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Dallas Council Begrudgingly Keeps Downtown Streetcar Alive

Council members complain that the Oak Cliff Streetcar is a "vanity project" that drains money from other potential transit improvements.
March 1, 2021, 7am PST | Diana Ionescu | @aworkoffiction
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DART connects the Eddie Bernice Johnson Union Station with the Bishop Arts District in downtown Dallas.
Philip Lange

The Dallas City Council's Transportation Committee came close to killing the Oak Cliff Streetcar, "a pilot trolley line that the city has long hoped will someday evolve into a modern streetcar network covering downtown and the surrounding inner-city neighborhoods." Writing for D Magazine, Peter Simek reports on the contentious process that leaves the downtown trolley's future uncertain.

The city is also attempting to approach transportation planning with a more long-range vision, as proposed by the region's top transportation official and the assistant city manager for transportation. "The idea was to design each transportation project not as a single, standalone investment, but as a component of a broader network of iterative improvements." Yet while the streetcar is a prime example of a project that can be expanded, the council has expressed "understandable" frustration at the project's loss of revenue. Some council members called the streetcar a "vanity project" and balked at "spending $1 million on a line that, during the COVID-19 lockdown, only carried around 375 passengers a day." However, the city is stuck with the project: "because the project was funded through a federal TIGER grant, the city is obligated to operate the streetcar for 30 years."

"After reviewing several options – ranging from a 'transportation utility fee' paid by residents living along the streetcar line, to selling off city property – the consultant determined the only realistic short-term option was selling advertising and naming rights in and around the streetcar and stops. That might produce around $50,000 for the 2022 budget and another $100,000 to $200,000 the following year. Even with that new revenue, however, the city projected the streetcar would require more than $1 million in general fund support in 2022 and 2023."

Simek argues that to get beyond its status as a vanity project, what the streetcar project really needs is the funding to expand its service area and become a truly useful link for downtown residents and commuters. "Accelerating plans to connect the current line to downtown and the adjacent neighborhoods would simultaneously create opportunities to institute the kinds of value capture tools that can generate additional funding for future operations."

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Published on Wednesday, February 24, 2021 in D Magazine
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