Why is rail working in Dallas and not Houston?

March 15, 2010 9:14:38 PM PDT
METRO's new light rail lines will be one of the largest public transportation projects in the nation, but so far, the new lines aren't sparking much interest among developers. Houston is building far more rail. You will be able to get more and more places, but what about when you get off the train? One of the lessons to be learned from Dallas is that building beside the rail can have huge benefits and it's not happening very often here.

Every morning in Dallas, thousands of people board DART trains to downtown, and Monday through Friday, Jenelle Hill is one of them.

"I don't have a car," she said. "I've been car-less for a year now."

It's not out of some financial hard times. It's her choice. To get to the train, she has a two-minute walk from her apartment. Not bad.

"It cuts probably around five to ten minutes off my commute," she said.

It's a seven-minute commute in all.

The convenience Jenelle enjoys isn't happening by accident. Sure, there are a lot more places she can go on Dallas' rail system, but Dallas is also doing a lot more than Houston is to get developers interested in building next to the tracks.

"Once developers understood how popular it was, then it really took off," said DART Economic Development Director Jack Wierzenski.

In Dallas, there are all sorts of spots where you can live and play next to the rail lines. Six large developments already exist.

Dallas' transit agency says there are $7 billion worth of projects on the ground or planned in the Dallas metro area. Few are as successful as Mockingbird Station. There, there are lofts and cafes and businesses. It's more than a train station. It's a destination in itself.

In Las Collinas, there's been a building boom two years before a train ever runs. It'll come right down the middle of this street. But already, apartments there are filling up. Retail is expected to follow.

"We have developers very interested in transit or developments all along the line to make this one of the largest TODs (Transit Oriented Developments) in the country," said Chris Wallace with the Irving/Las Collinas Chamber of Commerce.

The city of Irving and the Las Collinas Chamber of Commerce were such big believers in the power of rail to encourage development in their area, they gave the transit system $60 million worth of land and cash to redirect the train tracks through there on the way to DWF airport.

And they're doing more to help developers come in.

"Our philosophy on transit oriented development is leveraging public improvement and pubic investment to create opportunities for the private sector to invest as well," said Brenda McDonald with the city of Irving.

In other parts of the city, Dallas is offering incentives to build near the tracks.

But the financial help offered in Dallas is not happening in Houston, which means commuters like Jenelle Hill simply can't do in Houston what they can do in Dallas.

"It's starting to grow in Texas," said Jenelle.

In Houston, neither the city nor metro are offering any incentives and it may be one of the big reasons were not seeing development along the tracks.


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