Streetcars Are Back!


    One of the most exciting trends in transportation and community development in the United States is the resurgence of streetcars. Prior to World War II, most U.S. cities, including the city of Dallas, were served by streetcar systems. For 50 years, streetcars helped define the face of urban America. However, in the post-World War II era, a dramatic transition occurred. In the span of two decades, nearly all these systems were abandoned.

    This abandonment was especially harsh on the Oak Cliff community which lies south of the Dallas Central Business District. To appreciate the importance of the streetcar system to this community, one must come to know the fascinating, and at times turbulent, Oak Cliff history.

    Oak Cliff derives its name from the huge oaks crowning the rolling cliffs of the Trinity River. This community was one of the greatest U.S. suburban developments during the early 1900s, boasting an opera house, a 44-acre theme park, two major league baseball teams, and a university all connected via a steam-powered rapid transit railway system.

    By 1936, more than 300 streetcars were running in Dallas. However, by the mid-1950s buses outnumbered streetcars. The Dallas Transit Company vice president favored buses, saying, “I wouldnt trade one of our new luxury diesel-powered, foam-rubber seat, air-ride suspension buses for a whole fleet of streetcars, and neither would any man who has made the comparison.”

    True to his words, the last streetcar ran from downtown Dallas to Oak Cliff on Jan. 14, 1956. A 30-year-old streetcar led a parade of 44 brand-new buses from Oak Cliff to the car barn as a ceremonial last hurrah. Over time, the rail lines were paved over and the once familiar streetcar bell lay dormant.

    The ensuing decade proved to be a dark and stormy period for the Oak Cliff community. In 1957, a massive tornado destroyed many of Oak Cliffs historic homes. On Nov. 22, 1963, a dark cloud fell over the city of Dallas and Oak Cliff in particular. It was on this date that Dallas police officers converged on Oak Cliffs Texas Theatre searching for a man who had entered without paying. That man was Lee Harvey Oswald President John F. Kennedys accused assassin. Oak Cliff was hurled into the international spotlight in a most unfavorable manner that day.

    Properties along the 1.6-mile-long streetcar alignment are in high demand and numerous other properties are transitioning from brownfields to mixed-use development.

    During this period, many businesses closed, home values plummeted, and countless homes were converted to multi-unit apartments. The community boulevards and neighborhoods lost much of their former charm and beauty.

    Oak Cliffs rebirth

    In the 1980s and 90s, new life grew in the area when urban pioneers began buying the big old dilapidated frame houses. Bishop Arts District and other Oak Cliff neighborhood redevelopment influenced artists, musicians, and young professionals to reside again in the area. A new era had dawned for this community.

    In 2010, the nonprofit Oak Cliff Transit Authority spearheaded an effort to obtain a $23 million Transportation Investment Generating Economic Recovery (TIGER) Grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation to introduce modern streetcars in Oak Cliff. This grant took advantage of a dramatic change in the Department of Transportation funding guidelines. Previous selection criteria had been heavily skewed on cost effectiveness of a project; however, starting in 2010, projects could receive federal funding based on livability issues, economic development, and environmental benefits.

    The grant application was based on the theme “Regional Connections Linking Livability.” Integrating Central Business District with the walkable, mixed-use neighborhoods of Oak Cliff by means of a modern streetcar system allowed this project to stand out among the other 17,000 TIGER Grant applicants.

    In 2010, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) selected the Stacy and Witbeck/Carcon Industries team (SW/C), with lead designer HDR, to design and build the $56.5 million single-track, bi-directional streetcar line. While only 1.6-miles long, it is the streetcar systems most vital and costly segment as it provides the critical crossing over the Trinity River.

    Fulfilling a century-old promise

    The Trinity is at times a serene river, but it is also subject to massive flooding during heavy Texas rains. In May 1908, a 50-foot rise in the Trinity River destroyed or inundated all river crossings from Oak Cliff to Dallas. Despite the hefty $600,000 cost, the city of Dallas and Oak Cliff residents approved construction of the Houston Street Viaduct as the first permanent crossing of the Trinity River.

    Streetcars in downtown Dallas, circa 1954.

    The most recognizable element of this 4,800-foot-long viaduct is the 51 concrete arches. The viaducts 44-foot-wide deck was originally designed to support two trolley rails for a future streetcar line between downtown Dallas and Oak Cliff. These rails were never laid and the promise to Dallas and Oak Cliff citizens remained unfulfilled. Now, the city of Dallas and DART are helping this historic structure and the Dallas Streetcar system fulfill this promise.

    “I like the rhythm of the arches,” said Willis Winters, an architectural historian and Houston Street Viaduct admirer. “Its the best bridge built in Dallas.”

