The question seems simple enough: why did a pair of ice storms bring Dallas Area Rapid Transit to its knees? And, for light rail, the answer is actually pretty simple: it’s not built for that. The trains and the lines aren’t properly weatherized, and the agency hasn’t researched how much it would cost to do so in many years. The overhead catenary lines are at high risk of freezing when temperatures plummet and frozen drizzle is falling. After the system gets shut down, it takes crews about 24 hours to de-ice 230 miles of rail line while making sure all the mechanics are functioning. DART has shut down rail services during the winter most years since 2009.
Bailing on buses is harder to explain. For the first time in its 39-year history, DART suspended bus operations for days during the first of February’s storms. Its newish CEO, Nadine Lee, spent Wednesday morning explaining what happened while also seeking to assure some skeptical members of the City Council that the agency knows it must do better.
“We just didn’t have a way to quickly restore service,” she said. “Even though the rail side is very difficult, on the bus side it would help to have better mitigations to restore our services.”
On February 3, Lee said, 93 buses became stuck over a three-hour period. It had 189 buses total in service, so that accounts for just about half its fleet. The agency had shut down rail the prior day, but had only shifted busing to a lighter Sunday schedule. Tow companies stopped responding to DART’s calls because their tow trucks were getting stuck, too.
DART suspended bus service on February 4. It made headway in freeing those buses from the day before, but about 10 percent of its fleet was stuck again by 6 a.m. That increased to 18 percent by noon. DART then decided to shut down busing through February 6. Lee told Council that DART based its decision on the forecast from the National Weather Service, which predicted that ice would remain on the roads through then. But the sun came out and the roads thawed on the 5th and were mostly traversable by the 6th. Buses remained parked.
“DART had never experienced the number of buses that got stuck in that three-hour window on Thursday,” Lee said.
During the second winter storm, fewer buses got stuck, but more operators were injured. Lee wasn’t sure of the types of injuries sustained. While rail was suspended, DART buses kept running on a Sunday schedule.
DART is operating at a deficit. Lee said the agency is about 130 operators short, which shrinks the pool of drivers, some of whom she said couldn’t get to work because of the ice. (There are a total of 958 bus operators.)
Lee defended her agency’s decision but also didn’t shy away from the fact that it wasn’t prepared for the type of storm that came twice in three weeks. DART didn’t make decisions as the forecast changed; it just stayed down.
Lee described the agency’s choice thusly: “Our decision—are we going to be providing a meaningful service at all?”
Meaning: is there a way to keep some buses running on some routes that might actually help people get to work? The answer wasn’t worked out prior to the storms. This was the result: “We bailed on our ability to be a lifeline” to riders, she said.
Robert Perez, the interim assistant city manager over infrastructure, said the city sanded 4,400 miles of roadway across the city during the storms. The city sanded three times every 24 hours and partly bases its sanding strategy on bus routes.
In fact, the main takeaway of Wednesday’s briefing is how ill-prepared DART was for anything like this. Lee started her job in July; this is her first winter at DART’s helm. She heard an anecdote from one council member about a veteran who was able to pay for bus fare despite the buses being down; there was no notice at the kiosk. Bus routes were still showing up on Google and in the agency’s app.
Some of this is basic stuff for a transit agency, particularly one that services the fourth-largest metro area in the country. These storms were not freak occurrences, but the agency wasn’t prepared in its communications or its strategies to quickly restore services once the weather improved. In fact, Mayor Eric Johnson’s office said they learned of the shutdowns when the public did.
Fixing those things are part of Lee’s takeaways from the incidents, as well as holding job fairs to attract more bus operators.
“We need to make our decision one day at a time instead of shutting down service for multiple days,” she said.
The problems that arose during the winter storms aren’t new. DART needs to fix them if it ever wants to be the essential service it should be.