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As wide-open roads become jammed, Texans ponder mass transit. Arlington voters debating change in way of life

Arlington, Texas -- home to the Texas Rangers baseball team and the Six Flags Over Texas theme park -- may soon relinquish a third distinction. Next week voters in this city of 240,000 people will decide whether or not to remain the nation's largest city without public transportation. A ``yes'' vote here Aug. 10 -- to add a half-cent to the city sales tax for a transit system -- would signal growing recognition that, even in the relatively roomy Southwest, the private automobile can no longer be an urbanized area's only transportation alternative.

Other Southwest cities are also struggling with traffic woes. Transportation officials say public transit will be an increasingly important component of that management, since many cities outgrew highway master plans before they could be built.

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Nearby Dallas, for example, has approved a metropolitan rail transit system. The city is also considering a $250 million bond issue for road improvements.

Phoenix residents will vote in October on a half-cent sales tax increase to finance new freeways and public transit planning. Phoenix has the least freeway miles of any million-plus population city in the US. A second half cent, to implement the resulting transit plan, will be voted on in 1988.

Supporters of the Arlington measure say part of the impetus for the proposal has come from new residents who grew accustomed to public transportation in their old states. Supporters also say, however, that a ``no'' vote could come in part from ``refugees'' from older, congested areas of the country who aren't yet ready to accept that some of the individual freedom they came for -- such as unfettered use of a car -- must now be bridled.

``It's not an easy thing to get people to give up their ponies,'' says Tom Clayton, a life-long Arlington resident who chaired the committee that developed the transit proposal.

Like many one-time small towns, Arlington believed that the automobile would meet its transportation needs. But then the city began to boom as commuters from Dallas and Fort Worth, new industry, and tourists attractions moved in.

``When I came here in 1970,'' says Don Penny, Arlington's assistant director of transportation, ``the population was 90,000, and the streets didn't seem crowded at all.'' Now, he says, with the population having more than doubled, many of the streets handle twice as many cars as they were designed to. ``It's still not as bad as Houston and Dallas,'' he adds, ``But for Arlington citizens, who are used to good mobility, it's severe.''

Quips Paul Geisel, University of Texas at Arlington professor of urban affairs and planning, ``Around here the joke is that the fastest way to get across town is to mail yourself.''

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In looking at Arlington's transportation needs, the transit task force decided a conventional solution wouldn't work. ``We don't have the density for a conventional transit system,'' says Mr. Clayton. Arlington, like so many other ``new'' cities, has no central work and population center. Rather, it has what the committee called 16 major ``activity centers,'' such as the old downtown, the university, a General Motors plant, and the tourist attractions.

Reflecting this decentralization, the transit committee proposed a system of seven components, such as a minibus service, a Dallas-Fort Worth Airport shuttle, expanded park-and-ride services, and a rail line to feed into the proposed Dallas transit system.

Despite mounting levels of congestion on Arlington's roads, the transit proposal does face organized opposition. A group calling itself People for Realistic Opinions says traffic problems should be met with more and improved roads. The group points to low ridership on buses in other cities, and says the fact that the proposed transit system would be publicly owned is proof that it will be a money loser.

``Basically [the organized opponents] feel there should be no more taxes, and no more government,'' says Clayton. ``That's hard to argue with, but it doesn't solve our problems.''

Mr. Penny says that reliance on improved roads might work for a while. The city plans to widen most main thoroughfares. But he adds that such projects ultimately do little to help solve congestion.

He says the city is in dire need of better north-south circulation, but that there is no place to put a new road. ``Arlington is a fairly affluent and politically active city,'' he says, ``so that pretty much precludes the kind of freeway project we used to see tearing through neighborhoods.''

If the Arlington proposal succeeds at the polls, officials say it will reflect changing attitudes about the kind of city the residents want. ``More and more people are looking at the city from a quality of life standpoint,'' says Clayton. ``And as they do, they realize you can't build 10-lane freeways through the heart of the town and maintain that quality.''

``The people moving in have alot to do with changing attitudes,'' adds Penny. ``But you're also starting to hear some who've been around for a long time saying that the bus doesn't sound as bad as it once did.''

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