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Many say mass transit crucial to city's development

The following article was found at the Arlington Morning News site. Although it's in the "community resource" section and the URL may stick, it is reproduced here in case the original becomes inaccessible (the accompanying pictures are already broken). It remains copyright 1999, The Dallas Morning News.

Around Town: Many say mass transit crucial to city's development

By Kevin Shay

Troy Long couldn't just hop in a car and go recently when he wanted to attend a computer class to further his career.

The 52-year-old legally blind Arlington native had to call Handitran, the city's door-to-door van and taxi service for the disabled and seniors, and hope dispatchers could schedule him in.

Mr. Long was out of luck after discovering Handitran couldn't take him because there were too many people in need of service and not enough vehicles to transport them.

"As the city continues to grow, the same thing that happened to me will happen to more and more people," said Mr. Long, president of the Fort Worth chapter of the American Council of the Blind. "That's why we need a permanent bus system."

Mary Lou Almendarez, a 23-year Arlington resident and social worker with Tarrant County Human Services, agrees.

Some of her clients recently have walked several miles to the Arlington agency office on East Border Street near Collins Street. One person walked from Division Street and Bowen Road with a broken arm.

"She was getting ready to walk to Arlington Memorial [Hospital] from our office so that she could tend to her broken arm," said Ms. Almendarez, one of several participants in a recent focus group on mass transit conducted by the Arlington Morning News. "And we gave her a cab voucher."

During the past two decades, voters twice have rejected mass transit proposals in Arlington, one of the largest cities in the country without some form of integrated bus or rail system.

Many city and civic leaders are convinced that voters, tired of clogged streets and highways and air pollution from cars, are ready to reconsider their longstanding opposition to mass transit as the new millennium approaches.

In recent months, the transportation debate has focused on what type of system would work best in Arlington, not whether there is widespread demand for services.

Ideas run the gamut from small vans picking up people on fixed routes to light rail and even monorail.

"It looks like there's more support for public transportation than ever right now. . . . But it still will take an educational campaign to show voters how it is needed for it to pass," said Mayor Pro Tem Dottie Lynn, a longtime advocate of public transportation.

More local officials realize that Arlington has become too large not to have a widescale bus system, Mrs. Lynn said.

Arlington's population - now about 310,000 - is projected to hit 400,000 by 2025, with the number of jobs growing from about 110,000 to 150,000.

By 2020, the city's highways and thoroughfares will become more congested, according to projections by the North Central Texas Council of Governments.

For instance, Interstate 30, which now handles about 94,000 vehicles daily, would take on as many as 180,000 vehicles; North Collins Street's average daily traffic would grow from 37,000 to 54,000.

The Salvation Army sees a strong need now for public transportation and has reviewed how the agency could implement a bus system on some busy streets such as Cooper Street, Sgt. Mark Martin said.

"For people in the shelters, it's very hard to get around here to a job," he said, suggesting that even horse and buggies could provide a unique alternative.

Still, some are not convinced mass transit is the answer.

"It touches only a very small portion of the population," said Sandy Breen, a business owner and an 18-year Arlington resident.

Among her recommendations are more widespread use of flextime by corporations to reduce rush-hour traffic.

Possible solutions

The city offers some transit, but the services target certain groups.

Those include Handitran, the service for the disabled and seniors started in 1981 and mostly funded by federal grants; a van service for people in local shelters run by Mission Arlington since 1985; trolley buses started in 1996 for hotel guests mostly in the Entertainment District funded through a bed tax; and a student shuttle at the University of Texas at Arlington that began in 1997.

City Council member Pat Remington, who chairs the council's Mobility Committee, said some kind of a permanent, fixed-route system - whether it uses vans or larger buses - is needed, at least along heavy-traffic thoroughfares.

Employing a light rail system interests him, perhaps along Union Pacific lines that extend from Dallas to Fort Worth through downtown Arlington and Grand Prairie.

"The cities where subways are successful - such as Boston, Chicago and New York - have a different demographic makeup and higher density than Arlington . . . We will need to tailor something to Arlington," Mr. Remington said. "It's interesting that Dallas is trying to make light rail available in the suburbs."

The rail project is the only one that makes sense, said businessman Bill Eastland, who has opposed taxpayer subsidies for projects such as The Ballpark in Arlington in the past.

