Vickery Place resident Jack Wierzenski is a seasoned public speaker who hides a big smile behind a bushy mustache. Wierzenski doesn’t seem to mind controversy, which is a handy trait for a Dallas Area Rapid Transit planner paid to promote light rail in our City.
Henrik Rotem lives a few miles from Wierzenski on Patrick Drive, just a stone’s throw from the old Missouri-Kansas-Texas Railroad tracks. Rotem, a pugnacious sort, is a professional marketing director and a veritable walking encyclopedia of DART trivia and facts.
Both are active in their respective neighborhood associations, and both are concerned about our quality of life.
This summer, they’ll butt heads over a wall.
Or, to be more specific, the lack of a wall along three miles of track winding through residential neighborhoods.
Neighbors living along the track are unhappy that 70-100 trains will speed through their backyards each day at about 45 miles per hour.
Neighbors and DART agree the transit agency needs to spend millions of dollars doing something to take care of their problem.
Wierzenski and Rotem agree you can’t make all of the people happy all of the time.
The question is: Will anybody be happy this time?
A Collision Course
For years, DART has been our City’s private joke. Too much money, too much arguing and too little action.
All that changes June 14, when light rail in Dallas will be a reality. That’s the day DART opens its West Oak Cliff line and a portion of its South Oak Cliff line.
But now that DART finally has an accomplishment to celebrate, reality is beginning to set in a among neighborhood residents who live along what will soon be DART’s northeast line.
From Downtown, the new light rail line winds northeasterly along Central Expressway to Mockingbird, where the track branches eastward. At White Rock Lake, the track takes a sharp turn north, running east of Skillman through White Rock Lake Park and past LBJ Freeway onto Garland.
DART supporters like Wierzenski, say light rail will improve mobility on congested thoroughfares, limit air pollution, spur economic growth, and maintain a better quality of life for our City and suburbs as the population grows.
Rail means progress, they say.
Rotem and the neighbors who share his concerns say DART spends too much time worrying about hypothetical riders and not enough time worrying about the real people who live next to the tracks.
Most of the neighbors agree that rail means progress. They just don’t want to shoulder the entire burden of progress alone.
By November, they’ll know how much weight they’ll have to carry.
Where Did It All Begin?
The MKT is more than 130 years old, one of the oldest railroad lines in Texas.
Until four years ago, noisy freight trains clattered past neighborhood backyards two or three times daily, blowing their whistles while hauling wheat, grain, coal, rock and stone along a north-south route connecting Kansas City, Houston and Galveston.
Along almost the entire three-mile portion of track that travels through residential neighborhoods, no railroad-constructed barriers have existed between the tracks and the residents’ backyards.
Until now, that’s never been a problem.
Soon, however, DART trains will race by at ground level every 10-15 minutes during rush hour and every 20-30 minutes during non-peak times. When completed, DART estimates up to 15,000 people will use the northeast line daily.
But Rotem fears that by riding DART trains, burglars and child molesters will be able to case his neighborhood with complete anonymity.
Rotem also worries that children playing near the tracks will be hit by trains. He is concerned that, without proper landscaping and upkeep, the northeast line will become an eyesore and cause property values to drop.
Rotem says there is no comparison between freights trains and a mass transit system.
“A train is a train,” Wierzenski says. “It really comes down to a noise.”
Are you familiar with the sound of a kitchen blender? That’s how noisy DART says its trains will be.
And most of DART’s mitigation discussions with the neighborhoods have focused on taking care of this “noise”.
Many light-rail neighbors, having taken a test ride on a train courtesy of DART, agree that noise is no longer their main concern. They just can’t understand why DART keeps addressing every problem they bring up in terms of “noise”.
Among the most agitated residents are those with homes directly along the MKT whose backyard property lines abut the tracks.
Rotem owns one of these homes.
Recently, Rotem was appointed by City Councilwoman Mary Poss to the Citizens Advisory Committee to bring neighborhood concerns to DART.
Rotem and wife Tami bought their house in 1980. In 1982, their daughter Jessica was born, and a year later, so was DART when voters in Dallas and surrounding cities approved a one-percent sales tax.
The sales tax is a sore subject for Rotem, who says the northeast route could ruin the tranquility of his street.
“They fight me with my own money,” Rotem says. “I’m paying them to mess us up.”
Kathy Gerken, who lives with her husband and three young children a few houses from Rotem, shares his concerns.
If DART doesn’t build appropriate barriers between her home and the tracks, she says she will be forced – at her family’s expense – to plant trees and build a larger backyard fence.
Gerken says she doesn’t understand why she should have to protect her family from DART.
“We should be compensated for our invasion of privacy somehow,” Gerken says. “It’s down to principal right now. DART shouldn’t be allowed to devastate neighborhoods.”
Staying on Track
Wierzenski, a transportation veteran, is calm when taking heat about DART’s light rail plans.
Transportation is his job. It even eats up his free time. He and wife Hilary Hoover, who is past president of the Vickery Place Neighborhood Association, are battling with the City to force solutions to traffic problems along their neighborhood streets.
Wierzenski says he understands residential concerns about the rail line and says that DART is listening. But Wierzenski says residents must be realistic, cost-conscious and think of the greater good of Dallas.
“These are the same people who have accused DART of not spending its money wisely,” Wierzenski says. “I don’t get paid by the mile of fence I save or don’t save. Our job is to move people, not ‘cheap-out’ on things or go to the other extreme and see how much money we can spend.
