based upon the presumed “American love affair” with the private motor vehicle. THAT is the ultimate example of “misallocation of resources” and “irrational policy, driven at least partially by romanticism”; but, of course, you’ll never admit it.

    That’s also the point at which whatever facts you’ve chosen to highlight become fully subordinated to your desire to preserve our drive-or-fly culture at any cost. The problem is, that “drive-or-fly” approach to passenger transportation is ultimately unsustainable!

    Sadly, you don’t stop there.

    Blaming social programmes (such as Amtrak or various transit agencies) for our fiscal woes is, at best, woefully ignorant and, at worst, unconscionably deceitful.

    Personally, I’d go so far as to state there are no “entitlement programmes” whatsoever which can hold a candle to the proverbial “military-industrial complex” (which filled General Dwight David Eisenhower with dread). [An aside: what could possibly justify a reliance upon our military prowess for protection instead of our Heavenly Father's divine providence ("Except the LORD build the house, they labour in vain that build it: except the LORD keep the city, the watchman waketh but in vain." - Psalm 127:1)?]

    The so-called Fiscal Cliff is not the fault of Amtrak or DART (or P.B.S., for that matter) – and your “part of the reason” qualifier offers no defense.

    Oh, the irony that you’ve written all of this for a web page entitled: “Energy and Environment: Clearing the Air”!

    Gotta love that “E-Team”!

    [sigh]

    Garl B. Latham

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