Is It Time For DART to Seek New Sources of Funding?

DART has failed to provide adequate public transit. Is it time for a new transit agency funded by and focused solely on the central city?

Old Dallas streetcar

Jim Schutze has had a couple of interesting posts in the past week about the so-called D2 downtown Dallas DART line, a pie-in-the-sky (for now) extension of the light rail system through downtown. The extension is one of the glaring missing pieces in the DART’s light rail network. Currently, the system is laid out in such a way that every train is the system must run down the above ground rail on Pacific. Not only does this design a bottleneck directly into the current layout of the transit system, but the at-grade track makes for public transit absurdities like trains stopping at red lights to wait for cars.

Schutze calls attention to a proposal by John Tatum whose ideas dates back to the earliest days of DART. Tatum warned DART that it was creating precisely the situation we are in now. DART’s light rail system has hit capacity; the downtown bottleneck ensures that we can’t make it run any faster or more efficiently. We have spent 30 years and billions of dollars building out a light rail system that can only ever be so useful. And we wonder why Dallas is one of the worst performing public transit systems in the country.

The renewed conversation about the D2 alignment comes at an interesting time for DART. DART is currently revising its Transit System Plan for 2040. They are also seeking a federal grant that may result in a windfall of nearly $1 billion in funds available for pie-in-the-sky improvements. If that grant comes through, as well as funding from other sources like TxDOT and the NCTCOG, DART plans on three major improvements: extending its platforms to accommodate for larger capacity trains, adding a streetcar extension loop that will connect the Oak Cliff Streetcar and the McKinney Avenue streetcar, and building-out phase one of the D2 line, which would run from Victory Station to Union Station. As far as the rest of the D2 line, according to a report to the city council from last November, phase 2 of D2 is slotted for some time after 2030.

Here’s why I couldn’t work in public transit. I’m too impatient. I want to live in a more interesting Dallas now; I want to be able to still ride a bike if and when Dallas becomes the magical urban fairyland that Schutze describes in his piece. But the astronomical costs involved with building public transit and the extreme long-range nature of the planning means that the decisions we make today will be enjoyed most fully by the next generation. Or, as in the case of DART not heeding John Tatum’s advice, the next generation gets saddled with the fallout of bad decisions.

But here’s my frustration: Public transit isn’t rocket science. Other post-sprawl cities are figuring out transit. Houston is garnering much acclaim for its new bus system, which favors reliability and efficiency over maximum coverage area in an effort to promote ridership. Denver is successfully investing in its system. Los Angeles has had a lot of success with simple solutions, like timing streetlights so that buses never have to stop at an intersection. Calgary, which is more-or-less Dallas’ Canadian sister city (they even have a Calatrava Bridge), has a renowned public transit system with ridership that challenges old-school eastern cities like Toronto and Montreal – and they even know how to operate light rail in the winter. These cities are incubating and workshopping ideas that Dallas and DART must incorporate. I am still not convinced that DART’s No. 1 priority is to figure out how to best move people around Dallas, and boasting the worst public transit system in the country is just not acceptable.

The big, elephant-in-the-room problem with DART, however, is funding. DART’s main funding source is sales tax revenue, and it increases sales tax revenue by taking on additional communities to pay into the pot. Add a suburb, increase your earnings. The problem is that the suburbs start demanding some return for their payment, as well they should. The other problem, as DART has been struggling with of late, is that you eventually run out of suburbs, especially when you fail to deliver on the promises you made to get the first round of ‘burbs to enter your funding pool. And so what you end up with is a system that is pre-designed by its financial model to be spread out and increasingly more expensive to operate, while simultaneously under-delivering on the services you’re set up to provide. It’s not a very good business model. In fact, it looks a hell of a lot like a Ponzi scheme.

One thing that gets overlooked when we hear frustration about the effectiveness of DART’s light rail is the fact that we didn’t really build an urban transit system, we built a suburban commuter train. In Germany, these things are called Straßenbahnen. You use them to get out to tiny towns out in the country to take long Sunday walks through the forest picking mushrooms, or to commute into the city center for work. Sometimes they are useful in-town for short trips through the city center or along the corridors through which they run out of town. Best is when they mesh-up with the actual urban transit system, the U-Bahn, streetcars, or buses. Unlike Straßenbahnen, which operate along a hub-and-spoke model, urban public transit systems are driven by circulation, allowing multiple options to move in and around the city — and not in and out. What Dallas never managed to build after it tore out its rather wonderful early 20th century trolley network is build a true urban public transit system. We just have a bus system that operates like transit welfare, which, sadly, is how many people in this city still view public transit.

The D2 line is a vital component of DART’s future success, but it isn’t on its own going to produce the kind of magical downtown fairyland Schutze imagines in his post. What we need is a better-conceived, more efficient and usable intra-urban transit system. It’s what DART has never been able to provide, and a big reason it hasn’t provided one is because of the way the agency is funded.

Sales tax is only one way cities fund public transit. This study by the Victoria Transport Policy Institute outlines and evaluates a wide variety of potential funding sources, from fuel taxes to parking levies to land value captures, and other methods. The question of alternative transit funding has also been raised in the I-345 conversation. Backers of that plan hope that a Transportation Reinvestment Zone (or TRZ) can capture increased property tax value and appropriate those funds, like a TIF, towards realizing the demolition of the elevated highway and re-stitching of the street grid. TIF funds have also been cited as a potential source of funding for expanding the Oak Cliff streetcar deeper into Oak Cliff.

The question: could any of these funding sources be implemented in a way that captures increased revenue for public transit that is funneled directly towards projects that specifically address mobility and transit improvements in central Dallas? Because as it stands now, DART’s political and financial structure have created a public transit system that is both underfunded and region-focused. DART doesn’t seem to have the means or the will to develop a fully functioning intra-urban transit system.

Providing DART the means and the will to actually improve public transit in Dallas: this was the lesson that Jason Roberts and his merry band of magical, dreaming fairy-landers in Oak Cliff discovered when they created their own transit authority, applied for a Federal TIGER grant, and forced the city and DART to jump on at the last moment in order to not miss out on an opportunity that neither spotted or took the initiative on. It’s good to remember that citizens with good ideas and initiative — and not DART or the city of Dallas — provided the initial push for the Oak Cliff Streetcar. Now that plan has become central to DART’s reimagining of a downtown streetcar loop, the closest hope Dallas has at building towards something like an intra-city transit system.

Why stop there? D2 underground through Dallas is key, but perhaps the street car, and not an underground subway system is our best bet for creating a functioning intra-urban transit system. Is the answer the creation of a new transit agency funded by and focused solely on the central city? Or is the solution a push for an improved bus system — as Houston has — as well as create new sources for funding tied to even further expansion of a streetcar system that operates with dedicated lanes, timed traffic signals, and integration into intersecting bus and light rail stops? Since we’re dreaming, I’d like to see streetcars run up Ross, or out Columbia, or over Commerce into West Dallas, or further up McKinney to Knox, eventually connecting to SMU and Mockingbird station. Fairlyland? In the 1920s, the streetcar in Dallas could take you out to White Rock Lake. Why not again?

Like everything, the answer is money and political will. Roberts and his band of activist transit nerds showed us that we can’t look to DART to provide either of those things. We have to bring the ideas and impetus to the table and demand more from our public officials.

 

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