The Dallas versus Houston debate may be old and worn thin, but there is one area in which Dallas is the clear winner going away (no, not plastic surgery): public transportation. More specifically, rail. The Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) system is not only larger than Houston's METROrail (much larger, in fact), but it is a system that has been operational for 30 years.
Like so many things Houston has done, light rail, from the start, has lacked the kind of planning of our northern neighbors. Because we had staunch rail opponents, it was difficult to get any rail lines put in and expansion has been even more complicated. Politically, there was far less rancor, but there was a smarter approach as well.
There is no question it is expensive, particularly here in a city with dense development and no advanced planning for rail along freeway corridors, but Dallas is living proof that rail is a practical alternative to driving huge distances every day.
No one around here wants to admit to Dallas's superiority in anything, but this is one spot we might reconsider and there are good reasons why.
Dallas Built Outside In
The difficulty gaining political support for rail funding in Houston resulted in an early compromise: Build a short rail line from downtown to Reliant Park to prove how popular it would be. That happened and it was extremely popular (more on that in a moment), but it left politicians and critics unconvinced. In Dallas, on the other hand, they began by looking to suburban ridership. They have long lines that run well outside the metro area, which encouraged neighborhood commuters to stop driving and take the train. As ridership grew, so did demand in other areas and in and around downtown.
One of the biggest failings of the Houston rail system has been the inability to convince our huge suburban population that riding the train is worth it. How could we? They don't have any rail to ride. But, the Park and Ride system for Metro has been successful for decades. It's not hard to imagine how rail would offer a good substitute for that option.
METROrail is Wildly Popular
In 2014, when Dallas had opened its first rail line to the airport there, Houston already had nearly half of the ridership of DART despite only having a single line open. People love riding the light rail in Houston and there is no reason to think that would change if it were to be expanded, especially if it were delivered to the doorsteps of people whose commute is an hour every day or more. Imagine a rail line to Galveston in the summer or lines running to The Woodlands, Clear Lake, Sugar Land, Katy, Kingwood and Cypress.
The Metroplex is Just as Big as Houston, Maybe Bigger
And before you start talking about Houston's size, the Dallas-Fort Worth Metroplex is enormous. The greater Houston area is around 1,200 miles, but the entire Dallas region is several times that. Both of our cities service huge populations that surround us. In Houston, we have regional transportation programs designed to help advise TxDOT and others on massive freeway overhauls and changes to the driving landscape. There is no reason that rail should not be a significant part of that discussion, especially considering the population of the region is expected to nearly double by 2040. We can only pour so much concrete and fit so many cars on it.
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Airport Travel Could Be Streamlined
Perhaps the most ridiculous missing piece of our rail system that is found in Dallas is the airport-to-downtown connection. Business travelers fly in and out of Hobby and Bush Intercontinental every single day (many of them from Dallas) and the vast majority travel into downtown, the Galleria area or the Energy Corridor. The fact that their only options are cabs, Uber or rental cars is downright idiotic given the awful traffic in Houston. Who wants to add more cars to an already overcrowded freeway system?
Our Traffic is Already Brutal
Which brings us to the heart of the matter. Will an expansive light rail system eliminate traffic problems in Houston? Of course not. But, it would help to alleviate the congestion Houstonians face every day of their lives. Just having a chance to relax instead of fighting off distracted drivers would give plenty of car owners the impetus to take the train at least occasionally. And there is no good reason a regional rail system shouldn't be part of any plan to help curb the scourge of traffic in the area. If Dallas can do it, so can we.