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Transportation

In Subway Vote, Some Council Members Admit Dallas’ Transit Priorities Are a Mess

Why did it take such a significant resolution to get on the same page?

The Dallas City Council made a $1.7 billion decision Wednesday that gives a startling look at the dysfunction that plagues transportation planning in this town.

Council unanimously approved a resolution to support the downtown subway project known as D2. That’s the $1.7 billion, at least half of which will be paid for by DART. The other half comes from the feds. But the resolution has layers. It requires DART to coordinate with the city and state in the planning of other major transportation projects. It also orders DART to develop solutions for the muddle created where the subway surfaces in Deep Ellum, a design matter that most of that neighborhood opposes. The City Council will again vote the resolution up or down in 2022, depending on how the next year goes.

The resolution reveals two important things: first, several generational projects have been chugging along without much coordination among them. The resolution finally calls for the city’s three largest transportation projects to be planned in concert: D2, the future of I-345, and the redevelopment of Interstate 30. Second, the resolution shows us that DART doesn’t much respect resolutions.

Wednesday’s meeting—and the committee meetings that preceded it—signal that the City Council hasn’t had a priority for its transportation planning strategy. “We don’t have a clear vision to articulate what our priorities are for transportation, at least for the City Council,” said Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, District 12’s representative in Far North Dallas. “I hope that we will with, of course, the help of staff and our regional partners, be able to very concisely and clearly articulate what our goals are.”

What is going on here? D2 isn’t a new project. It has been in the works since 1990, when the city signed an interlocal agreement that asked DART to give it a subway once it met ridership thresholds. (And got the money.) The current alignment received support from Council in 2017, with the proviso that DART let everyone have a look at its designs once they were 10 percent complete. That didn’t happen, according to a top city staffer. When DART recently pulled out its plans for Council, they were 30 percent finished — and suddenly a new City Council is wavering on what the body had previously approved.

“In 2019, 2020, we met with DART staff several times,” Majed Al-Ghafry, the assistant city manager for infrastructure, told me in February. At the time of our conversation, he was working on crafting the resolution the Council voted on this week. “The problem right now is they’ve gone to 30 percent design and haven’t gone to the City Council, and now they want approval.”

DART came back to the City Council in October, broadcasting a need for city approval in order to meet key deadlines for federal funding. But now there were problems with DART’s ideas about how D2 should be built, and it started to feel like we had regressed right back to 2015. Back then, DART wanted to make D2 a surface line through downtown Dallas, along Jackson Street, just south of Commerce, permanently disrupting the street in a major way. Hundreds of objectors to that idea put on green shirts bearing a line from The Warriors—“Can you dig it?”—and packed into the transit agency’s meetings. There were public discussions at the Bomb Factory, and City Council debated it at length. DART agreed in 2017 to bury the line, securing the first Council resolution in support of the alignment. Public attention has wavered, too. On Wednesday, the real estate developer Scott Rohrman and one of his employees were the only two people who signed up to speak ahead of the vote.

The new resolution issued Wednesday orders DART to work on the east side of the subway alignment, which has the line emerging aboveground in Deep Ellum, along Good Latimer. It also includes a “wye” junction at Swiss on Good Latimer, where the lines will converge. The Deep Ellum Foundation, which is made of up of business and property owners that fund and manage the neighborhood’s Public Improvement District, doesn’t much care for the current alignment because of the disruption it believes the surface line would cause.

In the resolution, city staff split the project into two zones: Zone A is the west side, which is expected to stay about the same. Zone B is the east. DART has work to do with B, but it’s not clear how much leeway the feds will allow the transit agency; DART can’t spend more than $1.7 billion. (In an email, Deep Ellum Foundation President Stephanie Hudiburg wrote, “We will be working diligently with our stakeholders, City Council and staff, NCTCOG, DART and TxDOT over the next several months to hopefully devise a workable alternative alignment for D2 on the east side.”)

This is a 2.4-mile track. It will double the light rail system’s capacity by adding a second rail for the Orange and Green lines, and alleviate bottlenecks and help during the rare service disruptions.

And yet, here is Councilwoman Mendelsohn in Wednesday’s meeting: “I don’t think a single one of us would say, ‘Oh, D2 is our pressing issue.’” She wants better service for transit-dependent residents. And, indeed, DART is redesigning its bus routes to improve frequency, which is expected to begin next year.

“Every council member, city staff executive, and DART board member should be able to rattle off Dallas’ top five transportation priorities,” Mendelsohn said in a text message. “I hope those will address factors like population density, poverty, transportation dependency, existing rail, employment centers, the full geography of our city, and mobility needs of residents of all ages and abilities.”

But executing D2 will eat up DART’s borrowing power for at least the next 15 years. The question for this City Council would have been whether this was the best project for the current moment, when rail ridership has dropped by 50 percent amid the pandemic. Doubling capacity does not mean doubling ridership. But those conversations didn’t happen in earnest before the weight of federal funding deadlines were bearing down on the agency.

DART’s argument to the city is that the feds have $800 million they want to put toward the project; the fact that DART will have to spend $900 million was almost an afterthought.

Meanwhile, the City Council says its transit priorities are cloudy at best.

DART presented a project that is too big to fail and made sure to tell Council that the agency has already spent $20 million and years of planning. (And, to be fair, it has the support of a previous Council, even though the transit agency didn’t fulfill its end of the bargain on updating Council on the project.) This is a new City Council working under the decisions of the prior body. And this Council hasn’t grappled with the enormous transportation projects that will soon be underway.

That’s alarming, considering what’s happening around downtown. There is the D2 subway, but also talks of expanding streetcars from Oak Cliff into downtown. The Texas Department of Transportation is studying the feasibility of burying or tearing out I-345, the freeway that separates downtown from Deep Ellum and that will be a neighbor of D2. Interstate 30 is being redone in the Canyon and points east, which will likely result in a depressed freeway through East Dallas. Parks and green space and renovations are being built at Fair Park. DART is also redesigning its bus system to provide more frequency in the hopes of creating a more reliable, usable bus network.

And only now, after years of planning, are they formally tied together.

“The idea is to really integrate I-30, 345, and D2, to open up that whole area for something much greater,” Al-Ghafry told me in our February chat. “That is the long-term plan, but the idea was to really do this visioning along with D2 so if it’s going ahead of other projects it’s not in conflict with them.”

Whether D2 is best for the city is almost beside the point. There has been a breakdown between the city and its transit partner, and now the city has been backed into a corner. Deep Ellum probably won’t get what it wants without another funding source; DART has said it will not spend more than $1.7 billion, and fixing the neighborhood’s concerns will almost certainly sail past that. Nevertheless, DART’s messaging worked: $800 million is indeed up for grabs.

“I just can’t see myself going away from an opportunity for such a large investment of federal dollars to mass transit improvement in our city when we know we need mass transit improvement in our city,” said Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who represents South Dallas and Fair Park.

And yet, most council members who spoke on the record asked more about improving bus service for residents who need it to get to work, the doctor’s office, worship, or the grocery store.

The resolution includes common sense requirements, like monthly updates. And now, it calls upon the city, TxDOT, DART, and the North Central Texas Council of Governments to plan the large transportation projects in concert. Meanwhile, DART is going to return to planning its engineering and applying for federal dollars. Its interim president, David Leininger, anticipated spending another $5 million to $10 million on something yet another City Council may vote against.

Michael Morris, the transportation director for the NCTCOG, urged the City Council to approve the resolution. “You’re holding the cards,” Morris said in Wednesday’s meeting. “Let us work on a horizontally integrated vision.”

It’s stunning that this integration hasn’t been happening all along.

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