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Good Public Transit

DART President Gary Thomas Retires, Creating Opportunity for New Era at Transit Agency

Thomas, whose long career at DART spans the build-out of its massive light rail system, steps down amidst pandemic-driven uncertainty around the future of public transit.

Gary Thomas, the longtime head of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, announced last week that he will be taking early retirement and stepping down from the agency.

Thomas has been president and executive director of DART for nearly 20 years, and he has worked for or with the public transit agency nearly since its inception. Thomas got his start working as a consulting engineer designing DART’s park and ride facilities, and he joined the agency full time in 1998, when he became the senior vice president of project management. Under Thomas, DART has seen the expansion of its light rail network into the largest system in North America, though his departure comes as DART faces unprecedented challenges, from the pandemic-induced decrease in ridership and revenue to mounting evidence that, despite billions of dollars of public investment, DART has built one of the least-reliable and user-unfriendly transit systems in the world.

It is difficult to overstate the impact Thomas has had on shaping public transit in Dallas and the region. The engineer largely succeeded in building out DART’s 1983 transit vision, a system designed to lure commuters out of their cars and into light-rail trains to relieve road congestion. The first light-rail line of DART’s 93-mile system was completed the year after Thomas became president of the agency, and the final miles of its latest (and likely last) major expansion—the so-called Cotton Belt or Silver Line—are under construction and are expected to be completed in 2023. But while the light-rail system can boast of being North America’s longest, it has largely failed in meeting the goal of reducing congestion, with light-rail ridership only making modest annual gains and DART bus trips falling in recent years.

That contradiction between a massive expansion of light rail and the slagging reliability of DART’s transit system makes Thomas’ legacy complicated to evaluate. As a public servant of the agency, Thomas has seen it as his mission to make good on DART’s promise to its member cities to build out a commuter network focused on a light-rail network. In that role he has succeeded. But the failure of that network to attract significant ridership has cast those efforts as futile and ill-conceived. A UTA study in 2017 showed that DART provides access to only 4 percent of the region’s jobs.

There are many reasons why DART has failed to live up to expectations of delivering top-notch transit in Dallas. The design of the light-rail system—with its many park-and-ride facilities—was imagined from the outset as a support to auto-centric mobility, not a substitute. The member city makeup of the agency, which includes 13 cities that pay a 1-cent sales tax to DART, created financial and political pressures that incentivized investing in expanded transit access rather than adequate transit service. And macro political and economic conditions in the region have allowed for 35 years of development that has pushed job and population growth away from DART’s transit corridors.

Thomas’ steadfast fidelity to DART’s founding vision and outdated promises to its member cities has meant that he has overseen the investment of billions of public dollars on a transit system that has been clearly inadequate for decades. In addition to failing to deliver on that most basic promise of public transit service—improved mobility—Thomas’ tenure has also been marked by missed opportunities. The system has led to a handful of transit-oriented developments near stations, but much of the land around its stations remains underdeveloped. DART also never created a tool to recapture investment value from development driven by its transit network in order to create additional revenue streams beyond member cities’ sales tax dues that could be reinvested in improving service. And while DART finally managed to expand service to DFW Airport in 2014, it also made the disastrous decision to bypass Love Field when building its Orange and Green lines.

You can blame DART’s board for the agency’s inability to tap the brakes on relentless—and often ill-conceived—light rail expansion and its refusal to refocus investment on improving transit mobility, but Thomas has also proved to be a public servant particularly adept at keeping DART’s board in line with DART staff’s vision.

In 2019, I wrote a column that dug into how some of this worked in process, arguing that, along with North Central Texas Council of Governments transportation director Michael Morris, Gary Thomas is responsible for holding local leadership fast to outdated ideas about urban mobility that have left DART and its member cities with a massive transit system that ultimately doesn’t work for riders. This image of unelected bureaucrats quietly steering the direction of billions in public investment—and with it the future shape and growth of the region—has been reinforced by Thomas himself. Speaking at the Southwestern Rail Conference in January 2019, he related a story about meeting with Morris at a Cracker Barrel in transit-starved Arlington to hash out how the agency was going to come up with the billion-plus dollars it would cost to build the Cotton Belt line, which, even before the pandemic, was expected to serve a mere 5,630 trips per day.

The solution Thomas and Morris came up with was to drive DART into a load of debt that has inhibited the agency’s ability to reinvest in other work that might improve service levels that drive ridership and use. This includes funding D2, the shorthand name for the last remaining unbuilt major capital improvement on DART’s docket, the second downtown subway alignment. That subway line would allow DART to expand capacity all across its network of light-rail lines. As DART moves forward with the Cotton Belt line, it is waiting on a federal grant to pay for D2, a process that began during the Obama administration and has been delayed during President Trump’s term.

