Good Public Transit

DART Needs a Plan B for Funding a Downtown Subway Before Board Approves Cotton Belt Debt

There is reason to believe the federal grants that will fund the D2 light rail alignment are going away. But does the agency have a back-up plan?

As was suggested last week, the Dallas Area Rapid Transit board has called a special meeting tomorrow so that it can approve the issuance of debt to fund the Cotton Belt light rail extension. Over the weekend, former Addison city manager wrote in the Dallas Morning News about the importance of the Cotton Belt line for the regional system. He framed the issue, as well as Dallas City Council’s pending appointment of new DART board members, as yet another urban vs. suburban fight over the future of DART.

It is not. I will try to explain why.

Oddly, the Dallas Morning News has not reported about the special meeting scheduled just days before the Dallas City Council is set to completely revamp its representation on the DART board, even though the op-ed clearly reflected what is at stake in the naming of new DART board members. A major shift in policy towards how the city governs the region’s public transit system — and the transit system board and staff’s response to such a change — is part of a story that has been developing since last fall, when the city council kicked-off one of its members after he refused to follow the city’s resolution to prioritize the D2 subway line over and above the construction of the Cotton Belt. Now, that same board is poised to lock DART into a situation in which it has no choice but to build the Cotton Belt even though funding for the D2 line looks increasingly in jeopardy.

Regardless, here’s where we are:

It is the official policy of the city of Dallas to prioritize the construction of D2 over the construction of the Cotton Belt. That was established last fall when the council approved a resolution that request its board members to prioritize the downtown subway, a directive Dallas’ DART board members ignored.

D2 is still the more important project for the region because it solves a critical system-wide capacity problem. Without D2, DART will not be able to increase the frequency or number of trains in its light rail system. That means that without D2, DART’s existing service to all of its member cities will not improve. DART knows D2 is more important for the regional transit system. However, the Cotton Belt may be more political important to DART staff since suburban members have threatened to pull out of the transit system if DART doesn’t deliver the new east-west light rail line.

DART staff has told the board that it can afford both projects, but it is no longer clear that that is true. Both D2 and the Cotton Belt are included in the 2040 mobility plan. The Cotton Belt will be funded by low-interest federal debt, whereas D2 will be built with the help of a federal grant as part of the Federal Transit Administration core capacity grant program. But there is reason to believe that, under the Trump administration, the core capacity grant program may go away.

A recent FTA report indicates that the core capacity grant program is at risk. D2’s funding is in jeopardy. The D2 project has not moved along far enough to qualify for the limited funding available in 2018, itself a reduction in the amount of funding the FTA dolled out in 2017 to transit projects. The report also ominously states that “Future investments in new transit projects would be funded by the localities that use and benefit from these localized projects.” A DART spokesperson says that this doesn’t necessarily mean that D2 will be left on a lurch, but that “the president has taken a position, but congress also has a position. There are still members of congress who want to continue the CIG program. Too soon to know what the final result will be.”

If DART moves ahead with the taking on the Cotton Belt debt, it will limited its capacity to draw debt to build D2. As a DART spokesperson stated last Friday, the issuing of the Cotton Belt debt will affect the agency’s borrowing capacity. But if the core capacity grant program goes away, will DART be able to draw debt to pay for both the Cotton Belt and D2? DART has not yet briefed the board on this issue, even though the board is set to vote through the issuance of the Cotton Belt debt tomorrow. The DART spokesperson said that the board will be briefed on alternative methods for funding D2 in the coming months. But why save those briefings until after the agency is already locked into funding the Cotton Belt? The current trajectory creates a potential situation in which DART goes into massive debt building the Cotton Belt, while the D2 alignment remains unfunded, ensuring that DART will not be able to increase its system capacity.

The timing of the vote appears as a transparent attempt to ensure that DART is locked into the Cotton Belt before Dallas names its new representatives to the board and before staff can brief the board on ways to fund D2 if the federal grant program is eliminated. This goes directly against official city of Dallas policy on how DART should prioritize D2 over the Cotton Belt. I would also argue that it goes directly against the region’s priorities and the need to increase system capacity and expand reliable service throughout the region.

What it is all reflective of, however, is an agency attitude that continues to prioritize delivering light rail lines of minimal transit value with the promise of stirring localized Transit Oriented Development projects in member cities, and not prioritizing system expansion planning that would increase ridership, mobility, and overall system usability.

In other words, this is not an urban versus suburban argument. It is mobility versus economic development.

If DART can afford to build both D2 and the Cotton Belt, it should. But tomorrow’s expedited vote isn’t about either/or, it is about which project should come first. Before DART locks itself into a billion dollar project by taking on massive debt, the DART board should request to be briefed on an updated funding plan for both D2 and the Cotton Belt in light of pending changes in FTA policy. There needs to be a D2 back-up plan. The board needs to know that building the Cotton Belt won’t jeopardize the building of D2. To vote on the Cotton Belt debt issuance before staff has shown how it can and will continue to expedite the construction of D2 even with the federal grant program would be irresponsible.

That’s not an urban bias. It’s a transit bias. And the need for better public transit than the pathetic system we have now is — and always will be — a regional priority.