July 2000 / Looking Back to 1976

DART Derailed—Light Rail Frustrated in Dayton, Ohio
 by Paul Matus  (The Third Rail , March 1976)

Copyright 1976 Third Rail Press. Reprinted by permission.
Copyright 2000 The Composing Stack Inc.

In the face of mounting criticism, Urban Mass Transit Administrator Robert E. Patricelli released a light rail transit policy statement December 16 [1975]. The statement came at the end of months of aggressive support for light rail from legislators of both political parties and all shades of the political spectrum. At the same time that UMTA issued its long-awaited statement, it stunned light rail advocates by slapping down the only advanced application for a light rail system before it-that of the city of Dayton, Ohio.
     In a curt paragraph in the same news release that announced the light rail policy statement, UMTA said that it had sent a letter to Dayton's Miami Valley Regional Transit Authority notifying them that their proposal for a light rail system, called DART (Dayton Area Rail Transit) was "being removed from the active file because of certain deficiencies which had to be overcome before the proposal could be placed in competition with applications from other cities."
     Specifically, UMTA claimed a "lack of assurance of a local financial share, and the lack of a review of transit alternatives involving bus operations on existing streets and freeways." UMTA said that its action was taken "without prejudice" to any "corrected" plan which Dayton might submit in the future.
     In the meanwhile UMTA announced its intention to "assist in the deployment of modern light rail transit in a city or cities where proper conditions for this type of service are found to exist." The federal agency did not go into detail as to the nature of the "proper conditions" it sought.
     Reaction in the Dayton area was swift and strong.
     "A cruel setback" was the way the Dayton Journal Herald described UMTA's action in a Dec. 17 editorial. ". . . UMTA's reasoning is an insult to this area's intelligence."
     The Journal Herald editorial went on to quote Tom Norwalk, an Oakwood, Ohio resident and an originator of the DART concept: "What we're seeing here is a lot of hypocrisy from the federal government. It is a real tragedy."
     The feeling that the federal government had sought a subterfuge to reject the DART plan was also reflected in a Dayton Daily News editorial the same day.
     "The points cited by the feds ... were obviously excuses. That leaves the reason a mystery," said the News. "Clearly, UMTA was looking for excuses to reject the application."
     Addressing itself to UMTA's rejec!ion statement the News said that: 'Alternatives including more freeways, special bus lanes and a buses-only corridor over the abandoned rail line [proposed for use by the DART project] have been studied to death."
     "As Kettering [Ohio] Mayor Charles Horn, who has worked hard for this plan, says, local planners have no choice but to jump through the hoops that the feds have put up."
     On Dec. 23, the Journal Herald commented further in its "Forum" opinion column: "We're frankly impatient with the whole federal grants process. It breeds an us-them attitude at both ends, with local officials and federal bureaucrats seeming to forget that its all 'our' money, the public's money, that is being handed out by the federal government.
     "UMTA was created to promote urban mass transit. Light rail, it seems to us, is most definitely going to be one of the principal modes of urban mass transportation in years to come. It is far cheaper to build than subways, it is cheaper to operate than buses. it will attract patrons who would never ride buses. And it is cleaner than automobiles or buses."

DART's Background 
Unlike many other proposals brought before UMTA in recent years, the DART proposal was conceived, drafted and promoted by a voluntary group of local residents, rather than by a formal transit agency.
     Dayton is an active manufacturing community of some 260,000 residents, located in southwestern Ohio, about 50 miles north of Cincinnati and 70 miles southwest of Columbus. Its metropolitan area, one of the fastest growing in Ohio, has a population of 863,000, as measured by its SMSA (Standard Metropolitan Statistical Area). Its transportation system includes a substantial trolley coach fleet, as well as diesel bus service.
     The people of Dayton are no strangers to innovation and leadership in the transportation field. It was in Dayton that Orville and Wilbur Wright invented the heavier-than-air flying machine, the city itself becoming a center of aeronautical research and experimentation.
     The automobile came to Dayton as it has come to all American cities large and small, and with it the all-too-familiar problems that have been endemic to the American Dream Machine. But, unlike people in many another city, groups of Daytonians have refused to accept the inevitability of the march of the car culture.
     The opportunity to create an alternative transportation future presented itself in April 1970, when Dayton was one of eleven U.S. cities selected by the U.S. DOT for participation in the Urban Corridor Demonstration Program. The program focused on a southeast corridor radiating from downtown Dayton to the communities of Kettering, Oakwood, Washington Township and Centerville. In October 1971, the Montgomery County Planning Commission submitted a plan for the corridor advocating an exclusive busway as a partial response to the area's needs.
     A report from the consulting firm of Vogt, Sage and Pflum, issued July 1, 1972, examined the feasibility of the proposed busway and projected a ridership estimate (10,000 to 15,000 passengers per day at its most optimistic) so modest that the consultants inferred that the cost of the busway could be justified only if carpools were allowed to use its right-of-way during peak periods, thereby substantially negating the busway's usefulness as transit at the times when it would be needed most.
     Even as the proposed busway was in its talking stages, a trio of Dayton area residents, none of them professionally (or financially) involved in rail transit, were preparing a counter-proposal to bring modern rail transit to the southeast corridor.
     The efforts of the three, Stephen S. King, Thomas S. Norwalk and James B. Rhinehart, culminated in the preparation of a remarkable 219-page report, "DART-The Coming Way to Go." Far from the vague, often unbalanced work of the typical ad-hoc committee, the DART report set out ideas and concrete proposals that quickly gained wide attention and support.

