Hole in the Middle

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Posted December 7, 2005 by DAN MCGRAW in News

A few years ago, noted Texas author Larry McMurtry wrote a rather odd travel book called Roads, in which he described Arlington as “not so much a city as an area of confusion that manages to combine the worst features of Dallas … and Fort Worth.” McMurtry also described Arlington as a “vast labyrinth of cul-de-sacs surrounding a giant amusement park. Once in, only a native can find their way back out.”

I’m not really sure if Arlington is the melding of the worst features of Dallas and Fort Worth, but there is some truth to the part about not finding your way out. Especially if you don’t have a car.

Arlington is the largest city in the country without any public transit system. Every few years the city dips its toes in the public transit water, maybe throwing something on the ballot or trying to figure out a way to get trains or buses without spending any money. But the plans always fail, largely because the leaders and most residents apparently have a very limited view of what mass transit does. Arlington leaders generally feel that public transit is for poor people and that if there were a bus system, it might attract poor people from elsewhere – thus, in their minds, bringing in the worst features of Dallas and Fort Worth.

So once again Arlington is thinking about public transportation, and once again city leaders are proving they have little idea about what public transit does. The city wants to gain a stop on the Trinity Railway Express and then eventually run rail lines down to Six Flags and Ameriquest Field and the new Dallas Cowboys stadium. The cost could run into tens of millions of dollars.

Not to be a complete cynic here, but it seems that the type of mass transit Arlington wants is for people who come into the city to drop some money in the sports/tourism game. Having a bus system that gets people to work doesn’t seem to cross anyone’s mind. “We would like to have rail, but whether we can muster the funding, that’s not clear,” Mayor Robert Cluck said in a recent interview with The Dallas Morning News.

And that is kind of the key issue here. When Arlington leaders decided to push for the Cowboys stadium, they agreed to use a half-cent sales tax for their side of the payments. That pushed the Arlington sales tax to 8 percent, one-quarter of a percent below the state sales tax cap. In order to join The T, Arlington needs to contribute a half-cent. But it can’t be done that way: Jerry Jones got his money, and the cupboard is now pretty bare.

There may be some ways around the funding problem. The state may allow regional transit plans to be exempt from the cap, and Arlington is looking for ways to get the rail lines by pulling money out of its general fund. Maybe the rail lines would be a way for the city and its residents to see that public transit is not such a bad thing.

But Arlington really needs to wake up on what public transit does for a community. Gas prices are flying through the roof, and more regular working people are realizing that mass transit can help them get to work more cheaply. The population is aging, and 21 percent of Americans over 65 don’t drive, according to a recent study. These people need a way to get around, including going to see their doctors.

But there are other reasons that a city like Arlington needs to get into the 20th century (let’s not even think about the 21st) when it comes to public transportation. The DART light rail system is providing economic growth in Dallas County, with businesses and housing being built near the train stops. And if Arlington wants some economic development around the University of Texas at Arlington campus, wouldn’t it make sense to have public transit for the 25,000 students attending that commuter school?

Because Arlington is smack in the middle of the Metroplex, regional public transit planning depends upon this city. Future plans by The T and DART show rail lines crisscrossing Arlington. But you can’t have a decent regional transit system if there is a big hole in the middle.

Maybe Arlington can get some trains to run some people to the amusement park and sporting events. But the city should also start listening to some of the other people who want to ride the bus, including the not-so-poor who could contribute to economic development. Buses might even alleviate some of the traffic problems that seems to bedevil all those in Arlington.

Or maybe they can just listen to some of the new arrivals. A Hurricane Katrina evacuee from New Orleans told me recently that he’d gotten a job and was moving into a new apartment in Arlington. I asked if he had a car. No. Asked him if he knew that Arlington had no public transit. No, he didn’t. “How am I supposed to get to work?” he asked.

Well, in the future, he might be able to get to a Cowboys game. But in the meantime, the rest of us will just have to detour around this place where the civic thinking can’t seem to find its way out of an elitist cul de sac.

 


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