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DART approves rail expansions, but debate over priorities isn't over

Transit agency moving ahead with suburban rail line and downtown subway, but not everyone is happy.

DART trains pull in and out of Akard Station in front of the transit agency's headquarters on Oct. 25, 2016.

DALLAS — Amid warring political pressure from North Texas’ urban and suburban leaders, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit board on Tuesday approved a plan to finance two major rail expansions and an overhaul of bus service.

Suburban officials hailed the plan’s funding for a rail line that connects the state’s busiest airport to several cities as a prime example of what urban areas can achieve when cities act in tandem. But Dallas leaders said the agency is ignoring much-needed improvements to its widely criticized bus system and jeopardizing plans for a downtown subway.

Their divergent views largely stem from a disagreement over what philosophy DART should adopt: build as many miles of rail as possible in one of the country’s most sprawling regions or make the existing train and bus network more efficient, frequent and user friendly.

DART’s new long-term plan calls for borrowing about $1 billion to build the Cotton Belt suburban rail line and depends on federal officials giving the agency $650 million for a downtown subway that could cost up to $1.3 billion. The board voted 12-3 to approve the plan. Dallas appointees Sue Bauman, Amanda Moreno Cross and Michele Wong Krause cast the dissenting votes. 

DART officials frequently boast that its 93-mile long light-rail network is the largest in North America. But it is far from the most used, even on a per capita basis. A Chicago transit study earlier this year found that DART’s system is the costliest to operate compared to nine other U.S. transportation agencies, including Houston’s METRO. The study also found DART has the lowest amount of operations covered by fare revenues, which leads to it also being the most subsidized by other public funds.

“We're prioritizing politics over people, we're prioritizing rail over ridership,” said Matt Tranchin, executive director of new urbanism political action committee Coalition for a New Dallas.   

Suburban leaders said before Tuesday's vote that the agency should listen to its own staff and financial advisors, who are confident DART will pull off both rail expansions.

“DART is a regional partnership, a classic example of doing more together than anyone of us could do on our own,” said Addison Mayor Todd Meier.

His town has paid more than $250 million of its sales tax revenues into DART for more than 30 years, but hasn’t yet seen rail service. Even officials from other cities said DART needs to fulfill its promise to run trains through Addison.

“It is a moral responsibility,” Irving city council member John Danish said.

But Dallas officials and civic leaders in recent weeks cast doubts on DART’s ability to do everything it wants. They fear the agency’s strategy is structured in a way that prioritizes the Cotton Belt, which isn’t among a list of projects the Dallas council unanimously said should come first.

Dallas council member Sandy Greyson criticized the DART board for not fast-tracking plans to overhaul its bus system. Houston’s METRO completely retooled its bus network last year and almost immediately saw an increase in ridership.

DART officials say it could take a decade or more to implement a similar overhaul in North Texas. Transit leaders are trying to speed that process up, but the plan approved Tuesday didn’t spell out a solution for such attempts.

Dallas council member Mark Clayton said DART punted on that issue.

“The rail system is what mayors and councils think is progress, but they can’t get the basics right,” he said.

The vote came hours after Dallas officials released an independent financial analysis that found “preliminary affordability concerns” about the agency’s plan. Financial firm The PFM Group also said it needs more information than what’s in the plan to understand “the underlying information that comprises” it.

“It’s especially disappointing that the city of Dallas can’t muster all the votes of its own board members,” said Philip Kingston, a council member from that city. “I don’t anticipate that this is the last we’ve heard on that issue or the issue of the priority of DART projects.”

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