New Feasibility Study Ordered
The issuance of the DART report succeeded in delaying further implementation of the busway plan. The MontgomeryGreene County Transportation Coordinating Committee applied for Federal approval of a feasibility study of the light rail proposal on December 28, 1971. Approval was granted and the Philadelphia consulting firm of Louis T. Klauder & Associates was chosen to produce the study, with the Washington-based firm of Peat, Marwick, Mitchell & Co. acting as sub-consultants with the responsibility of projecting ridership figures.

UMTA Stalling Attacked
The DART plan picked up political as well as planning support. Senator Robert Taft (R-Ohio) openly promoted the light rail proposal in Congress and at the Department of Transportation, stirring up dust in the process of gaining momentum. When UMTA action failed to match its outward sympathy for light rail transit, Mr. Taft pushed harder, culminating in his speech, "Institutional Receptiveness to New Concepts in Transportation," which he delivered at the First National Light Rail Conference on June 25, 1975, in which he accused UMTA of having "no light rail policy" [TR, 1/57].
     Despite continually growing support for light rail and DART in the succeeding months, UMTA continued to delay Dayton's application, all the while protesting that the application had "not been delayed," that it was going through normal procedures."
     On October 31 a letter was delivered to Transportation Secretary Coleman:
     "We, the undersigned Members of Congress, are writing to you to urge that, as a matter of national transportation policy, you direct the Urban Mass Transit Administration to support Light Rail transit."
     Further citing the advantages of light rail, the letter concluded that "the rapidly growing interest in the advantages of Light Rail, in Light Rail's ability to provide not only large but also medium-sized cities with rail transit at low comparative cost, requires increased support for Light Rail by our national transportation authorities....
     "We believe it is in the interest of the nation to move decisively to implement the Light Rail mode of urban transit. We urge you, as Secretary of Transportation, to act to do so."
     The letter bore the signatures of Senators Taft, Metcalf, Buckley, Randolph, Cranston, Glenn and Kennedy, as well as that of Ohio Representative Clarence Brown.

Growing Frustration on DART
Despite the continually increasing support for light rail in Congress, Daytonians must have sensed the impending frustration of their own efforts. Even as light rail picked up the support of both conservatives and liberals on Capitol Hill, the Dayton Daily News expressed Dayton's growing frustration in a November 11 article: "The Dayton area's application seems to be suffering in UMTA from unfashionability. In the developing mass transit bureaucracy, light rail isn't powered by the special-interest constituencies that propel highway, bus line and subway proposals.
     "What a shame—what a farce—if the feds disallow a proposition that the locals are clamoring for, in favor, sometime later, of one [the busway] for which a general dislike already has been demonstrated in practice."
     So it was on December 16 that the combined efforts of energetic citizens and energetic legislators finally resulted in a break in UMTA's silence on light rail with the issuance of a policy statement. It was also the day when Daytonians received the long-awaited answer to their own rail transit hopes.
     The answer was no.

Highlights of the Klauder Report
On October 10, 1973, Louis T. Klauder & Associates issued a feasibility study of light rail transit in the southeast corridor of Dayton, Ohio.
     The report described a system utilizing light railway technology in a 95% exclusive right-of-way system connecting downtown Dayton with communities extending southeast to Centerville, about 12 miles, via a currently underutilized freight branch of the Penn Central Railroad.
     Except for short stretches, the line would be double-tracked, and would be signalled only where required-at curves, and at control points of single track sections.
     Most street operation would be in downtown Dayton, where speeds would be restricted to 25 mph or less. Elsewhere, full 60 mph speeds would be attained in practice. The average speed for a through trip from Dayton to Centerville would be 35 mph, allowing for dwell time of 15 seconds at each station, Higher average speeds, exceeding 40 mph could be obtained through the use of express or skip-stop scheduling.
     Service frequency would be every 10 minutes during peak periods, 20 minutes off-peak, the standard assumed in the Peat-Marwick-Mitchell ridership study. The generated ridership projected by the latter study, however, indicates the necessity of shorter headways, typically 7 minutes peak, 13 minutes off-peak.
     Service would be provided at all times except early morning hours when freight service could continue to be provided for industrial customers.
     Costs in the study are based on all passengers obtaining seats in 5-seat, single-unit, non-articulated light rail cars.
     Among the major conclusions reported by the Klauder study are the following (all costs in 1973 dollars): 
     * The DART plan would provide high speed, high quality service "fully competitive with automotive travel on existing and planned highways" in the corridor,
     * The system would attract 20,000 daily riders the first year, up to 48,000 by the year 2000.
     * Revenues, based on "modest" fares, would cover costs of operation and maintenance with a "comfortable margin." "In fact, rail service revenues in excess of costs would be large enough to provide attractive bus feeder service to outlying rail stations."
     * Total capital cost, including all fixed facilities and vehicles, would average $2- to $3-million per mile, depending on length.
     * The estimated annual benefits to riders and the public at large would be almost double the equivalent annual cost of the initial investment.
     * Construction can proceed in stages. Branching and/or expansion of the original line can be easily accomplished.
     * Growth of ridership could entail additional cost of approximately $1.6-million per mile between now and the year 2000. "Quantifiable future benefits would exceed this additional cost by a substantial margin."
     * "Construction of the line would bring substantial developmental benefits ... not the least of which would be reduced pressure for major new highway facilities in the corridor."

What Might Have Been?

If you came upon Darrek Jones' Miami Valley Rail Authority website via a search engine, it might take awhile before you realize that this professional looking web address is a parody. What would tip you off? Maybe the fact that a quarter-century after the DART article appeared in The Third Rail, Dayton still runs on rubber.

The Third Rail and The Third Rail logo are trademarks of The Composing Stack Inc..

Return to The Third Rail Online Home
Return to rapidtransit.net Home

Everything on this site is copyright © 2000 by The Composing Stack Inc., except as otherwise noted.
Materials with other copyrights are used by permission.
All rights reserved

Last updated Tuesday, December 05, 2000