    This historic structure continues to be an engineering marvel in style and substance thanks in part to the Dallas Streetcar. The mile-long structure required extensive rehabilitation because of its advanced age and extensive concrete deterioration. The SW/C team performed a comprehensive inspection to identify repairs and convey rehabilitation strategies to the State Historic Preservation Officer (SHPO). Strengthening the 104-year-old structure required the team to perform in-depth, 3D finite-element analyses. This 3D modeling was based on the original 1910 design drawings and a 1911 Engineering-Contracting article that contained detailed design and construction information. This information proved invaluable in determining the load rating capacity of the viaduct.

    The mile-long Houston Street Viaduct required extensive rehabilitation because of its advanced age and extensive concrete deterioration.

    While repairing and strengthening the viaduct, it became evident that additional repairs would be required on areas outside the project scope. These repairs were in the city of Dallas planning queue, but were expedited by the Dallas Streetcar completion. A $12 million ongoing contract for repairs will be completed later this year, with HDR supporting design services. The structural repairs will restore this iconic structure while maintaining the viaducts historic integrity and aesthetic quality.

    Off-wire streetcar

    One challenge in modifying the Houston Street Viaduct is the structures status on the U.S. National Register of Historic Places. Early coordination with the Texas Historic Commission prohibited installing overhead contact system poles or trolley wire on the bridge. To overcome this challenge, a unique partnership was developed between DART, SW/C, HDR, and domestic streetcar manufacturer Brookville Equipment Corporation.

    This partnership delivered the first American-made “off-wire” streetcar that operates on battery power. For two-thirds of the 1.6-mile-long track, Brookvilles Liberty Streetcar is powered exclusively from an on-board energy storage system that utilizes a redundant lithium ion battery system.

    The off-wire design is beneficial to areas where streetcars cross under bridges, on overpasses, or across train tracks. Based on the success of this project, Detroit and other cities are now looking to implement off-wire segments to work around existing infrastructure.

    Construction innovations

    Materials used in the Dallas Streetcar project represent a major step forward in modern U.S. streetcar construction. The project incorporates a relatively new rail type in the United States 112TRAM block rail. Dallas Streetcar is only the second project in the U.S. to use this rail type. Designers traveled to Poland to study block rail the preferred rail type in tram-heavy Europe. They developed specifications to have the materials manufactured in the United States to comply with the Buy America requirements of the TIGER Grant.

    Block rails shallow profile and steel flangeway make it ideal for streetcars in urban settings. The narrow flangeway make the track less likely to interfere with or cause injury to cyclists and motorists. Designers collaborated with contractors and DART to improve the durability and constructability of block rail ties, clips, boots, and insolation joints for the project. Other cities are also taking cues from the block rail use. Projects in Kansas City, Seattle, and Milwaukee are already benefiting from the advancements made on the Dallas Streetcar.

    The Dallas Streetcar project incorporates a relatively new rail type in the United States 112TRAM block rail. Its shallow profile and steel flangeway make it ideal for streetcars in urban settings.

    In addition, the Dallas Streetcar marked the first project to use flash butt welding during construction. With nearly 300 welds and each thermite weld taking as long as four hours for the fit-up and welding, the SW/C team developed a faster alternative. By using custom-built flash butt welding equipment, the team reduced the average weld time from four hours to less than 20 minutes saving an estimated 1,100 hours (45 days) of construction time.

    Streetcars are back!

    The Dallas Streetcar officially began operation on April 13, 2015 after almost 10 years of community involvement to restore its lost heritage. Streetcars are back in Dallas and the familiar sound of the streetcar bell that went dormant 60 years ago is now ringing again throughout the Oak Cliff community. Properties along the streetcar alignment are in high demand and numerous other properties are transitioning from brownfields to mixed-use development. No Dallas bus line or major road in the last 30 years has triggered as much walkable development as Dallas Streetcar has spurred in Oak Cliff. Unlike city bus routes, which can be altered at any time, a streetcar line brings permanence and gives confidence to investors to build new businesses and residences along it.

    On the Oak Cliff Transit Authority website, the father of Portlands streetcar system and Dallas Streetcar Project Advisor Rick Gustafson said, “You have to get a stake in the ground. The first few miles wont make any sense, but the momentum will build and slowly the network will take shape.”

    And he was right. Today, the Dallas Streetcar project is helping the Oak Cliff community place that stake in the ground, providing the most important and costly streetcar elements: two modern off-wire streetcars, tie-in to DARTs maintenance yard, and crossing the Trinity River floodplain. The stake will only deepen as Bishop Arts and Dallas Convention Center stops are completed in the near future. Through this project, Oak Cliff will restore a small piece of its heritage and return its beautifully sculpted boulevards and neighborhoods to their former grandeur.

    John Quintero is a professional associate/senior bridge designer with HDR ( He can be reached at The Dallas Streetcar project was a Special Recognition Award winner in Advancing Integrated Projects and a finalist in the Innovation in Rail and Transit categories in Bentley Systems’ 2015 Be Inspired Awards. Bentley products including Bentley Descartes, GEOPAK, InRoads, MicroStation, Bentley Pointools, and ProjectWise allowed the team to share data, convert graphics, and integrate safety and operational enhancements to deliver Texas first modern streetcar line on time and on budget.