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As the Suburbs Add More People, Dallas Watches Its Influence Over DART Wane

The city of Dallas appears destined to lose its majority of appointments on the DART board. How will that affect the delivery of public transit in the future?
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You don’t need a demographer to see that Dallas isn’t sharing in the rapid growth of its northern suburbs. This reality is beginning to settle in at City Hall, where, in discussions around land use and other policy decisions, planners wrestle with how to encourage more people to move, and afford to stay, in the region’s largest city.

The trend affects transportation decisions, too. Dallas is now staring at a future where it no longer controls a majority of the Dallas Area Rapid Transit board, whose seats are appointed based on the population share of Dallas and the transportation agency’s 12 suburban partners.

DART and the City Council’s transportation and infrastructure committee held a dual meeting on Monday to explore the region’s changing demographics. The population trends show the board makeup flipping as soon as 2025, the next time apportionment gets reviewed, and almost certainly by 2030. (The makeup of board seats is adjusted every five years based on how many people are living in DART’s service area.)

Why is this important? The state statute that created DART tipped the scales to allow the region’s largest city to have a critical eighth seat on the body that sets policy. But since 2010, Dallas’ population has increased by only 9 percent while the surrounding service area has jumped by 40 percent. By 2030, projections show that most of DART’s service population will live outside the city of Dallas for the first time in the agency’s existence.

“I’ve been on the board, at the pleasure of the City Council, for almost three and a half years,” said Trustee Rodney Schlosser, a Dallas appointee who put the report together. “In those three and a half years, I have picked up on what I think is obvious for any of us who are watchful of what’s going on in the region, which is there are differences of opinion between what someone in Dallas might consider to be a priority and what someone in a suburb might consider to be a priority.”

This change is more of an existential threat than one that immediately dooms Dallas’ ability to direct its public transportation partner. After all, Dallas presently shares one of its seats with Glenn Heights and Cockrell Hill, and there is often a lack of consensus among the city’s appointees, anyway. They represent different neighborhoods that have different priorities, some of which may even align with those of the suburbs.

The true problem is hiding in plain sight. It’s what DART board member Patrick Kennedy calls a “world-class ball drop.” Dallas-Fort Worth is the fastest growing metropolitan area in the country, but the only way the city of Dallas is adding residents is by birthing them. In 2023, census data show that more people decided to leave than those who decided to make Dallas their home.

This isn’t a new trend. The city of Dallas lost about 4,000 people from 2020 to 2022. DART needs people to ride. Its CEO, Nadine Lee, told the Council that ridership is at 83 percent of its pre-pandemic levels. That’s slightly above the national average, to which Lee said the agency was “happy with … but we’re not satisfied.” Still, Executive VP Rob Smith told the Council that only about 5 percent of Dallasites use DART, and the number is slightly lower than that for the other partner cities.

Lee is turning her attention toward land use, working with cities to consider allowing development on DART-owned land—like surface parking lots near rail—to get transit closer to people.

“I would really love to see us bring more people to our region, because what that means for cities like Dallas, cities in our service area, is more residents,” Lee said. “More spending. More businesses. All those things that will help us become more economically successful.”

DART is working with its city partners to achieve those goals, and it would seem to be in the city’s best interest to have a majority on the board—as Schlosser said, sometimes the priorities of the suburban partners differ from that of the city. Council Member Jaynie Schultz, who represents North Dallas and Preston Hollow, requested the briefing. She acknowledges the likelihood of Dallas losing that eighth seat and says it’s time to collaborate with the other cities.

“I can see the urban needs of Dallas getting lost in the worldview of the suburban cities,” she says. “But if we listen to what each other really wants, we might find that we can all get what we want.”

It behooves everyone to get moving. The other existential threat hovering over DART and Dallas is the Texas Legislature, which in the last session passed a broad piece of legislation that precluded local governments from passing regulations that go beyond state law. There is concern among some council members that state lawmakers’ war on local control will lead them to DART’s operations, perhaps allowing the member cities to pay less than its current 1-cent sales tax allocation. (About 75 percent of its funding is from the sales tax payment.)

“If you take money away, we will not be able to even keep up with what we’re doing today,” Lee said.

Plano state Rep. Matt Shaheen filed a bill last year seeking to audit the agency and open up the statute. Council Member Cara Mendelsohn, a DART critic who represents Far North Dallas, during Monday’s meeting floated the idea of advocating the Legislature to cap the sales tax revenue that the agency can receive each year.

In May, the DART board is expected to vote on a 10-year strategic plan for the agency. It’s more nuts and bolts than capital expenditures, focusing on improving reliability, safety, cleanliness, and customer service. Producing a better product that is useful for more people. Its true success hinges on getting more people on buses and trains, not on-demand services like GoLink that are more popular in the suburbs than in the city.

And as the agency embarks on strategies to do exactly that, Dallas is watching its influence wane—because the people aren’t moving here. If Dallas wants to keep its seats at the table, it will need to flip that trend, and fast.

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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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