One City's Long, Ongoing Struggle to Launch a Transit System

Arlington, Texas, recently got its first bus line — but it's hardly a comprehensive approach to public transportation.

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Courtesy of the City of Arlington

Last month Arlington, Texas, shed its undesirable distinction as the largest U.S. city without public transportation. The new Metro ArlingtonXpress bus, known as MAX, connects downtown Arlington with Dallas and Fort Worth (and DFW airport) via the region's TRE commuter rail. Arlington officials cheered MAX — with mayor pro tem Kathryn Wilemon saying the city "has needed this for so long."

Lost in the celebration and media coverage of Arlington's first transit line was the fact that the city still doesn't really have a transit system.

Consider the details. MAX is a single bus route linking Arlington to one commuter rail station about 10 miles north. It doesn't facilitate mobility within the city itself, and it requires two transfers to reach the big cities nearby: first onto TRE, next onto either DART in Dallas or the T in Forth Worth. MAX only has enough funding for a two-year trial — with no guarantees of being continued.

"This is just one step," says Jim Parajon, director of Arlington's planning department. "It's an important step, but it truly is just one line. It's not a comprehensive approach to public transit in Arlington."

Outsiders can be excused for wondering what's taken Arlington so long. The city sits smack in the middle of the Dallas and Fort Worth metro areas, and it's home to major sports stadiums as well as the University of Texas at Arlington campus. As a collection point for local employees, younger residents, and short-term visitors, Arlington seems a ripe environment for automobile alternatives.

But the city has tried and failed for decades to get any sort of regular transit funding approved. In 1980, voters rejected the idea of joining a regional transit authority with its neighboring cities. Five years later, residents defeated a half-cent transit sales tax despite support from a variety of local officials and institutions. In 2002, the city finally thought it had enough momentum to pass a transit plan — pre-polling suggested 80 percent in favor — only to lose that badly, too.

The message from voters was clear, even as their reasoning remained suspect. Arlington's transit opponents have argued that the city is too small for a full system, that any service would merely subsidize low-income residents, and that an unwanted demographic would move into town. One leading adversary has made no bones about his fear that transit will attract the "welfare class."

These concerns have won the day time and again, despite their shortcomings. (To name a few: the area's extensive highway network is also subsidized, smaller cities maintain bus systems as a public service, and no link has been found between transit and crime.) No one can say how things would look if the votes had gone differently, but the city does seem at least a little worse off for its transit failures; recent Brookings data reveal that Arlington residents are pretty much forced to own a car if they want to keep a job.

"[T]he city has probably lost some opportunities," says Parajon. "I think cities that don't have some element of transportation choice suffer from an employment standpoint, a job-creation standpoint — a recruitment of people who want to live and work in a convenient area that has choices for transportation."

For all the limitations of MAX, Parajon sees the new line as a sign that the city's transit tide has turned. The venture has both public and private financial support: the city, the university, and local businesses are each contributing to the $700,000 annual cost. Early ridership figures — 1,133 people rode MAX the first week — have met the city's expectations. There was some opposition to the line, says Parajon, but it was "limited."

Still, he recognizes that the city's fight for transit has really just begun, and that in two years Arlington could be right back at the drawing board.

"I think we would continue to struggle to connect to the region and connect to all the wonderful opportunities that exist in this Metroplex of 6 million people," he says of a scenario in which MAX is not renewed or expanded. "In some respects, I worry we'll be left out of those opportunities for our residents and our businesses."

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