2015 - June

Light Rail and Changing Development Patterns in San Dieago, Dallas, and Jersey City

By Joseph Buga


Between 1985 and 2014, 19 metropolitan areas in the United States built new light rail systems at a cost of over $30 billion. The US Department of Transportation funded a major share of the costs, with support from state and local public funding sources. This dissertation begins by providing an introduction to this era of light rail projects by placing them in the historical context of surface transit improvements in the United States. A compendium of the 1985 to 2014 light rail systems is then presented. Also included is a review of the various federal laws that have spurred light rail development over the period. In the dissertation the establishment and expansion of light rail in three case study cities, San Diego, Dallas and Jersey City, is examined with respect to land use and planning. The San Diego Trolley began operating in 1986, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) in 1995 and the Hudson Bergen Light Rail in Jersey City in 2000.

Structured interviews were conducted with developers of projects along these transit lines to gain insight into their decisions to locate near light rail and their interaction with local land use transit agency planners. Developers generally viewed light rail as an additional amenity, not as a reason in and of itself to pursue a project. In several instances light rail was not considered at all in the establishment of a project and in one project the developer viewed it as a negative factor. The nature of coordination between local land use planning and the transit agencies which established light rail varied among the three case study cities: San Diego conducted the most comprehensive effort by virtue of its local neighborhood planning entities and its participation in a regional planning organization.

During the mid 1990s and into the early 2000, new urbanism, smart growth and transit oriented development emerged as new land use planning theories. In the dissertation, these planning theories are analyzed and their similarities and differences identified. To assess how these theories and their principles were incorporated into the planning of light rail systems, planning documents associated with the San Diego, Dallas and Jersey City light rail systems were reviewed, and structured interviews with local land use planners and transit planners in these cities were conducted. The study revealed that many principles associated with the planning theories were incorporated into the planning documents; however, there are no explicit references to the theories. Developers were uniformly aware of the principles associated with the new planning theories.

Site visits were made to each of the cities and information was collected at nine projects along the light rail routes. A planning theories scorecard was used to evaluate how the elements of new urbanism, smart growth and transit oriented development, were incorporated into various selected projects. Since their inception in the mid 1990s the three planning theories have gained wide acceptance among government officials, planners and developers. This acceptance has led to a blending of the theories as many principles are included multiple theories.

Both the Dallas and San Diego transit agencies promoted joint development opportunities at light rail stations. Site visits were conducted in 2007 and 2008, only San Diego had success in such efforts. The federal government has begun to encourage more public private partnerships as a way of attracting private capital to development of light rail.

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