For years rail advocates have told us that if we build a robust rail system it will attract riders and reduce congestion. They rarely discuss the costs because rail systems are so hideously expensive.
But the DART experience clearly disproves their argument. DART had every advantage to develop a successful rail system. It began early when federal grants were paying a higher percentage of the costs. Its service area is smaller and considerably denser than METRO’s. It had local support to incur billions in debt to build out the system. And yet, its ridership has only marginally improved since it began its massive investment of taxpayer funds and it has actually begun to decline in the last few years.
Interestingly, transit ridership nationally also stalled out about a decade ago and has also declined for the last three years, very similar to the DART experience.
Notwithstanding the massive investment in rail over the last two decades made throughout the country, only about 4% of the total daily trips made by Americans are on any form of transit, and less than 2% on rail. Bus ridership has been unchanged for the last two decades. It would be interesting, but ultimately impossible to know how bus ridership might have improved if even a fraction of the billions spent on rail had instead been invested in improving the bus service.
With the advent of disruptive transportation technologies like ride sharing, self-driving cars and the electrification of transportation power systems, any further investment in this highly inflexible technology would be folly. We need to be building a transportation system for the next century, not the last one.
But there is something akin to a religious belief in rail that I have never been able to understand. The late, great Bob Lanier best summarized it:
"First, rail's supporters say 'It's cheaper.' When you show it costs more, they say, 'It's faster.' When you show it's slower, they say, 'It serves more riders.' When you show there are fewer riders, they say, 'It brings economic development. When you show no economic development, they say, 'It helps the image.' When you say you don't want to spend that much money on image, they say, 'It will solve the pollution problem. When you show it won't help pollution, they say, finally, 'It will take time. You'll see.'"
Dallas’ multi-billion dollar experiment with rail has proved Mayor Bob right. Sorry to all my friends that continue to believe rail is the solution to our mobility problems, but time is up.