China's elevated bus project is just one example of the re-written rules of the future of public transit.

Good Public Transit

Why Tomorrow’s DART Board Appointment Vote Is About More than Cities and Suburbs

We're about to enter an era of unprecedented transformation in how transportation fundamentally works. DART needs to be ready to respond to the moment.

In the aftermath of last week’s Dallas Area Rapid Transit board vote, which kept DART from taking out a $1 billion loan to build the Cotton Belt rail line from Plano to DFW Airport, the debate over the future of the transit agency has been framed as the city versus the suburbs.

This is somewhat understandable. After all, DART was sold as a regional network, and the cornerstone of that regional network is a light-rail system that is designed as a regional commuter rail service. By sheer geographic necessity, the first 30 years of construction of the network required building lots of miles of rails in Dallas. Now, having poured their sales tax dollars into that construction, the suburbs are impatient to see their portion of the rail finally delivered.

In a recent Dallas Morning News op-ed, former Addison city manager Ron Whitehead restates the terms of this mutual trust.

“We know the promises that were made and that Dallas could not have built the system that exists inside Dallas in a timely manner without the commitment of the suburbs,” Whitehead writes. “Dallas has already been well-served by its membership in DART. … Where now is the leadership that will talk about the region?”

However logical Whitehead’s argument may seem to appear at first glance, it is a dangerous perspective. This is not because DART and Dallas don’t have a commitment to think regionally about transit but rather because it is the expression of a political perspective that has long obscured the very mission, goals, and measures of success of the regional transit agency. Whitehead’s comments reflect an attitude that equates DART with its light-rail network, and it doubles down on a long-term transportation planning strategy that was questionable 30 years ago when it was first devised and is today demonstrably a failure.

We’ve spilled a lot of digital ink laying out DART’s shortcomings as a transit system. Last week, Jim Schutze rounded up most of the studies that show DART’s inefficiencies and limited usability. I’ll add an anecdotal piece of evidence. With my car in the shop two weeks ago, it took me two hours each way to travel on DART to a doctor’s appointment, a trip that usually takes me 20 minutes by car. For three years in the late 2000s, I rode DART daily, and so it was hardly surprising, but no less frustrating, that at every point of transfer during my recent journey from streetcar to rail to bus along my route, the wait times ranged from 15 minutes to an hour. My total travel time of more than 4 hours would have been longer had I not substituted a short Lyft ride for one leg.

This is what riding DART is really like. It is an absurd and all but unusable system. And given such unreliability, it is not surprising that ridership continues to decline. But for the thousands of people who have no choice but to rely on DART to get to work or jobs or doctors, DART is something more than a burden. It is an insult.

But within the political bubble that makes policy and planning decisions for DART, success and trust are not measured by reliability, ridership, or network efficiency, but on the colored lines that represent both real and planned rail projects on a map. And if that is how you measure success, then you cannot begin to understand the challenges or the potential solutions for fixing the region’s transit agency.

At the end of the day, DART’s success has nothing to do with the Cotton Belt or with D2. Rather, DART’s success lies in re-framing the conversation around what regional transit should or could be.

Which is why tomorrow’s Dallas DART board appointments are so vitally important. The new Dallas City Council has an opportunity to finally shake up the mentality of the board that shapes the future of the region’s public transit system. This doesn’t mean that it will necessarily upset the balance of power — or the terms of the compromise — between the suburbs and city. It means that the region finally has the opportunity to be led by representatives who are willing to step back and ask a question that doesn’t seem to have been approached honestly at DART in more than 30 years. Is the system we are building worth it? Is there a better way of moving forward?

And the moment couldn’t be more critical for asking these questions.

The rejection of the Cotton Belt debt issuance was an important first step. The vote wasn’t a slight to the burbs. Rather, it was a desperate attempt to keep DART from shooting itself in the foot. Think about it this way: if DART had voted to go all in on building both the Cotton Belt and D2, it would have placed itself in a financial position in which no real capacity for any major projects or improvements could have been made for the next decade or two. Even if DART only took out a $1 billion loan for the Cotton Belt, any further investments — either D2 or other projects — would have to be funded with risky bonds that push out debt service repayment into the 2030s.

And DART would have tied itself to these rail projects at precisely the moment when transportation is about to change in unimaginable ways, rapidly reinventing the rules of mobility at a scale unseen since the advent of the passenger rail or the automobile.

Take a look at the article Tim linked to yesterday that predicts the rapid pace at which driver-less electric cars will slash the cost of auto travel. Now imagine how this might affect public transit. If it is cheaper to ride in a driver-less car than to own a car, how cheap might it become to ride transit? Or will it be cheaper to ride in driver-less cars than to ride transit? And if that is the case, then what is DART’s role in the future? How could it supplement future services, increase capacity and frequency, double down and refocus on serving those with the longest or most arduous commutes? How could it re-imagine its bus system in light of other technological advances? How could DART reinvent itself as an agency that slashes the challenges of upward mobility among the region’s poorest residents in an era when auto transportation is increasingly cheap and accessible?

These are the questions DART needs to be asking itself today, and answers should inform whether or not DART should build the Cotton Belt or D2. And these scenarios aren’t science fiction. These changes will be hitting the market in the 2020s — precisely the moment when the Cotton Belt debt service would have left DART incapable of drawing more debt.

If Addison and Plano residents are upset they never received their rail line, maybe they will be pleased when the failure to deliver on that promise opens the opportunity for DART to provide other services. Maybe there are opportunities for new automated Bus Rapid Transit lines in dedicated lanes that cover more area and are more reliable than the Cotton Belt ever could be. Maybe there could be a network of intra-city shuttles that allow Addison Circle resident to abandon their cars altogether. Maybe there are other technologies (like the Chinese highway bus pictured above), other ways of integrating transit into emerging ride share systems, or other yet-unknown advancements in transportation that will serve the suburbs far better than a clunky old rail line built in a 19th-century right-of-way from Plano to the airport.

The simple point is this: last week’s courageous vote kept DART from limiting its financial flexibility and capacity, and allowed it to adapt to one of the most revolutionary moments in the history of transportation. Tomorrow, the Dallas City Council has the opportunity to take the next step: appoint new DART board members who are open to embracing this moment, to seeing what opportunities exist for the region, to refocus the agency on mobility and not rail construction, and to not get tied down by misconstrued terms of decades-old political partnerships between DART’s member cities.

Yes, DART is a regional system. Dallas reps on the board should embrace that reality. But that means working to truly deliver on DART’s promise of reliable transit throughout the entire region it serves.

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