Politics & Government

City Council Report: Is City Staff Even Going to El Fenix?

If they aren't, they how can they know how many people ride the trolley?


The Dallas City Council was at the Zoo yesterday and today for some bullshit team-building exercise. So let’s take a look at a very telling incident that went down at the Council meeting in the halcyon days of last week.

We’ve already seen how that session began with a visit from a white supremacist who spent last year trying to save America from a Judeo-Masonic plot involving Marco Rubio; with that threat having now been neutralized, the fellow spoke to the Council about how proposed rule changes are undermining the institution of Dallas amateur baseball. Later the Council fought over the adoption of new ethics provisions; the highlight was an amusingly tortured oration by Mayor Mike Rawlings to the effect that barring campaign managers from lobbying is a necessary and appropriate measure to preserve the virtue of public officials, but an identical ban on lobbying by PAC managers is an unwarranted violation of free speech.

After lunch, amid the usual flurry of routine zoning and budgeting authorizations, Councilwoman Carolyn King Arnold pulled Item No. 17, which provided the annual funding for the Dallas Streetcar System running from Union Station to Bishop Arts District. Arnold has sporadically voiced opposition to the streetcar program since taking office on the grounds that the free service constitutes a boondoggle and de facto subsidy to its presumably upper-income riders at the expense of poorer districts, such as her own, who have to help pay for it. This is actually a reasonable objection on its face; indeed, I initially agreed with Arnold on this question. But that was before I’d learned the actual facts on the subject, which Arnold herself accidentally brought to the fore last week in the course of a doomed attempt to drum up a scandal out of responses by two city staffers she’d called in for questioning.

Councilwoman King eats at El Fenix.
Councilwoman King eats at El Fenix.

Arnold first asked about the capacity of the streetcar, which the staffers cited as 80. Then she asked, presumably for purposes of emphasis, how much each rider pays.

“Currently there is no fare,” was the response.

“Speak up so that the community can hear you,” Arnold directed the staffer, who had spoken perfectly audibly into the microphone.

There followed questions about the nature of the funding. The staffer explained that Dallas had been paying about $875,000 a year to DART to operate the system for the city, with DART throwing in another $500,000 of its own funds. Hours of operation had recently expanded, which is why the cost to Dallas had increased to $975,000 this year. This was too straightforward for Arnold, who promptly started in on her patented Bizarre and Hostile Line of Questioning technique that she seems to have learned from a pack of malevolent Zen monks on some Central Asian mountaintop.

“But do we not reimburse DART? That was what I was told,” she said. “We reimburse DART for their investment. Are we paying DART — are we reimbursing DART in addition to the $975,000 that we’re spending?”

“The streetcar is the city’s system,” responded the staffer, confused over Arnold’s characterization of DART’s “investment” in a system that was built by the city with a federal grant and is merely operated by DART on our behalf, and perhaps assuming that Arnold wasn’t really asking whether DART was giving money to the city that the city was paying right back. But that’s exactly what she was asking.

“Are we reimbursing DART for their expenses?”

“We’re responsible for the operation and maintenance. All –”

“Are we reimbursing DART when they repair the trolley?”

“We’re covering those costs.”

“Covering — cover — are we reimbursing, yes or no?”

Another staffer came up to the mic to have a go. “This is what this agenda item is for,” said the second staffer. “They are operating and maintaining the system for us. The $975,000 is the city’s share, and for all that cost — and what DART is in kind putting in is another $546,000 as well.”

“What in kind is DART putting in?”

A pause as the staffer seeks to process this new twist. “I did not understand — or hear.”

“You just made a statement. You said that DART was putting in — did you say in kind?”

Arnold had mistaken the term “in kind,” meaning in the same way, for “payment in kind,” referring to goods or services provided in lieu of money, even though the context referred specifically to money.

With the We’re Secretly Paying More Than What We’re Actually Paying gambit having gone nowhere, Arnold proceeded to a series of questions about how often the streetcar needs servicing, and how much it costs to fix it, even though all of this is included in the budget anyway. When this yielded nothing, she went on to ask about ridership numbers and peak times. The staff said the trolley sees much of its use around noon, when people go out to eat lunch.

“I eat at El Fenix quite a bit,” Arnold suddenly announced. “Spoken to employees. As much as I eat at El Fenix, I have never seen more than maybe one or two people at a stop. So I want you to delve a bit deeper into your facts, because we’re not seeing that — El Fenix — they’re not seeing it.”

This was followed by an Arnold monologue on how the southern sector of the city is insufficiently served by public transportation, which is true enough, but which has little to do with the trolley and much more to do with DART itself. And then came the kicker: “So I’m going to continue to ask, and if I have to push for an audit, or an investigation, because we need to find the truth. How many people are we really serving?”

Having thus accused the staff of conspiring to present false ridership numbers on the grounds that their data contradicted observations she’d made from El Fenix, Arnold now asked what would happen if Dallas broke its contract with the federal government and stopped running the trolley. The staffer explained that we’d have to pay back the $26 million that the feds had given us to build it.

