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Five years after the trolley plan died, some locals are frustrated that other transit improvements haven’t emerged.

A common critique of new urban streetcar projects is that buses can offer comparable service at a far lower cost. That refrain became a familiar one in the debates that led Fort Worth, Texas, to cancel plans for a downtown streetcar in 2010—a surprise move that came after the city had secured $25 million in federal funding. As one opponent said at the time: “If we want to improve mass transit options, then we should invest in a better bus system, which can be done cheaper.”

There’s a strong case that buses provide better mobility than streetcars, especially when the trolleys don’t get a dedicated travel lane. But what streetcar advocates rightly fear is that opponents will use that case disingenuously—as a masquerade for some underlying anti-rail or anti-transit agenda. It’s a concern that becomes more and more reasonable as the years go by and the fiery calls for a “better bus system” give way to the same old subpar service.

That’s the frustration voiced by Kevin Buchanan in the Fort Worth Weekly, some five years after the city’s failed push for a streetcar:

I distinctly remember promises from anti-streetcar politicians at the time that those of us wanting better central-city transit in Fort Worth shouldn’t worry, because they could improve The T’s bus system instead.

After all this time, I’ve yet to see those promised bus system improvements.

Paul J. Ballard, president and CEO of the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (known locally as the T), came over from the same job in Nashville in early 2014. His insight into the public discussion that nixed the Fort Worth streetcar in 2010 is therefore limited. He tells CityLab he understands how locals would be frustrated to be promised bus improvements that never emerged—“I would feel the same way”—but can’t say whether such promises were made.

“I’ve been so busy trying to focus on the present and the future that I haven’t spent a lot of time going back,” he says. “This is the first time I’ve actually heard somebody say that there was a promise of better bus service.”

Fort Worth transit riders have a legitimate gripe when it comes to city bus service. According to figures from the National Transit Database, bus service operated by the T (as measured in vehicle revenue miles) barely budged from 2010 to 2013 (the latest year in the NTD)—even as the city’s population rose 7 percent. As a result, the T’s per capita bus service has declined over that period (some 5 percent), with per capita ridership falling, too (over 7 percent).

Ballard points to two simple reasons why bus service hasn’t improved in recent years: funding, and lack of a plan. The former problem is largely out of his control. The latter is something the T is already hard at work to correct.

This spring the T kicked off public meetings on development of a 20-year master plan to improve the city’s transit system, with particular emphasis on the next five years. Among its other efforts the plan will target corridors where more frequent service makes the most sense. Ballard says he expects the full master plan to be ready for presentation to the public this fall. “It’s really true we need to expand,” he says. “We’re not providing the level of service that we should.”

Community focus groups done in conjunction with the master plan show that locals are very aware of the bus system’s limitations. Among several problems participants had with T buses was infrequent service that didn’t run enough on evenings and weekends. The results detected a negative overall perception of the T bus—though locals do seem to like the city’s “Molly the Trolley” service, which while technically a bus (it’s rubber-tired) has the feel of a streetcar.

In the downtown area that the canceled streetcar would have served, some buses (such as the No. 2) do run every 15 minutes during the day. That’s not bad by Fort Worth standards, says Ballard, but it does make for a potentially miserable wait in 100-degree summer heat. His hope is that eventually buses in this part of town can run every five minutes. “That’s really when you’ll get people who walk out and hop on and don’t need to look at the schedule,” he says.

Ballard says the master plan will be agnostic to specific transit modes, focusing instead on key corridors where service investment makes the most sense. That might be bus-rapid transit, or light rail, or even a streetcar—whatever mode the technical analyses determine will best capture ridership demand in a given area. As for any “anti-rail sentiment,” Ballard insists that in his admittedly short time in Fort Worth he hasn’t seen it.

“I find this community is very open and welcoming and really quite supportive,” he says. “I think the litmus test, if you will, will be this fall, when we say here’s our plan, this is where we need to invest. Then we’ll see how the community reacts and how the elected officials who can support us financially deal with our plan.”

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