When Novelties Become a Nuisance

D Magazine , April 2002

It all started innocently enough. In the early 1980s, local businesses got the city to pull up the asphalt on McKinney Avenue to expose the old brick underneath and give the neighborhood some historic charm. The process also revealed streetcar tracks—tracks that local trolley buff Ed Landrum estimated would be good for another 50 years of service. Landrum invited Phil Cobb, the head of the neighborhood business association and a prominent restaurateur, to come see a home movie taken in 1956, on the last day streetcars rolled down McKinney Avenue in what is now Uptown.

Enthralled by the images, Cobb had Landrum run the film for him more than a dozen times. "The hair on the back of my neck literally went up," he recalls. "I was hooked on playing a role in trying to get some federal and local funds to bring the streetcars back to Dallas."

That was about 15 years ago. Since then, what began as a modest effort to bring a bit of charm and history to a small stretch of existing track has grown. And grown.

Instead of a modest addition to neighborhood aesthetics—an old-time car going up and down the avenue on weekends—the McKinney Avenue trolley system has become a heavily subsidized transit boondoggle, soaking up millions of tax dollars and forcing neighbors to live with construction and congestion. Even as the system has expanded its ambitions, the number of riders has shrunk, and private funds are getting harder to raise.

After a year and a half of living nearby, I took my first McKinney Avenue trolley ride on a Monday morning in February. Car number 186, a.k.a. "the Green Dragon," arrived promptly at 11 o’clock, picking me up at the last McKinney stop before the car turns left on Hall Street and heads downtown.

When I said I was writing about the trolley, driver Louis Mullenix pointed out the sign describing the green-and-white car’s history. Built in 1913, it had ridden the Dallas rails until streetcar service ended in 1956. The Green Dragon did time as a hay barn, its wheels removed, until Landrum rescued it. "Restored by Ed Landrum and Kate Landrum Schultz" reads a bronze plaque in the front of the car. The fare box solicits donations to the McKinney Avenue Transit Authority, the nonprofit group, chaired by Phil Cobb, that runs the trolleys.

Remembering my mother’s stories of her childhood conversations with the streetcar drivers, I’d planned to ask questions as I rode. But that plan proved impossible, at least if I wanted to hear the answers. The old car’s clatter against the rails rivals a noisy factory. The wood floor creaks and the windows rattle. You can barely hear yourself, much less the driver a few feet away.

Having watched the trolleys for many months, I wasn’t surprised to be the only passenger—the sixth of the day, Mullenix told me. On our return trip from downtown, a man got on at St. Paul and Woodall Rodgers. He was walking to a friend’s house, he said, when he looked up and saw the trolley. "Right time, right place," he said, handing Mullenix a dollar to cover the 75-cent, one-way fare. On a second round trip, all the seats but mine remained empty.

That’s typical. In 1997, the most recent year for which figures are available, MATA counted 73,879 fare-paying passengers, or about 200 a day. Since then, the novelty has worn off, and two years of construction on McKinney have disrupted operations. Cobb now estimates ridership at just over 100 a day, plus lots of charters like the weekend birthday party that left bits of purple and green balloons on the windowsill next to my wooden bench. Few fare-paying passengers are regulars. Most are tourists, many of them local suburbanites, and almost all come on the weekends. "We’ve been a cute, little, fun trolley for Grandpa to come in and take the grandkids to ride on," says Casie Pierce, MATA’s executive administrative director.

The nearly empty trolleys that cruise McKinney Avenue, traveling about twice the pace of an energetic walker, represent a lot of what is good about Dallas. Driven by volunteers and financed in part by substantial contributions from local businesses, these trolleys wouldn’t exist without a can-do spirit of civic involvement. A lot of grandpas and grandkids have enjoyed their weekend outings because of these imaginative and dedicated people.

But the trolleys also represent what is wrong with the Dallas Way—costs imposed on the many for the benefit of the few, expensive gestures judged by their intent rather than their effectiveness, a cheerleading culture that precludes criticism or reality checks. The McKinney Avenue trolley system is, in short, a good symbol of all the frustrations that shook the Dallas establishment when Laura Miller became mayor.

Since it incorporated in the late 1980s, MATA has spent more than $13 million to lay tracks and expand its routes. Another $3.1 million is on hand for further expansion downtown, about half what Cobb estimates it would cost to stretch to the West End, a cherished MATA goal. More than $8 million of this money has come from federal taxes, upwards of $6 million from the city tax base, and another $2 million or so from private donations.

Those capital costs are on top of an operating budget of around $250,000 per year, $150,000 of which comes from the Uptown Public Improvement District and the rest from charters, advertising, fares, and donations. Dividing that annual operating budget by a generous 80,000 passengers per year, we find that a round-trip passenger pays $1.50 for a trip that costs an average of $3.12 to provide—not including millions of dollars for capital costs and the value of all that volunteer labor. That’s the best-case calculation, and that cost is about to skyrocket.

On April 13, MATA will celebrate the trolley line’s northward extension, with tracks looping around the new West Village shopping center and connecting to the Cityplace DART station. The trolleys, says Cobb, are about to "really grow up. We’re becoming more than just an attraction, more than just a historic addition to the city of Dallas. We now want to be part of a larger system, and that’s where we’re going."

More, more, more. That’s the problem: the trolleys are an expensive hobby in search of a public justification. And the broader the search becomes, the more expensive the hobby.

To attract commuters, MATA plans to quadruple its operating budget to more than $1 million per year, replacing some or all of today’s volunteer drivers with paid employees, lengthening its hours of operation, and expanding its two-person headquarters staff. Some of the new money will come from the Downtown Public Improvement District, adding to existing contributions from its Uptown equivalent. But to make up most of the difference, MATA is counting on DART, which it hopes will underwrite trolley subsidies in exchange for free transfers from its rail lines. Ideally, MATA would like to eliminate the fare box altogether.

Having already demonstrated extremely limited appeal to neighborhood residents, who’d rather walk or drive, the trolleys need commuters to justify their recent and planned expansions. Commuters don’t want to wait a half hour to switch from train to trolley, and they don’t want to pay more to get to work. Interviewed as he waits to order lunch at Cafe Express, a rail commuter says that, sure, he’ll take the trolley from the Cityplace station—if it’s raining and if transfers are free. Otherwise, he’d rather walk. He enjoys it.

Pedestrians aren’t part of the McKinney Avenue grand scheme. Walking doesn’t leave monuments or require millions of dollars in federal grants. A pedestrian-friendly neighborhood is not the Dallas Way.

That may be what bothers me most about the trolleys’ contribution to the urban landscape. No one ever mentions that the streetcars and their tracks are hostile to both pedestrians and automobiles, slowing traffic and wiping out parking places. Expanding the system northward has forced residents to live with disruptive construction (some of which was worsened by sewer work) that made sidewalks and streets nearly impassable. Adding more frequent service will cause more traffic snarls and more pedestrian interference, even as the growing neighborhood becomes busier. Amid the cheerleading, no one points out that if anyone actually starts riding the trolleys, the streetcars will have to make more squealing stops, further jamming the streets.

The trolleys, in other words, may be nice artifacts to visit, but you wouldn’t want to live with them. Or foot the bill.