“I think I’ve made my point,” said Arnold, who had now brought to attention that we didn’t even have to pay for the infrastructure on this, while also implicitly making clear that the ridership numbers as determined by the city were too high for Arnold’s anti-streetcar argument to work and had to be challenged via an impromptu conspiracy theory involving government disinformation campaigns and a Tex-Mex restaurant. And then she encouraged everyone watching to go to El Fenix and see for themselves.

Satisfied with this tour de force, Arnold yielded the floor. There followed a somewhat more nuanced discussion of the trolley system. Councilwoman Sandy Greyson asked whether our agreement with the feds precluded us from charging fares; staff said that, no, we can charge whatever fare we like. Councilman Erik Wilson, who echoed Arnold’s take on the streetcar being unfair to the southern sector, asked that a study be conducted on how much revenue the city is missing by not charging fares. Councilman Rickey Callahan presented some quick calculations by which a $5 fare at somewhat higher ridership levels could offset much of the costs incurred. Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates proposed that Councilman Lee Kleinman take up the fare question in his transportation committee; Kleinman agreed to do so, while noting that any study would have to account for prospective increased ridership due to new housing going up along the line, among other things.

And then Councilman Philip Kingston spoke up.

“The way that this streetcar line came into being was not through the good offices of DART or even any credible leadership from this building at all,” he said. “This was a citizen initiative. They had to take their own neighborhood in their hands because none of us were helping them, frankly. And they were able to secure a large TIGER grant, and we now have a modern streetcar in Dallas, something we’ve needed for a long time. And even after they demonstrated success with this program, DART has continued to drag its feet on expanding the streetcar. They basically know exactly where it’s supposed to go. It’s supposed to link to McKinney Avenue trolley, through downtown, and then be extended up around Javier’s; I call it the Javier’s Extension [Note: Dallasites use Mexican restaurants as geographical landmarks in addition to listening posts.] The point is that this system is a baby. It’s going to grow up to be something that is much more useful. But right now, it is an infant, and right now you are arguing over the cost of formula. And truthfully, the level of expenditure that we’re making here compared to the modernization of our transportation system that we should ultimately be able to achieve — it’s a huge effort in missing the forest for the trees. It’s embarrassing to even have this level of discussion about it. I will continue to push for DART board members who are responsive to the needs of the community — we’ve some improvement, and a lot of that is due to Ms. Greyson’s efforts, and I appreciate that. I will look forward to supporting streetcars in all parts of the city.”

This was a pretty comprehensive defense of the streetcar system both on pragmatic and moral grounds, given that the entirely realizable end goal is to expand the system into other districts, as other cities have done both in recent years and in the early 20th century when even minor cities were extensively served by streetcars.

But Arnold wasn’t going to let the discussion end on that note. And so she took the mic again to “direct” newish City Manager T.C. Broadnax “to get a handle on understanding the journey starting from the grant to where we are now” and to understand that “the people can’t get to work” and that they don’t want solutions later, but now. After more to this effect, she asked Kleinman how to run an audit. He responded that this would go to Gates’ committee. Now addressing Gates, Arnold asked her “about the direction we would need to go in to determine, truthful, about the ridership, the repairs that are going on. How can we get from your committee the actual truth about ridership, the repairs, the actual agreement with the — trigger — with the — what do I call it again? The TIGER grant.”

“Ms. Gates,” pronounced Mayor Rawlings, “will take that up in the committee if she so chooses.”

“Well, I’m just asking, Mayor, are those things, line by line that you all can take up –”

“What you’re asking for is an audit,” replied Gates. “The information you’re asking for is usually something that just staff would be able to give us –”

“But staff is — excuse me. Staff is telling me that — what are you telling me, how many people are you telling me are riding a day?”

“Four hundred and eighty,” responded the long-suffering staff member.

“Four hundred — unless these people are riding all at night –”

And then Mayor Rawlings asked for the intervention of Broadnax, who now came forth to uphold the just and to mete out punishment to the wicked.

He began, as he often does, with mollifying words by which to mask the severity of the words to come, and in this manner he dispensed with “this notion that somehow staff is not giving you information that they know to be true — I don’t think we just made that number up, as if we chose to do that, I think we would make it a lot higher.” And then he dispensed with the impromptu discussion of charging fares; let staff prepare some data before we get into this. “Obviously ridership is at 480 because it’s free.” Start charging $5 at this early point, and ridership will fall off; you can get an Uber for $5, he noted. Let staff prepare a briefing, and let us hear from those familiar with ridership, fares, and elasticity. We must look at the original intent of the grant, and the nature of streetcars themselves, and at how other cities have handled these things. When he served in Tacoma, the trolley was also free; it was funded in part by the Chamber of Commerce and other private contributions. And he wasn’t done with Arnold. “Again, I wouldn’t say that it’s appropriate, in my mind, to intimate that staff is not being forthcoming with data. Thank you.”

“I want to backtrack,” said Arnold, the first elected official in history to use those particular words. And then she explained that she hadn’t meant to accuse these particular staff of dishonesty. “The question would be, just where you all are getting your data from, because I know you’re not at El Fenix with me, watching the trolley.”


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