For years, Arlington, Texas was the largest city in the country with no public transit. Now, residents may be wondering how they ever got along without it.

Ridership on the city’s new bus line the MAX (Metro Arlington Express) has far outpaced expectations since service began last month. About 250 riders per day are paying $5 to take the bus, which runs between the University of Texas-Arlington campus and a commuter rail station about ten miles away, outside the city limits.

It’s too early to tell what the long-term impact of the MAX will be, but the service’s early success begs a question: if sprawling, conservative Arlington was considered the least likely place for a bus system, then why is the new bus so popular?

What the success of Arlington’s MAX bus reveals is a major problem in the way some metro areas—particularly the fastest-growing ones in the small-government South—go about deciding where their buses and trains will run.

As it stands, it’s a process that can easily mask real demand for good public transportation. And the way the MAX is designed to address this issue is arguably more important to the future of public transportation in car-dependent cities than the bus itself.

A Texas-Sized Problem

At its core, Arlington’s longstanding lack of public transit stemmed from a basic problem: an unwillingness to think regionally.

Regionalism” is thrown around a lot these days, but the underlying concepts aren’t difficult to understand.

In sprawling North Texas, most people who live in Arlington work in a different city. Likewise, many people who work in Arlington—from the janitors at the university to the Dallas Cowboys coaches—don’t live there.

Driving in the area can be miserable (the Metroplex ranks third in the country in time wasted sitting in traffic). The obvious solution would be a transit system seamlessly linking Dallas, Fort Worth, the airport and the suburbs.

In reality, of course, there’s no city in the U.S. actually offering such a unified system of public transportation. Even in transit-dependent New York, there are still half a dozen rail systems serving the city, each with different equipment, labor unions and fares.

In the New York area, though, the vast majority of people have access to some sort of public transportation, which, in areas served by the MTA, they finance indirectly through a complex system of state-administered funds and taxes.

In Texas, on the other hand, there’s no state funding for local bus and rail systems. Cities have to raise their own money through sales taxes and fares (with the federal government pitching in a bit, as well).

But Texas also restricts the amount of money local governments can raise on their own, by limiting cities to having no more than a 2 percent sales tax.

Since most cities in Texas already levy the maximum tax, this system virtually guarantees wealthier suburbs won’t join regional transit agencies. Elected officials in places such as Arlington have no incentive to fund Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) if doing so will slice their own government’s tax revenues in half. (DART requires a 1 percent contribution from its member cities.)

So when Dallas-area voters have a referendum on whether to join DART, they’re essentially forced to choose between their own cities’ fiscal solvency and the bus system. Little surprise, then, that while there are 13 member cities in DART, many more eligible cities have shown no intention of joining.

This is not a problem unique to Texas. Just ask residents of suburban Atlanta, another booming region of the country. Only two of the area’s five core counties are part of MARTA, the metro Atlanta transit agency, due in large part to an unwillingness to give MARTA tax money. Attempts to start independent bus services have met with limited success. In 2010, one county, Clayton, shut down its bus system entirely because it cost too much to run.

Hope for the Future

With the MAX bus, however, Dallas officials may have finally found a way to break out of the vicious circle of highly localized decision-making.

Try-before-you-buy public transit.

For now, the university, local businesses and the Arlington city government will split the $700,000 annual cost of running the bus. Arlington has four years to hold a referendum on whether to pay the 1 percent tax. If the referendum fails, the city will lose the MAX service.

It’s an inspired idea because it shows there’s a way to encourage the sort of regional transit thinking racial, jurisdictional and socioeconomic divides have so far prevented in cities such as Dallas and Atlanta.

As the early ridership figures demonstrate, existing demand will make it much harder for Arlington voters to refuse joining DART once they’ve already been exposed to the benefits of having bus service.

What’s more, it points to a potential new role for the Federal Transit Administration, which today exists mostly to fund new transportation infrastructure rather than transit service itself.

The early success of the MAX bus has revealed a hidden demand for public transit in suburbs across the country. If places like Arlington could be pinpointed and targeted for new bus service, the federal government could reap a large economic gain on a relatively small investment.

Too many suburbs pride themselves on a lack of public transit. But as Arlington’s example shows, they don’t know what they’re missing—and whole regions are suffering as a result.


Photo credit: Flickr Creative Commons