DART trains bottleneck downtown. Photo courtesy of DART

Transportation

Staring at a Shortfall, DART Weighs Returning Service to Normal

Ridership is down, but is that because DART reduced its bus and rail services so heavily?

Before the pandemic, DART was hitting a stride. It had just hired lauded public transit consultant Jarrett Walker to help reconfigure its bus routes to operate on a grid system and offer riders more efficient service. It had secured funding for two of its three largest capital projects: extending its rail platforms and the east-west Silver Line, which will connect suburban riders to DFW Airport. It was pursuing federal grants to pay for its forthcoming downtown subway line, D2.

And then in March, like so many other public agencies, DART saw the bottom fall out. By April, ridership had plunged 70 percent. Its main sources of revenue—fares and sales tax—tanked. To save money, the agency reduced its bus and rail services to mimic the reduction in demand. As the pandemic dragged on, staff told the board that the agency will need to cut $40 million from next year’s operations budget, about 7 percent.

Budget talks are beginning anew, and DART will begin finding ways to shore up that shortfall.

“There are no sacred cows,” said trustee Michele Wong Krause during a panel last week. “We are looking at everything to find those savings.”

Ridership and Reliability

How long should the agency reduce service? Staff doesn’t want to dip into cash reserves or use federal CARES Act funding to restore service to pre-pandemic levels. They look at the numbers and see less demand. Numerous board members look at the numbers and see potential riders turning away from a system that no longer gets them to where they need to go.

“We control one of the reasons why ridership has fallen so much,” said DART Board member Jon-Bertrell Killen.

As it stands, DART is operating a modified weekday schedule that resembles pre-pandemic weekends. Board member Patrick Kennedy said this has resulted in too many hourlong waits in the system. He will be pursuing an expanded high frequency network when the board revisits the modified schedule next week. He wants to run trains regularly from something like 7 a.m. to 7 p.m., then adjust underused routes on nights and weekends to recoup some of the costs. Otherwise, the people aren’t riding.

“That means people that may have been waiting 30 minutes or 60 minutes to get to work or a grocery store or a hospital or whatever may have five- or 10-minute transfers,” he said. “To me, that’s where the key to ridership is.”

Still, Cuts

The agency will need to find ways to save money going forward. Early ideas include 20 percent reductions to miles traveled by buses and 10 percent for rail. Krause also noted that other capital cost savers are being explored, including buying fewer trains for the new Silver Line—which was once known as the Cotton Belt—or single tracking instead of double.

But the immediate focus will be on operations, which will affect who has access to public transit and how frequently. Low-hanging fruit will be eliminating empty positions before considering layoffs. But Krause anticipates a smaller headcount by this time next year. The simple stuff—closing open positions, laying off about 300 staffers, and eliminating travel and training and consultants—will save $12 million. The rest will come from operational changes, unless the board chooses to dip into its reserves.

What Is Dallas’ Priority?

Eight of the 15 DART board members are appointed by the Dallas City Council. The remaining seven come from the 12 other partner cities and three towns. So when Dallas’ Council sets its priorities, it’s an influential message for the DART board. A resolution, for instance, once signaled the City Council’s priority that D2 be a subway instead of a surface line that would require seizing and occupying property.

“Having a resolution would be helpful,” Killen said. “I would want to know, how much bus service are you OK with being cut? Are you OK with 5 percent of the very poorest [ridership] being cut? Do you care about bus service more than the TRE that connects to Fort Worth? If we have to choose how to save $1 million, which would you want it to come from?”

North Dallas Councilman Lee Kleinman, who chairs the city’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said his first priority was restoring service to users who are dependent on public transit. And that would benefit the city of Dallas more than its neighbors.

“Dallas has much more than the suburban areas, so that may mean reducing disproportionately in the wealthier suburban neighborhoods where it’s more transit-convenient than transit-dependent,” Kleinman said. “One of the primary reasons DART gets so much federal funding is to support the transit-dependent. We have to make sure [cutting that] is the last resort. If those folks can’t even get to their jobs, you’re exacerbating a problem.”

