The Austin Chronicle

Naked City

A Lighter Shade of Rail

Edited By Mike Clark-Madison, October 8, 1999, News

Let's admit it: "Rail~Volution" is a stupid name. But the thousand-plus souls -- including dozens of Austinites -- who gathered in Dallas in late September for Rail~Volution Ô99 were not stupid people. So in between the inevitable schmoozing and bad chicken entrees, and the de rigueur (for a progressive conference) urban bicycle tour, the attendees at this nationwide meeting of the Smart Growth minds actually said and heard substantial things about land use, sustainability, and mass transit.

Yes, Dallas. Sunbelters realize that Big D is not uniquely sprawled out and retrogressive, so the "Can you believe we're talking about this stuff in Dallas?" theme wore a little thin by Day Three. But Rail~Volution, originally conceived in Portland (natch) to talk about "building livable communities with transit," goes from city to city (including D.C., St. Louis, and, next year, Denver) to show off the cities' rail systems, and Dallas is mighty proud ... well, of everything, but certainly of its rail system.

Longtime Texans may remember that Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and the light-rail system of DART's dreams, were in about as ill repute in the mid-1980s as Capital Metro and its dreams have been in recent years. That's all history now -- the 20-mile DART rail system has exceeded ridership projections since opening day in 1996, and the transit authority can't build new track fast enough. The two current lines run from different points in Oak Cliff -- the poor side of Dallas -- north through downtown and up the Central Expressway to Park Lane; future extensions will head out to Plano, Garland, and Pleasant Grove, with a Carrollton/Farmers Branch line still in the maybe-probably stage.

The fact that DART ran most of its $40-million-plus-a-mile system through Dallas' depressed south side makes its ridership more noteworthy. The knock on light rail, lately heard in Austin with force, is that it panders to middle-class white folks, since poor people of color are already riding the bus. This was surely true in Los Angeles, which poured 70% of its transit spending into a MetroRail system used by only 6% of its customers.

But really, nobody seems to care any more about ridership figures. Today, the light-rail mojo is about higher-quality, higher-density land use, and transit-oriented development in center cities and along rail corridors and stations. Dallas is promoting this infill development with vigor and abandon, in derelict industrial areas in Oak Cliff and in gleaming new complexes on the north side, with a near-absurd number of Gotham-esque downtown loft projects in between. Which means Big D is trying, oh-so-gently, to change its urban form and grow Smart. Sssh, don't tell anyone in the Legislature. They might get mad.

So Rail~Volution is really, basically, a land-use conference, which peaches a bit on the turf of the later-in-the-fall Partners for Smart Growth confab, last held here in Austin with similar murmurs of We're-in-Texas! self-amazement. That shindig (the '99 edition will be in San Diego next month) is sponsored by real estate developers in the Urban Land Institute, who've realized there's gold in them thar inner-city lofts and traditional neighborhood districts.

Though the Austin contingent, especially, sprang conceptually from the same enviro-prog ethos that's made Portland the mecca of transit advocates, the Texas setting of Rail~Volution highlighted the bottom-line economic message, stripped of West Coast green-ery. As Robert Shaw, the developer and former Cowboys star who gave Dallas the super-hot Uptown neighborhood, put it, "Sustainable development is a product that creates value and an income that grows over time." Sprawl is no longer a good investment. Which is why even such an environmental naif as Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison -- a longtime advocate of urban transit, believe it or not -- took time to address a crowd of people who will likely never vote for her.

By the way, Rail~Volution came to Texas at a very opportune time; Capital Metro will be rolling out soon, probably next week, its numbers for the transit system it plans to take to the voters, rumored to include light rail, bus-rapid-transit (fixed lanes, separate from auto traffic, but rubber-tired) routes, and high-occupancy vehicle facilities.

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