An opportunity lays before a remade Dallas City Council: the chance to act on four major projects that could shape the city for the next 100 years. One of those four projects is the need to fix Dallas Area Rapid Transit, the regional transit agency that runs the country’s most inefficient and unreliable system. Yesterday afternoon, the council’s transportation had a shot to initiate major change at DART by selecting new candidates for all of Dallas’ seven spots of the 15-member DART board.
After two hours of interviews, the committee could only agree on four recommendations to the full council, but the sea shift was already underway. Only two of those four recommendations, Patrick Kennedy and Amanda Moreno, are current board members – and relatively new ones at that. The other two nominees are former-Arts District Executive Director Catherine Cuellar and data consultant Jon-Bertrell Killen. Of particular note, the committee pointedly failed to reelect or even nearly reelect any current members who voted for the Cotton Belt although all reapplied. Lee Kleinman, the committee chair and a supporter of the Cotton Belt, was repudiated by his own committee.
Three additional candidates (current board member Michele Wong Krause, former-city council member Vonciel Jones Hill, and lawyer Dominique Torres) received three votes apiece in the second round of voting, but that was not enough to receive an endorsement from the committee. The City Council will vote on the final slate of seven during their June 21 meeting.
It was a curious scene on Marilla considering the weekend’s events. The committee included ousted Mayor Pro Tem Monica Alonzo and Council Member Erik Wilson, both of whom will not be council members when the final vote on the new DART board members takes place next week. The meeting also crammed 14 candidate interviews into a little over two hours. Kleinman mentioned at the outset that he had already met with the candidates one-on-one, and the general impression was that most of the committee members had already made up their minds. “Have you ridden DART?” was a favorite question (and not a bad one), as was Lee Kleiman’s repeated question of how candidates would handle the balance between being a city representative serving on a regional agency.
Not that there weren’t telling refrains and subtexts. One surprise was how many of the new candidates actually spoke to their experiences riding DART. Unsurprisingly, their ideas for improving transit made sense, particular the repeated desire from a number of the candidates to revamp DART’s bus system.
Catherine Cuellar spoke about how low ridership meant that (empty) buses often run ahead of schedule, meaning they arrive and depart spots ahead of their allotted time. DART should improve the tools available for riders to track buses, she said, as well as implement a system to “true up” routes along the way so the people who ride DART’s inefficient buses aren’t hit with the double frustration of missing their buses because they departed too soon.
Jon-Bertrell Killen said he takes the Red Line to work 30 to 40 percent of the time, dropping his daughters off at day care on the way, but added that his commuting routine is made more difficult when appointments force him to travel to the Dallas North Tollway corridor. He also referenced the recent University of Texas at Arlington study that linked transportation costs and poor public transit to Dallas’ lack of economic mobility.
Patrick Kennedy revealed that he has spent his first five months on the DART board reviewing every single route in the bus system and finding redundancies that may allow for service reallocation. His hope is that he can free up resources to create high volume bus service corridors that will offer more reliable and efficient transit while offering an opportunity to plan development or housing policy around established routes. He said a re-imagined bus system could be rolled out in nine to 12 months, rather than the 10 years DART staff says it could take.
“I think there has been a long-term pattern of chasing demographics, too much emphasis on trying to make the perfect route,” Kennedy said. “But transit can’t be everyone’s personal Uber.”
There was a marketed disconnect in tone between these newer candidates, whose comments mostly focused on ideas about how to improve access and functioning of public transit, and most of the sitting long-time board members, whose responses seemed to reflect the kind of entrenched, institutional thinking we’ve come to expect from DART.
For example, when Rickey Callahan asked Bill Velesco, a DART board member since 2001 chair of DART board’s Transit Oriented Development committee, why there was no transit oriented development around the three Green Line stops in Pleasant Grove, Velesco bumbled through a grab bag of aphorisms – “we just haven’t gotten past the finish line;” “I think the sky is the limit” – but offered little substance. Similarly, when Jerry Lee Christian, a DART board member since 2007, was asked how DART could improve the bus system, he talked about the new fleet of buses DART recently purchased, before checking back to progress made on the D2 downtown subway and Cotton Belt light rail projects, adding that “the staff we have great confidence in said we can do both.”
It was a revealing statement in light of the fact that the most interesting comments from the current board members related to their complaints with working with DART staff. DART board members Velesco and Michele Wong Krause were both asked why they abstained from a recent board vote on a bond issuance. Both explained that they struggled to get sufficient information from DART staff in time to make an informed decision on the vote. They also spoke about the difficulties in getting detailed financial information from DART staff and problems with receiving information so late they don’t have time to properly review it.
Then there was Vonciel Jones Hill, the former council member, who was neither a DART incumbent nor the bearer of a fresh perspective. If anything, Hill, the former head of the council’s transportation committee, was a symbol of a political history that goes a long way toward explaining why Dallas’ transportation is in the mess it is in. When asked about how her experience would help her on the DART board, Hill boasted about roaming the halls of Congress scaring up federal funds to pay for the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge. When Monica Alonzo asked Hill if she used DART, Hill responded that she loved trains.
“When I lived abroad, I was always on the trains,” Hill said. “I use my car. I think public transportation is something that everyone ought to have. And I think if we can get the suburbs to get some buses that would be a good thing.”
Hill was among four of the 14 nominees who received three votes in the second round of committee voting, but in the end the committee couldn’t agree on a full slate of seven nominees to present to the city council. As a result, the full – and newly rejiggered – Dallas City Council will choose from the remaining 10 nominees to fill the final three spots on the DART board.
Hill’s failure to advance seemed to hint at the shifting of power and attitude already underway at City Hall. At the end of the day, what mattered most was not experience roaming the halls of the Capitol looking for federal funds to throw at big ticket projects, but experience roaming Dallas’ streets, dealing with the hell that is its public transit system, and expressing some common-sense ideas for how to finally fix it.