But he favors a sales tax increase for a commuter train along the Union Pacific lines.

"The rail lines would have to be rebuilt. A tunnel would probably have to be built under Arlington's downtown to make it work," he said.

The train would be privately run and spur commercial development along the lines, he said. It would need to be run at high speed to lure people away from their vehicles, Mr. Eastland said.

"That's why people won't ride buses here; they are slower than taking their cars," he said.

The Arlington-based Council of Governments, which coordinates regional transportation projects, estimates that the number of miles of rail in the area will grow from about 20 miles in 1999 to 500 by 2025. That's why some say the city needs to jump on the bandwagon.

"Arlington is big enough to have a rail system," said UTA student Cindy Strain.

Cost of rail is a key issue, City Council member Robert Cluck said.

He cited a recent study by the San Antonio-based Texas Public Policy Foundation that concluded that rail systems like Dallas Area Rapid Transit's are disproportionately expensive and do not do much to reduce traffic congestion.

"I don't know if this study is correct, but it should be reviewed. The other side should be told," Dr. Cluck said.

Michael Morris, Council of Governments transportation director, said the foundation does not have much credibility in transportation circles. A group representative did not even ride the DART rail system or talk with anyone from the agency, he said.

"DART's rail performance is good overall," said Mr. Morris, an Arlington resident.

DART and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority are the primary collaborators in a commuter train that runs from Dallas to South Irving and is planned to be extended to Fort Worth along a route just south of State Highway 183 by early 2001.

Rail stations are scheduled to open northwest of Arlington in Hurst and near State Highway 360 by late 2000.

Because many riders are expected to come from Arlington, Grand Prairie and other cities, those cities are being asked to pay about $775,000, or 8.6 percent, of the project's $9 million annual operating costs.

Mayors of the nine cities said they generally support the commuter train, but some objected to the amounts their cities are being asked to contribute. In addition to Arlington, the cities include Grand Prairie, Hurst, Euless, Bedford, North Richland Hills, Colleyville, Grapevine and Haltom City.

Grand Prairie Mayor Charles England said the city's charter requires voters to approve any payment from the city's general fund or operating budget for mass transit projects.

The provision was added at about the time voters rejected participation in DART in 1983, he said.

City Attorney Don Postell said Grand Prairie theoretically could use federal Community Development Block Grant funds for the railway project without going to voters.

The grants are used to fund a service for seniors and the disabled similar to Arlington's Handitran.

The contract with the nine cities calls for a study to be done on the Union Pacific line, which is identified for rail in plans for the area's bid for the 2012 Summer Olympic Games, Mr. Morris said.

Another study of the Dorothy Spur, a line that goes east of State Highway 360 between State Highway 183 and Interstate 30, is identified, although some say that would not make much sense because it ends in an industrial center and does not go all the way to area attractions.

The key for Arlington would be to transport railway riders from the Hurst and Highway 360 stations to Arlington homes, businesses and attractions, officials said.

That could possibly come through an expansion of the trolley system in the Entertainment District, said Dale Lockett, president of the Arlington Convention and Visitors Bureau.

"We want the trolley system to be an integral part of the city's transportation plans," he said.

Another study

Although some residents said they are tired of paying for mass transit studies, Mayor Elzie Odom and other officials said another review is needed to update the situation. The last study was conducted in 1995.

The Council of Governments commissioned its first study on Arlington's transportation needs in 1975. At that time, private buses ran from Dallas to Fort Worth, stopping in Arlington, on a regular basis.

The service was halted in the early 1990s and supporters propose reinstating it.

The only other mass transit project in the city preceding that was the Interurban Line that ran from 1902 to 1934 by Northern Texas Traction Company. The electric line made five stops along present-day Abram Street.

The 1975 study recommended a fixed-route bus transit system, while another review in 1977 called for a special service for the disabled and elderly, and park and ride lots.

After voters nixed funding mass transit in 1980 and 1985, with many citing its heavy costs, the issue largely stalled for about a decade.

In 1994, the city and Council of Governments began the Arlington Community Transportation Study committee to take a more comprehensive look.

That same year, the consulting firm Barton-Aschman Associates Inc. recommended that the city implement a centralized bus system.

