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.”

Comments

  • MattL1

    So, the suburbs want to borrow a billion dollars to build a new rail line that nobody will use, while Dallas wants to focus on making it easier for those who rely on public transit to get around. Gee, tough choice.

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  • Happy Bennett

    Is it that hard to fix the pot holes around here?

  • Kyle Smith

    We do konw the A in DART stands for “Area”. But it seems only Dallas residents get to actually benifit from DART. Although all members cities have to pay in. When will Adison get thiers? Dallas should pay for it all if they want to control it all.

    • MattL1

      DART doesn’t run in Addison? Odd. I see buses all the time there.

  • kev4321

    The several billions spent on the 635/35 highway projects, perhaps 25 miles of freeway, are several times the entire DART budget. Dallas area transportation is a congested and uneconomic mess due to the monopoly of cars-only infrastructure. Instead of highways, we need buses, bicycles, walking, and rail. These discussions really lack perspective because they do not compare transportation modes.

  • David Schwartz

    I wonder if the commenters of the article have driven in North Dallas lately? Not only has tremendous growth already occurred, but future incredible growth is predicated. Traffic is stifling and will only get worse. And “fixing potholes” isn’t cutting it.

    It’s a fact of life that Dallas has several subsidiary urban centers that are quite viable and growing. To ignore this and place the northern DART expansion on the back burner so it can add another Downtown track, even underground, is ludicrous and reminds me of what is and has always been wrong with this city infrastructure planners, always a day late and a dollar short.

    DART needs the funds and direction to get the CB Route built correctly, with residents in mind, and soon.

    • Mavdog

      The issue with focusing DART’s financial resources on the Cotton Belt buildout is simply the numbers: Cotton Belt is estimated to carry 16,382 daily riders along the entire length of its route in 2035. That is about 1,000 riders an hour during a typical workday (6 AM – 10 PM). Let’s assume that every one of these riders takes one vehicle off the highway, it will not have any affect on the “stifling” traffic you reference.
      Most important, Cotton Belt does not pass the cost/benefit analysis…especially if it results in the downtown subway to not be built.
      https://www.dart.org/ShareRoot/about/expansion/cottonbelt/aecr/AppendixB/9%20-%20CB%20Corridor%20Regional%20Rail%20Ridership.pdf

      • kev4321

        First, the ridership would likely be clustered around rush hour times. Second, the bus, bike, and pedestrian connections are not upgraded, so the rail is actually much more isolated than it should be. Third, public transportation is about connections and frequency. The pie is too small, so this squabbling over Dallas vs. suburbs is basically a fight over a few beans.

        • David Schwartz

          Really? Where do u live and work? Either your needs are met, or you prefer polluting dangerous driving. Now, I will agree once autonomous driving is the rule, maybe in 30 years, but by then, we will have hyperloops or the sort, along with community electric cars for shorter routes.

        • David Schwartz

          People who live in their own little worlds with their own limited agenda, have difficulty seeing the Big picture.

    • David Schwartz

      It certainly is debatable if that estimate is correct, but I believe that to be way off if the project is done correctly, with more access points, with light rail and ultimately with additional routes. The problem with predominance of north and south routes is that they don’t deal with the extensive east to west traffic which has increased in the north proportionally. one needs the CB connecting routes to increase DART utilization.

      The DFW Metroplex in 2015 has a poplulation of greater than 7 million and currently is likely north of 8 million and growing, and most of the northward and eastward. There is no excuse n view of the cost of lifestyle, lives and the environment, including Insurance costs do to MVAs, that the Dallas area should not have a robust mass transit, light rail system, and not just reserved for downtown?

      • Mavdog

        I totally agree with your point on east/west voids in the current DART system, and the inability of DART to provide service to the employment centers because of this lack of service,
        The issue is that Cotton Belt does not remedy that issue; in fact it fails to connect the exurban employment clusters that exist and are expanding (West Plano for example) with the existing spokes of the DART rail system.

        • David Schwartz

          Good point. It would only help if northern track could be created. There is a preferable northern track going east to West in the Southern portion of Plano that would connect East and West Plano to the US 75 toute, but DART owns the CBL and the other, I believe it may be a Santa Fe track, is used commercially. DART also needs a route along the tollway or inwood route that can extend even further north into Frisco along the western corridor.

          • Mavdog

            That is a Kansas City Southern line, and is in use for freight. Passenger and freight can share lines and co-exist, but the passenger schedule is typically the one that suffers under that arrangement.

            Maybe Max Goldblatt was right and ahead of his time when he proposed monorail instead of light rail. Imagine a monorail line running north/south along the route of the DNT.

          • David Schwartz

            That would be great! Good thinking.