In addition to building more miles of light rail, in recent years, Thomas has been trumpeting the agency’s efforts to expand ridership via new investments in technology. Its GoPass app is designed to make it easier for transit riders to plan trips across multiple mobility services, including rideshares, and it allows passengers without banking or credit card access to pre-pay DART fares via kiosks around the city. The app is part of a new public-transit service model known as Mobility as a Service, or MaaS, and it seeks to respond to the emergence of rideshare services and the anticipation of autonomous vehicles by employing new digital platforms to broker packaged multi-modal mobility services, including transit.

DART has also begun an effort to redesign its bus system, following the lead of cities like Houston, which has seen some success in boosting ridership and reliability with a rejiggered bus network that prioritizes concentrated areas of high levels of service over broad geographic access. The refocus on busses, however, only came after the Dallas City Council reconfigured its representation on DART’s board, in part to advocate for a reprioritization of DART’s bus service.

These efforts were thrown into limbo earlier this year when the global pandemic decimated DART’s ridership and sales tax revenue. The system has been operating on a reduced schedule since March. The agency continues to plan its bus redesign and hopes to roll it out by early 2022, but those efforts will be curtailed by severe funding shortages. To help cut costs, the agency created a program to reduce overhead by incentivizing around 300 employees to take early retirement.

Paul Wageman, the chair of DART’s board of directors, says he did not expect Thomas to be one of the employees to take the early retirement deal. “It was a bit of a surprise,” Wageman says. “I think he’s in his early 60s, so the reality is we’d probably be facing this in the next two to three, four years anyway.”

The timing of Thomas’ departure creates both additional uncertainty at the transit agency, as well as a window of opportunity. With the light-rail network all but built out to completion, it is time for the agency to pivot its mission and begin to focus more intently on ridership and service, Wageman says. “It’s a challenge, no question about it,” he says. “But it is also a significant opportunity to recast the agency, to be more nimble and to be more focused on the delivery of the services as opposed to continued expansion of service.”

The DART board will convene Tuesday and discuss plans for replacing Thomas. Wageman expects that an interim director will be named and that the hiring process for Thomas’ successor will be “aggressive and wide-ranging.”

“This will be a board decision, not just my decision, but I think our agency has been at the front line of some significant changes in transit inclusion, the technology piece, developing the app, and mobility as a service,” he says. “I think we’re going to look for someone who’s certainly current and forward-thinking on those items and really looks at this as a way to move people, and not so much know how to run a bus company or run a train company. How do we provide a quality, timely mobility service to the citizens in our 13 cities and to enhance their quality of life and the quality of life of those cities?”

Let’s hope DART does indeed bring on a new transit leader with fresh ideas and vision, rather than elevating someone from Thomas’ existing team. DART’s future success rests on being able to salvage value from its massive light-rail network, an effort that will require a better integration of train service with more frequent bus routes, as well as clever strategies around development and land-use in the vicinity of DART’s existing network.

But many of the fundamental challenges that hamstrung Thomas will remain. DART’s member cities have shown only modest interest in implementing zoning that allows for the kind of dense development around stations that makes public transit usable. Suburban cities that have attempted to gently steer future planning in this way have run into stiff political backlash.

DART’s funding model has also limited the agency’s ability to invest in operations, and federal monies for public transit continue to incentivize capital investments over service improvements. And some suburban cities’ threats in recent years to pull out of DART—as well as non-member cities’ success in using a half-cent sales tax as a slush fund to lure new development away from DART’s network—underscores the way in which DART’s 1983 promise to build a light-rail network to serve commuters is one it can’t hope to live up to.

Thomas’ successor will instead have to find mobility wins where she can find them, and the lowest-hanging fruit is improving service in areas of the region where current densities and land uses are already suited for supporting transit. These include parts of Dallas, as well as urbanizing areas of the suburbs.

But in the short run, the new head of DART will have her hands full with simply keeping the agency alive at a time when many former DART riders are working from home and potential riders are still concerned about the health risks of public transit.

“We’re in an uncertain time,” Wageman says. “We don’t know when sales tax will return to prior levels. We’ve got to be conservative in how we budget. We will continue to look for ways to free up cash, reduce our debt or debt service, and look for ways to enhance operations. But it’s going to be a state of flux for a while.”

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