Friday, July 18, 2008

Record numbers hopping on DART

More weekday riders boarded DART's light-rail and commuter trains in June than ever in the agency's 25-year history.

Weekend trips were up, too, compared with a year ago. And on buses, where total ridership has remained flat or even down in recent months, the numbers jumped 6 percent from June 2007 – making this June the second-busiest month ever for Dallas Area Rapid Transit's buses and trains.

When the 4.5 million passengers who used DART's fast-growing network of HOV lanes are included, the month was the best ever for DART, agency spokesman Morgan Lyons said.

That doesn't surprise Jack and Aaron Glenn, who said Thursday that they often visit friends in downtown Dallas by taking a 20-minute express bus from their home in Irving. Or, as they did Thursday, they drive to Dallas for one errand, park their car for the day and hop on a light-rail line to move throughout the city.

"I never realized how convenient it is," said Jack Glenn, 50, who was looking for a bag at Whole Earth Provision Company near the Mockingbird Station rail stop Thursday and stopped for coffee at Starbucks. "It's like the transit station is the hub and then there are all these other businesses around it."

That's exactly what DART officials want to hear, and a reason why the agency says $7 billion worth of transit-related real estate developments are either already on the ground near its stations or on planning maps for future development.

The prospect of all that development lured dozens of officials from Fort Worth, including Mayor Mike Moncrief, to Mockingbird Station, too. They took a 95-minute ride from downtown Fort Worth to Mockingbird Station, the 10-acre development seen as the prototype for similar live-work-and-play projects in North Texas.

"We wanted to experience the seamless interconnectivity you have here with DART," Mr. Moncrief said as he stepped off the rail car. "I don't think people realize how nice it is, until they get on the train."

'We are spoiled'

Dallas operates the Trinity Railway Express jointly with Fort Worth's transit agency, and in June it provided 251,000 trips. That's a lot, officials said, even as Mr. Moncrief later conceded that for many, transit and North Texas still seem an odd fit.

"We are spoiled," he said. "Just spoiled by our cars. We like to go where we want and leave when we want to. And I readily admit, I am one of them that is spoiled. We need a change of attitude, but I can tell you this, too – $5 gas is doing a lot to change the way people are thinking."

DART's numbers show he may be right. The TRE gave 31,000 more rides in June compared with May, and about 45,000 more than June of last year.

Increases on TRE have been steady for months as commuters have recoiled from gasoline prices that have topped $4 per gallon. But increases on the light-rail lines, which have much higher ridership than the TRE, have been more modest. And on DART's busiest mode of service, its buses, ridership hadn't grown at all.

But that all changed in June, when any ambiguity about transit ridership trends appears to have vanished, at least for now. In June, light-rail passengers took 1.69 million trips, about 200,000 more than June 2007.

Each weekday in June, on average, light-rail passengers took 70,000 trips. TRE passengers took about 11,000 trips each weekday. Both numbers set all-time highs for DART.

That's welcome news for Dallas' efforts to add density to development downtown and elsewhere, Mayor Tom Leppert said Thursday. "Dallas, like a lot of cities in the South and Southwest where land was so plentiful, grew so fast that the growth happened before we even really thought of transit. Now, we're trying to change that."

Studying streetcars

Dallas and Fort Worth are studying ways to add streetcars downtown, something they may work together on to try to get better prices for the trolleys. Fort Worth has no light-rail service, but wants to build a commuter rail line to the Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport by 2013.

Still, even the big numbers in June don't change the fact that DART buses and trains still service only a fraction of area residents. Just 2 percent to 3 percent of the Dallas area's daily commuters use transit, for instance.

Lakewood resident Greg Gardner, 39, is in the majority when he says that when he's going someplace in Dallas, he's driving. He was at Mockingbird Station on Thursday, too, but he said he had simply walked from his office for a midday break. He rarely uses DART.

"If DART had serviced Deep Ellum in my 20s, then I might have used it," he said with a laugh. "But it didn't. And it's probably too little, too late for that."

The trend is clearly upward for DART, however. And officials there hope to prove Mr. Gardner wrong, even about Deep Ellum. A new station is scheduled to open there in September 2009.

By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News