From 1887 to 1956, the familiar ding of streetcars sounded off in the streets of Oak Cliff. At the height of the streetcar system, Oak Cliff boasted more than 20 miles of track. Then, against the wishes of many Oak Cliff residents, the city of Dallas abandoned the streetcars for a bus system. Since then a little over 50 years have gone by and a group of Oak cliff residents and businesses formed the Oak Cliff Transit Authority to bring streetcars back to OC.
OCTA President, Jason Roberts, studied streetcar system revival in several other cities prior to organizing the Oak Cliff group. He was amazed at the positive impact streetcars had on developments, neighborhoods, municipalities, businesses and the environment. Roberts says, “Streetcars are more than a means of transportation. They are a means for responsible development.”
Roberts just may have hit on something when he mentions responsible development. In the past it has been difficult at best to find common ground between residents, developers, businesses and the city. As a result, many buildings that should be regarded as landmarks are nothing more than eyesores. While it is doubtful that any of the stakeholders want these buildings to remain in disrepair, polarizing issues such as parking regulations are huge sticking points. However, OCTA is bridging the gap and bringing these stakeholders together.
“Trolleys are one thing everyone can agree on,” Roberts says. “Revitalized streetcar systems add to the sense of history around redeveloping neighborhoods like ours. People like riding streetcars over buses which encourages the use of public transportation and patronage of local businesses, while alleviating parking issues.”
Additionally the group is looking for more ways to ease the parking strain. The firm of Huitt-Zollar has been retained to complete a feasibility study, including the possible use of designated parking districts. Parking districts have been deployed successfully in many cities to both relieve congestion and provide a new source of revenue to subsidize transit operations.
Going Green for Less Green
It’s no secret that public transportation is good for the environment. But streetcars take this a step further than simply getting us to leave the gas-guzzling SUV in the garage; they are more economical than most other forms of public transportation. Compared to light rail, the average cost to implement streetcar systems is less than half. And the lines are much faster to construct, causing less economic impact to existing businesses and residents. On top of that, the equipment is very durable. It is not uncommon to see 100-year-old streetcars in operation while buses seldom last more than 20 years.
And a streetcar system does not require the same extensive building plan as a light rail, making the construction process much less time-consuming than one might think.Since Portland pioneered a new process, streetcars ride upon extremely shallow track beds built into streets and incorporate cantilevered wiring systems that attach to existing lighting and edifices. No need to create many fixed poles or attach cables to a single line. In contrast, a light rail system, like DART’s, requires years of development for a single mile, and major changes to the ground and electrical lines.
Why Not Rubber Tire?
One of the major advantages of a fixed rail system is that it denotes permanence. Investing in the fixed facilities needed for an electric, rail-based trolley conveys to potential passengers, investors and visitors that a permanent commitment has been made to provide transportation to the area. This also has important psychological benefits that tend to make positive contributions to urban development, and gear a city into creating a more “walkable” community. The following is a statement prepared by a transit advocacy group relating to the potential return of light rail to the suspended Arborway streetcar line in Boston:
“The investment in construction of a permanent way, such as a street railway, conveys a long-term commitment to provide a high quality service now and into the future. Bus options, making no such commitment, are too easily rerouted or curtailed.”– Fred R. Moore, Association for Public Transportation, Saugus, MA, une 2001
Roberts further explains that the retail and mixed-used development that inevitably follows a streetcar system could be a great benefit to Oak Cliff. “A rubber tire trolley, similar to what DART once used in North Dallas in the 1990’s, did little to spawn development along its routes,” he says. “In contrast, the McKinney Avenue Trolley line is considered the spine for the redevelopment that has occurred in Uptown. All along its path, dense, smart urban development has taken root. The federal government has even taken notice,” he continues, “and has rolled out the “Small Starts” program that provides grants to cities wanting to pursue a fixed rail streetcar option. I can tell you,” Roberts attests, “that after researching eight cities in the US where streetcars have been reintroduced, the return on investment is staggering…and by that, I mean over 1000% in all but one instance (Little Rock being the exception, where the RIO was 920%).”
Where Will It Go?
OCTA has drawn up a preliminary map outlining proposed lines. Much of the new alignment will follow the original routes and take advantage of existing infrastructure.
“If you look closely at the streets in the area you can see outlines of the original tracks that are still intact,” Roberts says. “They are just covered by asphalt. Some of this track can be recycled. But, more importantly, our goal is to reuse switches which are very expensive to produce.”
The proposed lines also closely follow the Gateway TIF, Ft. Worth Ave. TIF, and Twelve Hills TIF. OCTA expects the streetcars to be a great catalyst in these areas already tapped for development.
When Will It Happen?
Most projects in Dallas seem to have a large “hurry up and wait” factor. How many years has it been since we first started talking about the Trinity River Project? Or, how about those Calatrava bridges?
The Oak Cliff Transit Authority is determined to break that mold and has developed an aggressive timeline.
The initial fundraising and planning phases have begun. Design and construction are slated to kick off in 2009 and the first passengers will be onboard early 2011.
The biggest hurdle facing OCTA is fundraising. The group must raise $275,000 to fund the feasibility study required by various agencies such as DART and the City of Dallas, as well as grant-producing foundations and government agencies. The study ensures that the trolley system plans will be effective in areas such as providing needed routes, reducing traffic and bettering parking availability. Full findings are expected by mid-2008.
In the meantime, OCTA’s main objective is raising the money for the study. According to Roberts, support has been strong but many contributions are still needed. Checks can be made out to OCTA Funds at CFT; Oak Cliff Transit Authority; 614 N Bishop Ave,
Ste 3; Dallas, TX 75208.
OCTA is currently filing for 501(c)3 status. However, that should not stop anyone from making a contribution. Until the IRS confirms their nonprofit status, all funds will be held in trust at the Communities Foundation of Texas, which is a nonprofit corporation.
Who is behind OCTA?
When Jason Roberts first thought of bringing trolleys back to Oak Cliff, all he had was a vision and a large dose of passion. His passion proved to be contagious as he assembled a Board of Directors made up of Oak Cliff residents with impressive credentials. Most notable are Luis Salcedo and Harry Nicholls.
Mr. Salcedo brings over 30 years of civil engineering experience to the board. He served on the design team for plans, specifications and construction on the McKinney Avenue Trolley Association. His responsibilities included track layout, drainage, utility relocation and construction inspection.
Mr. Nicholls brings 40 years of streetcar experience to the board. In addition to being one of the original organizers and past Executive Director of the McKinney Avenue Trolley Association, he has also consulted for multiple streetcar operations in Europe and the United States.
Additional board members and advisory board members include: Elena Baca, Bill Breedlove, Sylvia Camarillo, Matt Holley, Barbara Nicholls, Andrea Roberts and Melody Townsel.
For more information visit the OCTA website at www.OakCliffTA.org.