Should we build rail? The DART debate gets down and dirty

It was a sparsely attended affair, held in a bland meeting room at the Umphrey Lee Student Center at SMU. The moderator assured us that before the afternoon was over, all three local television stations would have news crews there. Before the afternoon was over, he promised, someone high up in DART would arrive to field the tough questions. Before the afternoon was over, he hinted, we would have The Answer to the most vexing public policy question facing the city of Dallas: can we (or should we) afford a taxpayer-subsidized rail transit plan?

What if you gave a symposium and nobody came? That’s pretty much what happened at the forum sponsored by The Reason Foundation, a quasi-libertarian think tank passionately devoted to spreading its free-market ideas. And boy, did you guys miss a show.

Weighing in on the “right” was a small but staunch group of ultraconservatives (among them former city council member Max Goldblatt and former U.S. congressman Jim Collins) who made no secret of their disdain for DART. On the “left” was. . .well, SMU economist Bernard Weinstein. Bud Weinstein, champion of Reaganomics, cast in the role of bleeding heart? Now you know you’re in the land where government is evil and the NRA is king.

As the symposium wore on, I grew weary of the dogma and the clichés (my reflexive cliché counter clicked eleven times: “Pick somebody else’s pocket,” “They’re white elephants,” “Stealing from Peter to pay Paul,” “We’re preaching to the choir.”) But the opening cliché, offered up by moderator Dennis Mccuistion, had the ring of truth. He called it Finagle’s Law: “The information you have is not the information you want. The information you want is not the information you need. The information you need is not the information you can obtain. The information you can obtain costs so much you don’t want it.”

Ha ha. But he has a point. Despite the right-wing ravings of some real far-out folks, I was able to wrench free some information on the pros and mostly the cons of funding rail transit with long-term debt. You have to know the enemy before you do combat, so no matter which way you come down on this one (D will give a fair hearing to both sides as next year’s referendum draws near), the arguments bear a close look. In gross oversimplification, here’s how they break down.

1. Subsidized mass transit will not offer a value to the community commensurate with what it costs.

Ridership for mass transit, according to government figures presented by Arizona transportation analyst John Semmens, has been in steady decline since 1945. In metropolitan areas of three million people or more, only 8 percent of the population were using public transit as of 1983, while 92 percent used private automobiles or other forms of transit like taxis. No matter how many billions of dollars are thrown into the system, Semmens asserts, ridership patterns don’t change. Since fare box receipts from public transit cover roughly one-third of the costs, there’s never enough money to make the systems economically viable. Millions now, billions later.

2. Since public transit systems are monop olies, they are casual about costs and rare ly in tune with market needs or fluctuations. Rail systems, so the thinking goes, are par ticularly inflexible because once you build the route, you ’re stuck with it.

Semmens, whose anti-government bias really gets into the act on this one, calls it his Bureaucratic Rule of Two: anything that you can do, the government can do at twice the cost. For evidence, he points to the fact that most urban transit systems don’t even have the smarts to charge more during rush hour.

3. Public transportation systems don’t spur economic development.

Here’s where the two sides clashed head on. Weinstein promises that DART will create spin-off residuals in the form of jobs, a stimulated economy, and a leg up on competing cities like Atlanta, which can already boast a shiny new transit system that Atlan-tans seem to love. Dr. Peter Gordon, director of Research/Planning at the University of Southern California, says it ain’t so. “There are absolutely no secondary benefits of a transit system with low ridership. And history tells us that ridership will be low. Trains are a 19th-century technology that lost their market sixty years ago.” SMU’s Weinstein counters: “Development will follow this long-overdue investment in our infrastructure.” Who’s right? Who knows?

4. New rail systems are being built because they capture the public’s and the politicians fancy.

Gordon attributes the fact that sixty-four applications for federal funds for mass transit now await assistance from Washington to three phenomena: “pork-barrel politics” (transit systems are sexier, say, than a van-pooling plan); an uninformed (but well-intentioned, of course) media that ignores history and logic to forge ahead with its own liberal agenda; and simple downtown boost-erism. (The discussion got nasty when someone alleged that Dallas voters passed DART at the behest of civically active real estate developers who “have run Dallas for umpteen years” and who are out to increase the value of their own interests.)

The last speaker, The Reason Foundation’s president, Robert W. Poole Jr., spoke of alternatives to these so-called costly systems that “take money from innocent and unwilling people by brute force,” in the words of one particularly strident libertarian. He pushed privatization of transit in the form of freelance taxi cabs and minibuses, better traffic management, high-occupancy vehicle lanes, possible future fees for using roadways (monitored by a computer chip on your license plate), and incentives that would motivate carpooling and ride-sharing. Peter Gordon said that in Los Angeles during the 1984 Olympic Games, traffic jams were greatly reduced just by encouraging people to share rides every time they hit the freeway.

In the end, all three anti-transit speakers had a message for Dallas: you’re crazy if you commit your millions and your children’s millions to a losing proposition. With suburban population patterns pointing toward more dispersion and less density, you’re never going to get that other guy out of his car. If you want to keep Dallas moving, spend your money some other way.

D invites you to join in this important debate. This is not a subject that can be relegated to whispered allegations and back room talk. Let’s put this one on the table and let’s debate it long, hot, and fair. Just one more cliché, for the road: the future of Dallas is riding on it.


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