The ACTS committee concluded that study was too general to address the city's needs. Another study funded by the city and Council of Governments released in late 1995 called for targeting particular niches, such as expanding Handitran and shuttles in the Entertainment District.

The new study, which the Council of Governments is helping to fund, would update transit conditions and examine questions such as whether the city should form its own transit authority.

Preliminary data indicates that Arlington may save money if the city forms its own transit authority, said Michael Hasler, Arlington's transportation director.

"If we joined The T (in Fort Worth), we'd be obligated to pay a half-cent sales tax, which would be about $23 million a year," he said. "If we formed our own authority, we might be able to only have to pay a quarter-cent."

The advantages of joining an authority include linking with a system in other cities and allowing people to travel outside Arlington, which some residents say they need, Mr. Morris said. Handitran and other special transit services do not take residents outside the city to downtown Fort Worth, for example.

"That is something that is needed - a way to link whatever transportation system we have with others," Mr. Long said. "That's a difficult issue."

If another study leads to a comprehensive mass transit system, that's fine, said resident Loree Wolf, a former ACTS member. "We had a consultant before and did a lot of studying. But if they have to have another consultant to do it, it should be done," she said.

Mass transit advocates hope to have a vote on funding a system in the next year or so.

"If voters approve it, I can see a system here in 2 1/2 years," said Mayor Pro Tem Dottie Lynn, who favors smaller vans, not big buses, on fixed routes.

Several residents said in a recent forum on transportation that they would willingly pay up to a one cent sales tax increase to support a citywide system that connects with systems in Dallas and Fort Worth.

"It would be worth paying an extra penny on the dollar," said Monica Kindles, a student at UTA who often walks to the 7-Eleven near her North Arlington apartment when she's hungry.

Until such a system is implemented, the city is working on interim transit solutions, Mr. Remington said.

Those include express bus service to Dallas and Fort Worth from Arlington park-and-ride lots off Interstate 20 in southwest Arlington and near The Ballpark in Arlington. Another lot near Interstate 30 and Cooper Street is slated to open by 2001.

That service is needed, said West Arlington resident Noel Pryor. "The city needs to do more with its park and ride lots," he said.

The Cooper-I-20 Travel Management Association, a public-private group that ACTS recommended be formed to improve the busy South Cooper retail area, is working on a plan to shuttle people between businesses and parking lots.

"We hope to get a pilot program started soon," said Dan Fernandez, a member of Arlington's Planning and Zoning Commission and an association director.

The city recently donated two older Handitran vehicles to the association for the shuttle service, which is planned along Cooper Street roughly from Sublett Road to Interstate 30, as well as parts of Collins and Abram streets.

The service also could go east-west between businesses along Interstate 20 and even along Arbrook Boulevard or Mayfield Road, Mr. Fernandez said.

It's clear more has to be done to relieve traffic congestion in such areas as South Cooper Street, resident Al D'Agostino said. "It will cost money to do this, but we have to do something," he said.

Some are surprised more hasn't been done since ACTS made its recommendations in early 1998, especially with the federal government threatening to cut millions in highway funds if the area doesn't do more to clean the air.

"Cars cause most of the pollution here," said resident Ruthann Geer, a former ACTS member and ousted chairwoman of the Arlington Housing Authority.

Ms. Geer, who supports smaller buses with special lanes, said she didn't think much would be done until 2002, when the half-cent sales tax used for The Ballpark is due to end.

While some say large buses heavily pollute, those vehicles have come a long way in reducing the amount of pollutants they emit, said John Overman, a 20-year Arlington resident who sometimes rides a bicycle to work.

"Arlington might not be suitable to use the large buses," said Mr. Overman, a research scientist at the Arlington-based Texas Transportation Institute and a member of the newspaper's focus group. "But there are models out there that would probably be successful in Arlington."

The city should plan ahead and use a combination of the smaller and larger buses, said Ruby Woolridge, a 15-year Arlington resident and school counselor.

"We need to develop a regional view and work with other agencies," said Ms. Woolridge, a focus group member.

UTA started its shuttle system in 1997 as a stop-gap measure and has about 50 riders, said Wayne Duke, a former ACTS member and director of continuing education at UTA.

"It's small but will continue to grow," Dr. Duke said. "We have great confidence the city will have mass transportation in the near future."

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