And, indeed, in 2016, this was one of the City Council’s priorities that was formalized in a resolution: “expedited implementation of expanded bus services targeted toward the transportation needs of low income and transit-dependent riders.”

So it is perhaps no surprise that Krause is right there with Kleinman: “My current priorities are to ensure that we restore as much of a bus service to the transit-reliant rider as we can, given our financial constraints and that we don’t defer D2.”

Kennedy wants to move forward with launching the bus redesign in early 2022 and restore service as soon as possible.

Good News, Bad News

There are other operational aspects that will make this new reality difficult for DART, in particular paying for the advanced cleaning and hygiene practices required on buses and trains. The good thing is that most of the buses already have sufficient UV filters in the air conditioning that will kill the virus.

There is also good financial news. DART will be reimbursed $230 million through CARES Act funding. The agency requested $650 million from the feds to pay for D2, and the agency is still hopeful it will get that. The feds tend to award funding to projects that increase capacity. D2 is a second alignment project that will double capacity by allowing DART to reroute trains and avoid bottlenecks downtown. No other project in the nation can say that.

The agency’s long-term financial plan anticipates recessions every six to seven years, which means that the projected shortfall wasn’t as bad as it could have been.

And then there are the cash reserves. DART currently has about $800 million in its reserves, about $550 million that could be immediately accessed with board approval. The board used this money to restore services after the 2008 recession. And sales tax might not be in the red for long. State Comptroller Glenn Hegar announced this week that sales tax revenue actually increased 4.3 percent in July 2020 compared to July 2019. It was up 12 percent compared to the previous month. Because of that, Killen said, the agency has $17 million off the top that it could use toward restoring service. DART staff’s advice is to hold onto it. They’re understandably hesitant. We still don’t know how bad this will get.

“I do think it makes more sense to use some of our CARES Act funding or our reserve funds to provide a higher level of service for folks so they can get to the doctor or get to work, all those things that make transit great and useful for folks,” he said.

The Big Unknown

How will the pandemic affect DART’s operations in the long-term?

It seems the agency’s overhaul of the bus routes is the top longer-term priority, operationally at least. Originally, the consultants provided network scenarios based on no change to the operational budget. The pandemic, obviously, was out of their control. The revenue from sales tax and fares didn’t show up. So now the agency will try to implement the new network with an operational shortfall of about $20 million to $30 million.

As Kennedy noted, the question for DART staff and the board will be whether to dip into reserves to return service levels to what they were before the pandemic. They could also move some money from other line items, both of which, Kennedy said, “are on the table and worthy of consideration.” Without doing that, the overhaul of the bus network will not be successful. It doesn’t matter how efficient your new routes are if buses aren’t showing up with regularity.

Because the plan was always to launch the new bus network in 2022, Kennedy is hopeful that will be enough time to return to a semblance of normalcy. The CARES Act funding and the not-as-terrible-as-we-first-thought sales tax receipts have been encouraging. Also encouraging is how effective mask wearing and social distancing are in preventing the spread of the virus. Early research has shown that perhaps public transit is not as risky as was initially thought, especially with face covering requirements, distancing, and hygiene processes similar to what DART has employed on its buses and trains. And businesses are slowly beginning to reopen offices, all positives for public transit use.

Nevertheless, Kennedy is determined to return DART’s service to normal. He said staff believes that “the best bang for the buck investment in terms of ridership gains has been improved midday frequency.” He shares that sentiment.

“I think we need to be optimistic that things will be back to some version of normal after two years as history teaches us pandemics tend to impact civilization for about that long,” Kennedy said. “We really need to get the operational dollars back into the system for that system redesign and launch or it will be a failure when DART needs to be an integral component for getting the economy moving again post-COVID.”

The DART board will vote on the budget in September.

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