Here’s the carrot that might bring public transit to Arlington

Via, a new-ride share company, debuted in Arlington in December.
Via, a new-ride share company, debuted in Arlington in December. Courtesy

For years, Arlington has simply said no to real public transportation.

The city has tried several pilot projects offering limited bus service to help residents get around town, commute to Fort Worth or make a connection to DFW Airport and Dallas. In the past year Arlington started two innovative but limited transit programs, one of them using a futuristic autonomous vehicle.

None of these efforts, no matter how noble, have changed the fact that Arlington is the largest city in the nation without mass transit. It is a moniker that should haunt an “American Dream City” with a world-famous football stadium, a bustling entertainment district and a growing, top-tier research university that attracts students from around the world.

Now Arlington has an opportunity to redeem itself and tap into one of the state’s most exciting transportation projects — it wants a stop on the proposed high speed rail line between Fort Worth and Dallas that would connect with another line between Dallas and Houston.

But to play Arlington has to pay.

The first thing Arlington needs to do is spend what it will take to join or contract with one of the local transit organizations, either the Fort Worth Transportation Authority or Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Arlington has worked with both, most recently on the discontinued MAX bus service that connected downtown to CentrePort and the Trinity Railway Express station.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments, the agency coordinating the DFW corridor portion of the high speed rail project, has already asked Arlington to take this exact step, saying it is crucial if Arlington wants to be included in the high speed rail project’s $5 million environmental impact study.

If Arlington takes this critical step, it has a chance to go from being “worst to first” in public transportation, said Michael Morris, director of transportation for the Council of Governments. Morris made the request of Arlington in mid-December and asked for a decision by Feb. 1.

Arlington Mayor Jeff Williams said city staff is looking at the issue but doesn’t know of any deadline. He said the city is “going to proceed with caution” and make sure it has citizen support.

It is easy to understand William’s reluctance to commit. Arlington voters have repeatedly rejected paying for public transportation since 1980, despite the fact that the city’s population has grown by about 145 percent since then to about 400,000.

But getting a high speed rail station would also force the city to develop a system within the city to get that wave of commuters to their next destination.

Williams and the City Council already knows something more must be done, which is why they formed a 31-member Transportation Advisory Committee that studied the issue and produced a report looking at the city’s needs. Their report stressed innovative approaches such as Milo, a free autonomous shuttle that is operating in the entertainment district during Texas Rangers and Dallas Cowboy games.

Another innovative idea was Via, the app-based rideshare pilot program that started in December and works much like Uber and Lyft, but uses a fleet of 10 black Mercedes Benz vans and charges a flat $3 fee per ride. It recently announced that it is expanding its territory from downtown and the entertainment district to include other parts of the city.

Add to all that the gee-whiz vision Morris has for creating an elevated transit system along Texas 360 using autonomous vehicles to carry people and cargo from Arlington to DFW Airport and beyond. The Regional Transportation Council this month reaffirmed development of a test track at Arlington’s General Motors plant.

Doing all of this, however, begins with Arlington joining or contracting with an existing transit agency. An opportunity to have a stop on the high speed rail line might just be the carrot for the city that’s said no to mass transit, to say yes.