by Brandon Formby
With no funding in sight for passenger train service along the Cotton Belt line in Denton and Collin counties, Dallas Area Rapid Transit is considering a road that only buses would use.
It’s not the rail service long envisioned for the corridor – and it wouldn’t necessarily preclude trains from running if funding is ever secured. But it could be the agency’s fastest option for providing an east-west connection in an area with large gaps in rail service.
“It’s less expensive initially,” said Gary Thomas, the agency’s president and chief executive officer.
Bus rapid transit is a relatively new concept in North America. It gives buses dedicated lanes that other vehicles can’t drive on. It also uses longer vehicles, has fewer stops and features more enhanced stations than traditional bus routes.
DART owns about 62 miles of Cotton Belt right-of-way, from Fort Worth to Plano. The T, which is Fort Worth’s transit agency, will operate passenger rail service on Tarrant County’s portion of the Cotton Belt beginning in 2018. Its TexRail will run from downtown Fort Worth to Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport’s Terminal B.
The portion DART will operate in Dallas, Denton and Collin counties is seen as key to connecting Fort Worth, the airport and cities along or between DART’s Green and Red lines. The east-west connector would enhance DART’s current light-rail network, which is currently a hub-and-spoke system. That configuration leads to long trips for suburb-to-suburb passengers who are forced to go through downtown Dallas.
Addison awaits full connection into DART’s light-rail system. But officials there are against using bus rapid transit to do so.
That city has contributed more than $200 million in sales tax to DART during the 31 years it has waited for rail service along the Cotton Belt. The city has even set aside land on Festival Way for its first passenger rail station.
City Manager Lea Dunn said it’s not fiscally prudent to spend money on creating bus rapid transit only to later launch passenger rail service.
“It would be more expensive in the long run,” Dunn said.
The Dallas City Council’s transportation committee will discuss the possibility of bus rapid transit during an update on the Cotton Belt on Monday afternoon.
Fort Worth’s Spur a model
The T borrowed several bus rapid transit concepts when it launched a bus route called The Spur in downtown Fort Worth. It has enhanced stations and uses a longer bus. It also has priority at traffic signals so its green lights are longer and its red lights are shorter.
“We can get travel time advantage through the intersections because we can manipulate the lights,” said Curvie Hawkins, an assistant vice president for the agency.
The Spur carries about 7,000 passengers a day and looks different than the rest of The T’s fleet. Hawkins said it carries people farther and faster than normal bus routes. But the price tag is much lower than a rail line.
The potential on the Cotton Belt remains to be seen.
“It really depends on the corridor that’s selected,” said Yonah Freemark, a project manager for the Chicago nonprofit Metropolitan Planning Council.
He said that the cheapest approach for bus rapid transit is to dedicate existing road lanes to buses. That’s not an option on the Cotton Belt because there aren’t roads in the right-of-way — there are only train tracks.
Thomas said DART has looked at dozens of different approaches to getting service going in the corridor. Their cost estimates range from $300 million to more than $2.5 billion. A phased bus rapid transit approach that would begin with a route from Carrollton’s Green Line to Addison would be on the least expensive end. Full rail service from Dallas-Fort Worth International Airport to Plano or Richardson would be on the high end.
There’s currently no estimated timeframe or funding sources for any of the options. And bus rapid transit on the Cotton Belt is far from being a sure-thing.
“We haven’t made any decisions yet,” Thomas said.
Dunn said she understands that DART should explore its options. But getting rail service should be its focus.
“That’s what we need to be pushing for,” she said.
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