Why are we building highways and rail lines to nowhere?

On the surface, regionalism sounds like a reasonable, noble pursuit: neighboring cities working together towards common goals that benefit the larger area, affecting outcomes that none could achieve alone.

But in Dallas there has been a significant downside to regionalism that is more than just a trade-off between small sacrifices at the local level in pursuit of a greater good that will nonetheless benefit our city. No, we’re getting the short end of the stick compared to our suburban neighbors and the fault lies squarely at the gates of Dallas City Hall.

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Regionalism in Dallas is all about transportation planning and spending, and here is what transportation regionalism has wrought for our city: Dallas neighborhoods have been bifurcated and torn asunder by bloated, steroidal highways that carry mostly flow-through traffic. Our regional transit system is one of the least efficient in the country. Dallas’ population remained flat between 2000 and 2010 while the region grew exponentially. Dallas’ working poor are forced to choose between enduring hours of labyrinthine, inefficient bus routes to get to work or investing in cars that swallow up a huge chunk of their paychecks.

I discussed these problems with Patrick Kennedy, a young, smart urban planner who agrees that regional transportation policies are choking Dallas. He said part of the problem is that the folks who dole out federal money for the region have created a self-fulfilling prophecy that encourages more and more sprawl.

Regionalists detest a “fix it first” policy, where they improve the deteriorating infrastructure that already exists. Instead, they like to build new, multi-billion dollar highways. This requires them to anticipate where future population growth will occur. They don’t know. They can’t know. But they pick an enormous cow pasture north of Dallas as a growth center because that will mean they’ll have to build a huge, billion-dollar highway to it.

So they build a huge, billion-dollar highway to it, and lo! A city arises from the flaxen fields! The regionalists pat themselves on the back for their remarkable prescience, when in fact, they ensured the fulfillment of their prophecy through their highway construction.

As the regionalists’ population projections keep moving farther and farther from Dallas, our city loses residents, jobs, industry, corporate headquarters and good schools to our northern neighbors.

Dallas Area Rapid Transit — or DART — is equally culpable. DART builds and operates light rail and bus routes. It’s a regional system funded through a one-cent sales tax from Dallas and a dozen other nearby cities.

The problem with DART is that it has prioritized the size of its system over its ridership. More DART riders would mean we’re taking more cars off our roads, improving our air quality and making our streets and highways more efficient. But because DART relies on sales-tax revenue as its primary funding source (instead of fares), they have no incentive to increase ridership through better, more frequent transit service.

Additionally, DART is prioritizing the suburbs to the detriment of Dallas, putting inefficient projects like Addison’s Cotton Belt rail line ahead of Dallas’s “D2” subway line downtown. Addison argues that they’ve waited patiently for years to get rail. But if we’re being real about this (and let’s be real, shall we?), Dallas contributes more to DART in one year than Addison has in three decades. D2 would dramatically improve the capacity and efficiency of DART’s larger light rail system, while few people are projected to ride the Cotton Belt line. We can still do the Cotton Belt, but let’s do D2 first.

The fundamental problem with regional transportation planning in North Texas is that the needs of our suburban neighbors have taken precedence over the needs of our city and its citizens. Regional cooperation is no doubt necessary. But if we want to keep Dallas strong, if we want to grow and flourish as a city, we need our mayor, our city councilmembers, and those representing Dallas on the DART board and Regional Transportation Commission to commit to putting Dallas first, without question and without equivocation.