Oak Cliff neighbors started talking about streetcars almost four years ago. And they didn’t just talk; they created a plan, did a cost analysis, and applied for grants.

Now City Hall is hot on streetcars, too, thanks to some federal stimulus money and a contentious convention center hotel under construction. Problem is, the City Hall plan doesn’t necessarily include Oak Cliff. But the push for streetcars in Oak Cliff has momentum and a few potent champions.

The idea for streetcars came to Oak Cliff neighbors who realized that our neighborhood, along with many similarly-aged areas of Dallas, was designed for them.

“Oak Cliff is a streetcar suburb,” says Jason Roberts, a founding member of the Oak Cliff Transit Authority.

Decades ago, Oak Cliff commuters could ride streetcars to work Downtown or to the ballpark once in West Dallas. And now that the system is gone, along with most of the nation’s streetcar systems, Oak Cliff is an automobile suburb. But that won’t work for the dense developments planned in line with the Trinity River project, says Oak Cliff Chamber of Commerce executive director Bob Stimson.

“You have to have alternative transportation available to [people],” Stimson says. “If you force them into their vehicles, then that high density just creates a logjam on the roads.”

City Hall’s plan to start a streetcar system Downtown would be a great service for tourists using the convention center hotel, allowing them easy access to Victory Park, the West End and connections to DART trains and the TRE. And that plan eventually would include a line to Oak Cliff. But some fear that tourists won’t create enough ridership to encourage City Hall to expand down the line.

“We want to get the city focused on a streetcar plan for the whole city. If not, it’s going to be shortsighted,” Stimson says.
The plan that the chamber backs — it’s also supported by the Old Oak Cliff Conservation League and Oak Cliff councilmen Delia Jasso and Dave Neumann — would start downtown at Union Station, and travel to the West End and the American Airlines Center. Then it would come to Riverfront Drive (formerly Industrial Boulevard) and the edge of the Design District. From there, it would cross the Continental Bridge, which is planned as a pedestrian bridge and park once car traffic moves to the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge, which is under construction. The streetcar would make a left at Beckley, make a stop at Methodist Dallas Medical Center, and come back across the Houston Street Viaduct to Union Station.

Proponents of this plan call it the “lakes loop”, and they think it would solve some transportation problems they say the city is bound to face with the Trinity River Project.

For one, the project includes fewer than 100 parking spaces. With the lakes loop, people could drive from North Dallas, McKinney or Plano, pay to park in the city-owned garage next to what used to be Reunion Arena, and take a streetcar to access Trinity River parks.

“For the Continental Bridge, we’re talking about having parties there, but there’s no parking,” Stimson says.

One of Oak Cliff’s strongest allies in the streetcar system design could be Bill Velasco, the Oak Cliff native who recently was appointed chairman of the DART board.

“The group here in Oak Cliff (the Oak Cliff Transit Authority) has its act together,” Velasco says. “They really want to get the dirt moving.”

DART lost some ridership in Oak Cliff recently when old apartments were demolished to make way for dense, mixed-use developments, which were planned before the recession hit and have not yet gotten underway. Part of the mission as board chairman for Velasco, who owns an insurance agency in Oak Cliff, is to create economic stimulus in our neighborhood.
And that’s on track with the vision for an Oak Cliff streetcar line, which eventually would branch into West Dallas and extend from Methodist to the Bishop Arts District, and Jefferson and Singleton boulevards.

“In some form or manner, we need to bring the two plans together somehow,” Velasco says.

Eventually making the Oak Cliff Transit Authority — which essentially is a group of friends with a good idea — a part of DART has sort of been the plan all along, Roberts says.

“I think we’ve hit the tipping point. Dallas is getting a streetcar no matter what. Whether it’s coming to Oak Cliff, I don’t know,” he says. “But it’s coming to Downtown.”

It was good timing that Oak Cliff jumped into the streetcar conversation around the same time as City Hall, Roberts says.

“Because of that, Oak Cliff is seriously being looked at, and if we hadn’t been out there with a megaphone saying, ‘We want a streetcar,’ no one in East Dallas would be asking for these things.”