What a way to run a railroad

The other day I overheard two men arguing about whether DART buses should carry advertisements or not, a conversation that must have echoed thousands of times throughout greater Dallas during the month of July.

“Look, I like a snappy bus as much as the next guy, but we’re talking about a million dollars in revenue down the drain pipe.”

“You’ve got your priorities mixed up, man. Don’t you know that the Yuppies will never get out of their BMWs for a bus that’s cluttered with signs selling laxatives? Image is everything!”

“Well, you talk to me about how we’re going to build subways without the cash, and I’ll talk to you about aesthetics….”

If there’s one thing we love in Dallas, it’s a good, clean, simplistic dogfight, and the burning question of whether ads do or do not belong on buses had everybody in on the act. Even the hidden agenda in this one (i.e., the suburbs don’t like the ads, so let’s let them win one now, and they’ll owe us one later) didn’t spoil the fun. Here was a DART dilemma we could sink our teeth into, and gnash we did.

The fascinating thing about Dallas’ being abuzz about buses at this particular moment in DART’s history is its almost comical insignificance next to the real issue at hand: the future of our rail transit system. But the controversy over ads is virtually black and white when measured against the gray complexity of rail.

Two years ago, on August 13, 1983, we gave our official blessing to the inception of Dallas Area Rapid Transit. Fifty-eight percent of the voters of Dallas, as well as majorities in 13 (now raised to 15) of its surrounding suburbs, said, yes, we believe that traffic-choked streets and runaway sprawl are more loathsome than the prospect of creating yet another bureaucracy. We handed transit caps to 25 individuals who would work together as the DART Board. Astute, scrappy, get-down-in-the-trenches-and-sweat-it-out-with-’em Adlene Harrison was crowned queen bee, vowing to do whatever it took to bring our fine city the fine transit system it deserved.

And there has been sweat. We sweated out the choice between heavy rail or light. We sweated out recall votes in Carrollton and Farmers Branch. We sweated out a long, drawn-out search for a new executive director when the first one, Maurice Carter, quit. We sweated out details over bus riders and bus routes and bus uniforms and bus interiors and bus access and, yes, bus advertising.

And while the DART staff and its board toiled away through unenviably difficult start-up days, the rest of us were holding our breath and waiting for the magic to start. The epic myth of mass transit was suspended in time, destined to dangle out there in the future until the busy worker bees shaped it into reality. We waited patiently for the day when those squiggly dots and dashes on a map could breathe new life into downtown, free the freeways of their congestion, create predictable paths of growth, reduce pollution, offer newfound access to the handicapped, increase mobility among the poor-and give us bragging rights to the shiniest state-of-the-art railway in the Sunbelt.

Well, let this be known as the summer we woke up to the flip side of the dream. In hindsight, we see that Harrison’s crown started to slip a little at the beginning of this year, when her six months of head-hunting had failed to produce a qualified CEO. And while Adlene the populist politician had effectively spread DART’s good word to the hinterlands, she flat-out ignored a significant segment of the powers-that-be-the business community. In Dallas, that’s dangerous politics.

But it took more than a double take at Adlene Harrison to bring us to our senses. Lulled as we had been by the prospects of dus drivers in natty new uniforms, we were suddenly jolted by the prospect of billion-dollar cost overruns and endless digging that will rip apart an already construction-weary city center. Suddenly the words of venerable DART foe and former U.S. Representative Jim Collins, whose naysaying was roundly denounced two Augusts ago, rang ominously clear. Collins’ dire warnings of a runaway bureaucracy that would eat up our tax dollars preyed on the minds of more than a few civic leaders around town.

Then a light appeared. Actually, several shiny beacons came into view. We snared a savvy Scotsman from his post as head of a massive transit system in Singapore. Stewart Scott appears to know something about how to run a railroad. We found a bright, seemingly capable (albeit young) numbers man, Bill Freeman, who was put to the immediate task of financial forecasting. And the troika was rounded out with the naming of an executive director, Ted Tedesco, a gutsy public administrator with a reputation for speaking softly while wielding a big stick.

Just as the import of these three new key players was coming into focus, the DART staff raced toward its climactic moment: the July transit workshop, during which rail decisions that will determine the fate of central Dallas were made. To those privy to it, the backroom shuffling that preceded DART’s two-day presentation only underscored fears of a bureaucracy gone berserk. In the end, wise choices were made. But the hair-raising means to that end left those involved dizzy indeed.

Now, as we await the arrival of our new chief, Tedesco, once again we hold our breath. The rosy glow of the transit system that would save Dallas has given way to a clearer vision. We see an unwieldy, politically pressured transit board, with a leadership that may not have the business know-how to take the tough steps that lie ahead. We see a glaring need for the board to back off from the “how” decisions, and stick with the “what.” If Ted Tedesco is our choice to run the system, then we must let him run, unfettered by the need to make 25 phone calls every time he’s poised at the starting gate. We see pivotal financial footwork ahead-crucial funding decisions that will make or break our long-term success. Let us heed the example of those systems that have come before us, like MART A in Atlanta, where even ambitious planning has not made up for spiraling costs. We see the need for a bull’s-eye marketing program that will convince motorists that rapid transit doesn’t exist just to get the other guy off the road.

And yes, maybe we’re even beginning to see the point about advertisements cluttering up the image of a sleek, futuristic DART. Welcome to Phase Two. Now that our heads are out of the clouds, we’re riveted.


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