“Every neighborhood wants to be the only neighborhood in the City. I know that from experience in my own neighborhood.”
The Lines of Communication
Wierzenski has attended one spirited community meeting after another as a DART representative to discuss the northeast line.
Near the rail line tracks in the residential areas are playgrounds, basketball courts, day-care centers and schools, including Stonewall Jackson Elementary, which serves a large number of hearing-impaired children.
Also on the tracks is the Ridgewood Recreation Center, 6818 Fisher, which is where meetings have been held.
Remember this winter’s big ice storm?
At one meeting, DART announced a light rail sample ride on Downtown trains in an effort to squelch neighborhood concerns.
Sixty residents braved icy streets that day to see what DART had been talking about.
Wierzenski says if DART didn’t care about residents, it wouldn’t be holding meetings.
But Gerken says DART meetings are a farce. DART makes a presentation, but doesn’t answer questions or take neighborhood concerns seriously, she says.
It’s a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation, Wierzenski says.
When DART holds meetings, residents accuse the agency of just putting on a show. If DART doesn’t hold meetings, the agency is accused of ignoring residents, he says.
“I think they’re (DART’s) trying,” says Nicole LeBlanc Zeeble, who lives two and a half blocks from the MKT, near Stonewall Jackson.
“They’re in a very difficult position, trying to deal respectfully and constructively with the neighborhoods because most of the people who turn out are antagonistic. I do not envy them.”
Like Rotem, Zeeble is on the Citizens Advisory Committee, appointed by Councilman Craig McDaniel. She says she shares Rotem’s concern about children crossing the tracks, but that she and husband Bill are excited about light rail.
“I look forward to getting on the train and going to the zoo, or going to NorthPark to go shopping, or going to see a movie at CityPlace,” Zeeble says.
Zeeble, who has lived in cities with light rail, says “fear of the unknown” is fueling most of the anti-rail sentiment in her neighborhood.
“A lot of people are not willing to entertain the possibility that it can have a positive impact or no impact,” she says.
Straddling the Fence
Last month, DART proposed a mitigation plan that calls for erecting fencing along the entire three miles of residential area the train runs through to keep people off the tracks, as well as planting trees to minimize privacy invasion. At street crossings, such as Fisher Road, DART plans to build sidewalks and safety barriers to protect pedestrians.
In some select areas, where houses are closest to the tracks or the trains turn or need to break, DART is considering building sound walls or providing homeowners with money for house installation to minimize noise.
These areas are roughly from Camden just past Summerville on the south side of the tracks near the Fisher Road crossing, from Clemson to Wakeforest on both sides of the tracks, and behind condominiums on White Rock Cove on the south.
The specific types of fencing to be built on segments of the tracks will be negotiated with those residents directly affected, Wierzenski says.
Poss, who represents District 9, says DART has assured her that mitigation for neighborhoods along the MKT will be among the most elaborate and expensive in the City.
“I think the majority of the neighborhood is going to be happy,” she says.
Rotem isn’t happy. He is surprised by what DART has proposed because he thought DART would do nothing, but he says DART needs to go further.
He wants DART to build three-mile-long, 10- to 15-foot-tall “privacy” walls on both sides of the tracks. (DART says such construction would cost $8 million.)
He also wants Fisher Road to be sunk under the tracks, a grade separation, because too many residents use the crossing, he says.
Wood and chain link fences are not good enough to protect residents, Rotem says.
Other residents worry that any walls will be unsightly and attract graffiti.
Some residents are adamant that the rail line travel underground in a tunnel; they say they won’t accept DART’s mitigation proposal as long as they can see the train.
Wierzenski says a tunnel is out of the question, with a cost of $80 million per mile — $240 million total for the three residential miles.
The budget for the total northeast line is $187 million for a single-track light rail system. Single-track light rail allows one train to travel on the tracks at a time.
The budgeted funds will be used for such things as purchasing trains, constructing the line and mitigation. DART earmarks two percent of it’s budget on each of its lines for mitigation ($3.74 million in this case). This amount may fluctuate depending on neighborhood needs, Wierzenski says.
The DART board has asked Wierzenski to research the possibility of double-tracking, he says. A double track would allow trains to come and go simultaneously, speeding travel times.
Double-tracking is the ultimate goal for the MKT line, Wierzenski says, but it may not be affordable at the moment.
To double-track the entire line would cost an additional $73 million – DART is $30 million short.
DART is considering constructing double tracks along some segments of the line and updating the rest of the line at a future date, Wierzenski says. All mitigation decisions made this summer will be based on the needs of a double-tracked system, he says.
Wierzenski says DART’s mitigation proposal should please residents, but he plan is still open for negotiation.
“Safety is the utmost importance to us,” Wierzenski says. “We’re identifying the areas where kids cross over. We’re going to make sure they can’t do that.
“You can only do so much.”
Time is running out for neighbors to work out their disagreements with DART.
Wierzenski says the mitigation plan for the northeast line will go before the DART board for approval in September or October and will be finalized in November. Construction is scheduled to begin in the spring of 1998.
“We want to move fast on this line because there’s a real demand for it,” Wierzenski says.
Not surprisingly, Rotem isn’t eager to jump on the bandwagon.
“All we’re trying to do is make sure DART is a good neighbor,” Rotem says. “I want a commitment before the dirt starts flying.”
Neighborhood integrity is vital to a strong city, Rotem says.
“You can’t cut yourself at the knees if you want to participate in a marathon,” he says.
“Don’t cut corners on our account.”