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DART’s Future Is Thinking Smaller

DART CEO Nadine Lee will give a "state of the agency" update that focuses more on improving its operations and less on building new things.
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Nadine Lee, Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s chief executive, is thinking about how the agency operates. Growth, she says, doesn’t necessarily mean expensive infrastructure projects. Which is a radical statement considering the agency’s history. It has rarely met a capital project it didn’t like.

Lee was hired about two years ago, when the $2 billion downtown “D2” subway was still in the cards and the Silver Line construction was just beginning through the suburbs and Far North Dallas. Throughout its nearly 40 years, DART built by sprawl, running light-rail trains along unused freight track. It created the largest system in the country and also one of the most inefficient in the world. Its bus system followed the same strategy: a hub-and-spoke network that covered a lot of land and required a lot of transfers.

In 2022, it rolled out a new bus system that flipped the strategy, running buses on fewer routes that were longer and more direct, with stops within walking distance from more frequent core routes. It shelved the D2 subway earlier this year, after ridership numbers failed to meet the thresholds that warrant its existence. That decision freed up significant borrowing power that could go toward improving its operations.

Lee will deliver her first “state of the agency” address this evening at the under-used Eddie Bernice Johnson Union Station, which is perhaps the first such presentation in DART’s history. (She couldn’t find another example, at least.) She is thinking smaller, focusing on ways to improve service and make transit more useful to more people. To her, the agency’s future is tied directly to how its 13 member cities plan to accommodate growth and how reliable her agency’s services are.  

“We have 4 million people coming here in the next 20 years,” she says, referring to regional estimates projected by the North Central Texas Council of Governments. “I certainly don’t want them moving outside of the DART service area.”

For DART’s part, that means upgrading its bus fleet and light-rail trains; the latter will require an upgrade to its signal system. (It received $130 million in federal funding to replace aging buses and help pay for a pedestrian trail that will run parallel to the Silver Line.)

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DART CEO Nadine Lee.

Lee says the agency has identified another seven routes to upgrade to frequent service status in the next phase because of increased ridership. It took about a year for DART to hire enough drivers to roll out the full bus system, but it has seen ridership increase since the full implementation in January. But the most recent financial report, from 2022, shows that the agency is still reeling from the pandemic, when ridership was cut in half. Weekday ridership in 2022 was still down about 42 percent compared to 2019. Lee hopes the gains shown since the full rollout this year will begin to chip further into that deficit.

“Our ridership is coming back a little bit faster than we anticipated,” she says. “We also think we’re capturing other riders that we maybe didn’t capture before.”

Safety and cleanliness remain challenges for DART. Lee says the agency recently launched a pilot program that placed mental health workers on buses and trains to help if a passenger becomes threatening or faces a psychiatric emergency. It also hired 100 private security officers to supplement its own police fleet, which this summer had more than 200 vacancies.

“Our services are our product,” she says. “We want to provide a product that is good enough for them to buy.”

DART’s biggest challenge, in some ways, will be working with its partners on things it cannot control: land use, zoning, and last-mile infrastructure. Lee says DART is willing to engage with its partners on how to reuse some of its lightly used land, particularly parking lots near transit stops.

The city of Dallas and DART in 2021 entered into a formal partnership to rezone and redevelop five parking lots near transit. The city has hired consultants to come up with a plan to create mixed-use developments on this land, with the end goal to put more people in housing near light rail.

These are the types of strategies Lee is pursuing: making DART a true amenity for people who could easily take it to work or to run errands. It also faces 13 different partners with different needs and expectations. Dallas accounts for about half of DART’s sales tax revenue, and its relationship with City Hall has grown rocky after issues with the Silver Line and a botched return of sales tax revenue. (Lee says the agency’s relationship with the city is “100 percent different” since the blowup had to be mediated by the NCTCOG’s transportation director.) She also knows that some suburbs are questioning the return on their investment. To solve these issues, the agency must double down on reliability and become more than just an amenity for some.

“What we want to do is make sure … DART becomes integral to their transportation masterplans in each of our cities,” she says. “The future depends on them being able to leverage DART services.”

That seems to be Lee’s takeaway for the state of the agency: how do we use transit to meet the demands of the future? For once, that isn’t building more. It’s a focus on improving existing services and working with member cities to fix some of the problems created by how DART previously did business.

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Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…

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