A DART commuter rail line is poised to cut right through Far North Dallas, and several neighborhood leaders believe it’s on the wrong track.
When Tom Wood moved into his Preston Green Estates townhome seven years ago, a freight train ran about once every four days on the single track less than 50 feet behind his house on Southpoint Drive.
He could handle that.
But now, if DART’s proposed plan for the Cotton Belt Rail Line goes forward, Wood could have a double track commuter rail running behind his home seven days a week, every 20-30 minutes.
“With a double track system, the trains would be 32 feet from my bedroom,” he says.
The 26-mile Cotton Belt Corridor extends from DFW Airport to the border of Richardson and will provide a vital east-west connection between DART’s Green and Red rail lines. The Far North Dallas section runs from Knoll Trail to Coit Road through residential neighborhoods, near schools and across five intersections.
DART bought the right of way in 1991 as part of its 2030 transit system plan and proposed the now $1.8 billion passenger rail line amid much opposition from those who had hoped for mass transit along any of the major routes such as the Dallas North Tollway, the George Bush Turnpike or LBJ Freeway.
“It’s hard to site a new railroad through an urban roadway,” says Steve Salin, DART’s vice president of rail planning. “Existing railroads are a good thing for us.”
The Cotton Belt is a major economic development opportunity for surrounding suburbs like Richardson and Addison. Not so much for North Dallas, says District 12 councilmember Sandy Greyson.
“We’d be a pass-through for a much larger system,” she says. “Almost all of the economic development that would come from the Cotton Belt would incur to the suburbs.”
Responding to neighbors’ concerns in 2006, the city council agreed to support the Cotton Belt only if it met the conditions of a resolution known as the Natinsky Plan, named for the former councilmember and recent mayoral candidate who wrote it. The resolution called for the North Dallas section of the rail to run in a below-grade trench to alleviate noise and vibration.
A public meeting in August revealed that wouldn’t be so easy. The existing track sits on a 100-year flood plain that, in some areas, allows for only a 1- or 2-foot depth without interfering with the water level.
“We looked at a trench in the truest sense of the word — something that would run about 15 feet deep,” says John Hoppie, DART’s Cotton Belt project manager. “It’s impossible because there are so many water issues. We would have to install massive pumping systems and retention pads that would actually have greater impact to the environment.”
Salin adds that water has to go somewhere to prevent flooding during unpredictable weather.
“We have to be able to store water upstream so that the rail line doesn’t become a canal,” Salin says. “It’s a dramatic complication to the project and a tremendous amount of cost.”
Neighbors worry that DART is simply ignoring a key component of the Natinsky Plan. Greyson stands behind the residents.
“A trench of 1 or 2 feet violates the spirit and understanding of the agreement we made with DART,” she says. “Without that agreement, we’re right back where we were in the mid-1990s — total opposition.”
Salin says the resolution outlined a trench option without specifying depth, although Greyson recalls designs indicating a 16-foot trench.
“We are well aware of the neighbors’ concerns,” Salin says. “It isn’t that we just recognized this problem. The impact had never been determined.”
DART will complete an environmental impact study by April, revealing the true effects of a trench, and neighborhood leaders plan to keep a close eye on the process.
“These environmental impact studies can be somewhat manipulated,” says Marla Beikman, co-president of the North Dallas Neighborhood Alliance. “And once they have it, it’s set in stone.”
DART has preliminary designs for alternatives such as installing rubber pads beneath the train to help absorb the noise and vibration. The plan already includes 6- to 10-foot sound walls.
But the trench option isn’t the only concern. DART’s current plan includes three stations along the short North Dallas portion of the rail line: Knoll Trail near Arapaho, Preston and Keller Springs, and Renner just west of Coit. With locations at Addison Circle and the University of Texas at Dallas, that makes five stations within about seven miles.
“There is no oft-traveled executive that is going to make five stops in North Dallas to get to the airport,” says Wood, a business executive himself who has spent years on the road.
Each city along the Cotton Belt identified its station locations, and the North Dallas stops were included in the Natinsky Plan.
“From a transit perspective, the idea is to move people as quickly as possible through the corridor while encouraging economic development and job access,” Salin says. “We had said all along that the stations are too close to each other. They could be moved or eliminated.”
Salin worries that the concerns of North Dallas residents could slow the project and its benefit for others along the corridor.
On the contrary, neighborhood residents like Marianne Norris support a rail line in North Dallas. She has lived near the tracks on Duffield Drive in the Preston Creek HOA for 12 years.
“I think Dallas desperately needs more mass transportation, especially up here,” she says. “This isn’t us saying, ‘Not in my backyard.’ It’s about the way it’s going to go through. The unknown is more of a concern with us. We would like to see a plan that is environmentally compatible with the neighborhood so that we can live in peace with the DART line.”
Despite the hopes of some homeowners, Salin says there’s no chance of DART relocating the Cotton Belt to a different route.
Eventually, it will all come down to money. There isn’t any right now as DART pursues a public-private partnership to accelerate the almost $2 billion project.
“Say a private entity comes along and says they only have $800 million to spend on it,” Salin says. “What happens then?”
Cuts will have to be made, he says, likely to those expensive remedies in Far North Dallas.
Greyson points to the LBJ Express project as an example of how a public-private partnership can become a win-win for everyone. The massive reconstruction of the interstate has an even higher price tag of $3.2 billion, and the developers were given limits. They couldn’t build higher or wider, so the solution was depressed lanes. She says there’s no reason a similar agreement can’t be reached on the Cotton Belt to give North Dallas residents those 16 feet they expected.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is not a done deal.”
• To get involved in the North Dallas Area Focus Group, which DART has formed to dialogue with neighbors about its work along the North Dallas corridor, call DART Community Affairs at 214.749.2543.
• The North Dallas Neighborhood Alliance will host a public meeting at 7 p.m. Oct. 11 in the community room at the North Central Police Station, 6969 McCallum, to discuss recent concerns about the Cotton Belt.