Mark Hogan / Flickr

It may struggle to keep up with passenger demand if it doesn't.

The big Texas plan to link Dallas and Houston by high-speed rail just got a little more promising. Last week, the Dallas News reported that project developer Texas Central Railway will choose a downtown terminal for the bullet train, rather than a stop somewhere outside the city. That means thousands of new travelers a day will pass through town once the line opens for business (in 2021, by the current schedule)—not counting the many more that would come if the line were extended to Fort Worth, let alone Austin or San Antonio.

That promise brings with it a new problem: The local transit system, run by DART, will have to be ready to handle the passenger spike. To that end, riding the wave of high-speed rail enthusiasm, city council members have announced their support for a transit expansion plan expected to cost more than $983 million. DART has also called for public input for an analysis of its bus system, as part of an update to its 2040 master plan.

The expansion hinges primarily on rail transit. DART wants to lengthen platforms at 28 light rail stations outside the city to accommodate three-car trains, which can hold about 150 more passengers than the current two-car service. The agency would also like to build a new light rail alignment downtown to expand track capacity. And it would like to expand the $51 million, two-mile downtown streetcar line set to open next year.

Peter Simek of D magazine has been pushing an equally compelling idea: better bus service. Simek calls the local bus system "impractical," "inefficient," and "difficult to understand," and offers a personal example from his own use of the No. 11 bus. Rather than run straight along its route, the bus evidently winds up and around side streets and makes "hair pin turns" that slow it down. This might help DART say it reaches more people, but it also makes the ride slower.

I'd rather walk an extra few blocks and get a bus that ran more quickly, more frequently, then have it zigzag like a school bus up to my corner.

The No. 11 local bus twists and turns its way across the city. (Via DART)

Indeed, as Simek has pointed out before, Dallas doesn't have a great record of transit efficiency. A recent report of transit success in the 10 biggest U.S. metros ranked Dallas last in terms of unlinked passenger trips, annual per capita trips, and cumulative passenger miles. Dallas had the highest operating cost per passenger trip by far, at $6.52, but also the biggest farebox shortfall per passenger trip, at $5.62. Metro area transit recovered only 14 percent of its costs through fares, also worst in the group.

Reflecting (or perhaps exacerbating) those inefficiencies, transit commute shares in the city have remained flat at about 4 percent since 2008, according to the latest American Community Survey figures. That's a point below the national average. More troubling, the transit share failed to rise even as driving to work fell slightly.

(Regional Transportation Authority)

From the sound of it, Dallas could use a bus makeover similar to the one recently proposed for its high-speed rail partner, Houston. That plan would increase the frequency and reliability of buses for no new operating costs, with ridership coverage taking only a slight hit. The idea of running bus-rapid transit in dedicated lanes over long Texas corridors, rather than hyper-local, high-cost streetcars, could also boost the commuter experience.

For sure, operating successful transit in a metro as vast and car-reliant as Dallas will always have its challenges. Highway-friendly building practices are particularly difficult to overcome. In addition to the interstates that already exist in the area, the Wall Street Journal recently reported that the Dallas-Fort Worth has built "one of the most extensive toll-road networks in North America," with many more private roads in the works—and no mention of transit-only or bus-toll lanes as part of the projects. As long as public transportation has to compete with road expansions in the same corridor, it will always struggle to attract riders.

But within the City of Dallas itself there's a lot of reason for optimism. What's often overlooked about the social impact of high-speed rail is that it's not just one more travel option: It has the potential to change the way people in a region think about transportation more broadly. Some Dallas officials already seem to be changing their way of thinking toward transit; if others can do the same toward local highways, the city may really have something.

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