Transportation

DART Board Considers Special Meeting to Ram Through Cotton Belt

The board is considering another vote on issuing the debt needed to build the suburban Cotton Belt rail line before Dallas' new representatives are installed.

The Dallas Area Rapid Transit board may hold a special meeting Tuesday to vote on the issuing of debt to build the suburban Cotton Belt line after the vote failed to pass at its last regularly scheduled meeting. The timing of the vote is significant, since it would come just days before the Dallas City Council votes to revamp its representation on the DART board. A spokesperson for DART says he wouldn’t know until later this afternoon whether the special meeting will be called, but confirmed that the purpose of said meeting would be to revisit the Federal Railroad Administration loan the agency is seeking to fund the construction of the Cotton Belt line.

The board failed to approve the federal loan on June 6, after current Dallas DART board members voiced concerns that the project could threaten the construction of the D2 downtown subway project.

The vote on the Cotton Belt debt was placed on the full board agenda even though the item had not been briefed to the board’s financial committee. By rushing the vote to last week’s board meeting, and now hastily scheduling a special session just to approve the Cotton Belt debt financing, DART’s staff and board appear to be attempting to lock the agency into paying for the Cotton Belt by taking on $1 billion of debt before Dallas can send its new representatives to the DART board.

Both the Cotton Belt and D2 were included in the agency’s financial plan approved last fall, even though the Dallas City Council had passed a resolution that requested the agency prioritize the downtown subway. When DART board vice chair and Dallas rep Richard Carrizales voted for inclusion of the Cotton Belt in the financial plan, effectively disregarding the resolution, the Council voted last month to remove him from the DART board.

According to the financial plan, the downtown subway will be funded in part through a federal grant. However, there has been concern that the Trump administration will eliminate or modify that federal grant program, placing the downtown subway line at risk.

During an impassioned back-and-forth during the June 6 board meeting, suburban DART board representatives accused the Dallas representatives of acting recklessly in their reluctance to approve the Cotton Belt. Speaking on behalf of the Dallas representatives on the board, board member Sue Bauman said she still supports the Cotton Belt, but feels like her questions had not been fully answered ahead of last Tuesday’s vote. Significantly, Bauman said, the item was never brought to the board’s financial committee, but instead was placed on the agenda directly for the board’s approval. Bauman also said she was concerned that the downtown subway project no longer had the full support of the DART board.

The fact that the Dallas City Council was about to replace its members on the DART board loomed over the proceedings.

DART board members also made reference to a proposal by Dallas City Council member Scott Griggs to redirect some of the sales tax funding Dallas currently funnels to DART and instead use it to bail out the sinking police and fire pension. Dallas DART board rep Pamela Gates gave a rousing, if somewhat confusing, speech about how failing to approve the Cotton Belt funding would equate to hardship on those Dallas residents who rely on public transit.

It’s unclear how the Cotton Belt would affect Dallas residents who rely on transit. Projected ridership for the Cotton Belt is low, while the D2 project is critical to increase DART’s system capacity. Currently, DART cannot increase frequency on its light rail network, because the entirety of the system is bottlenecked at an at-grade downtown alignment.

However, all of the comments highlighted the feeling among the DART board that the public transit agency is at a critical juncture. The Cotton Belt is seen as a politically important project that will reassure suburban member cities that the public transit agency can deliver on its promise of building out its sprawling rail system. Representatives of the city of Addison have threatened to leave DART if the Cotton Belt project does not move forward. At the same time, the nominees for the new Dallas DART board reps expressed a desire to refocus the agency’s efforts to fixing its bus system and increasing ridership and mobility.

DART staff has reassured the board that the agency can afford both the Cotton Belt and the downtown D2 subway. To do so, the agency would take out a $1 billion low-interest federal loan to pay for the Cotton Belt, while D2 would be paid for in part through a federal grant program that originated during the Obama administration. However, if that grant program goes away, there are questions about how DART could still afford to build both projects. Morgan Lyons, a DART spokesman, said that staff is working on other options for funding D2 if the federal grant program is eliminated. He said the board will be briefed on these options in the coming weeks. But if the board votes this coming Tuesday to approve the issuing of that debt for the Cotton Belt, it will be locked into using that debt for the Cotton Belt.

“We have to get moving now on the FRA loan so we can issue debt in March/April 2018, when we expect to receive a federal Record of Decision allowing us to begin work. So really we can’t wait,” Lyons says. “We also don’t know what the administration or congress will do on any infrastructure funding, so it’s important to move on these programs while they’re still available. The FRA and FTA are still moving forward on their various programs.”

He also says that issuing the debt to build the Cotton Belt line will affect the agency’s overall borrowing capacity. “The funding is project-specific,” Lyons said. “If you get an FRA loan for the Cotton Belt, it can only be used on that.” The question remains, then: why rush the vote of the board to approve an FRA loan for the Cotton Belt, as the agency still isn’t sure if it can afford both projects? Perhaps it is because some suburban board members believe there is an agenda to kill the Cotton Belt.

“It’s a joke. I say joke, but it’s no joke,” said Irving Representative Rick Stopfer. “It’s a pity, really, that Dallas is going to replace people on this board because they don’t like the way they vote. Maybe if it needs — maybe if it, or D2, needs to be in a tunnel, then Dallas needs to pay.”

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