THE 3 BILLION DOLLAR BOONDOGGLE

A VETERAN DART REPORTER EXPLAINS WHY ALL THE MONEY, DREAMS, AND GOOD INTENTIONS IN THE WORLD WILL NOT GIVE DALLAS A WORKABLE RAIL SYSTEM.

I SUPPORT PUBLIC TRANSIT. I ALSO LIKE trains. Taken together, those two preferences made it easy for me to back Dallas Area Rapid Transit and its concept of a 147-mile rail system when my newspaper assigned me to cover the transit authority in June 1985. I knew that trains were going to answer the region’s transportation problems by providing an efficient way to move people. DART officials in 1985 had a lot of questions facing them, but the basic question-what’s the plan?-had already been answered. DART would build a rail system like none other.

I find myself three years later still a supporter of DART-or, perhaps I should say, a supporter of mass public transit. But after undergoing the intense education a transportation reporter must undertake, I’ve changed my mind about one little thing:

The rail system. I don’t think it will work. In fect, I’m pretty sure that it will inhale vast amounts of taxpayer money and breathe out only slight relief to the area’s traffic congestion.

In addition, I am concerned that the rail system the citizens now may get is nothing like the one they were promised in 1983. DART plans an election next month seeking permission to borrow money to build the rail system. I hope that citizens look beyond thai narrow question. When people go to the polls, they should vote on whether or not they want DART’s rail system. Period.

The authority’s supporters will say that voters decided the issue of the rail system in 1983 when they created DART. But the DART service plan has changed drastically since then. Voters did give their mandate for a rail system. However, the rail system that finally gets built will be so truncated and so late in coming that any resemblance to any previous DART service plan, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

In other words, I’ve joined the ranks of the heretics who question the prevailing civic wisdom that DART’s rail system is an unavoidable $2.9 billion necessity. I would like to think that I’m just saying, “Excuse me, but the emperor’s new clothes sure show a lot of skin, don’t they?” You decide for yourself whether the emperor is naked. I COVERED DALLAS CITY HALL AS A newspaper reporter during DART’s incubation days in 1982 and 1983. That meant I peeked over the fence and heard a few of the arguments, but most of the DART stories didn’t fall on my beat. Another reporter handled DART every day and knew the issues and their background.

I did know that the final plan adopted in 1983 called for an integrated bus and rail system. Between 1984 and 1986, DART would expand bus service so that ail cities within its reach would have express buses for those who wanted to go to downtown Dallas, and local and crosstown buses for riders who didn’t need to go downtown. As rail lines opened in the late Eighties and early Nineties, the bus system would be adjusted to feed the trains and not compete with them.

At the center of the DART plan was the rail system-160 miles going east to Mes-quite, south to Duncanville, west to Grand Prairie, northwest to Irving, Carrollton, and Farmers Branch, north to Richardson, Piano, and Addison, northeast to Garland. DART anticipated completion of the first sixty-nine miles by 1995 and the other ninety-one miles by 2010. There actually were more miles in the plan, but any beyond the initial 160 miles were called “unfunded extensions.” That meant that those rail lines were coming, but only after DART finished the first 160 miles. Not forgotten, you understand, just delayed until later. When most cities in southern Dallas County voted DART down in the 1983 election, their secession shrunk the system to 147 miles-still a lot of rail.

What made the plan attractive to many, including me, was its conservative approach to things. First of all, the plan needed no federal funding. DART officials never said they would turn down federal money for the rail system, just that they didn’t need it and didn’t like the strings that it placed on those transit authorities that depended on Washington’s largesse.

I also liked DART’s no-nonsense approach to fares. The service plan said that from the outset, DART would get 45 percent of operating revenue from the farebox and would increase that percentage to 50 percent as time went by. That figure was lower than the 60-plus percent levels achieved by Dallas Transit System, the city-owned bus system, in the early Eighties. But it was much better than what many cities were achieving across the United States.

DART also intended to contract out many of its functions so that a lean, mean staff of only about three dozen would be needed. That approach would avoid the heavy administrative costs of many transit authorities.

No federal funds, riders paying nearly half the costs of public transit, a small bureaucracy-sounded great to me. As I learned later, though, it was too good to be true.

At a July 1985 workshop, the DART board learned that initial projections were too optimistic. Bad news, Round 1. DART was going to run $600 million to $1.3 billion short if it built the 147-mile rail system. That date-July 19, 1985-should be remembered forever as the day that reality began setting in on DART, the first in a long string of public admissions that DART couldn’t deliver the rail system it promised.

Ted Tedesco, who was hired in June 1985 as DART executive director but didn’t formally start work until that September, and board chairwoman Adlene Harrison jointly pledged that they would find the money to fund the rail plan. Their assurances, and intervention by Dallas Mayor Starke Taylor to stem a suburban revolt, helped get enough DART board votes in August 1985 to approve a downtown subway plan and a tunnel beneath North Central Expressway.

Bad news, Round 2 came after Tedesco began putting together the financial plan that was to reassure Dallas and suburbs alike that DART could afford the 147-mile system with the new, improved subway plans. As Tedesco dug into the DART plan, he kept finding nasty surprises. Everything that DART intended to do would cost more than consultants and interim DART board members had predicted in 1982 and 1983.

Tedesco, who toyed briefly with quitting and going back to his old University of Colorado job, in December 1985 finally called in board members and privately told them the entire service plan had to be reworked, that DART couldn’t produce anywhere near what it had promised voters, He announced publicly on December 20, 1985, what he already had told board members. Although he and Harrison couched the announcement in optimistic terms, the inessage clearly was that DART had serious financial problems.

Tedesco unveiled the revised plan on May 9, 1986, but wasn’t around when the board adopted it in late August 1986. Weary of the acrimonious relationship he had with some board members, Tedesco quit abruptly in early August.

The board adopted a ninety-three-mile rail plan that laid out a twenty-four-year construction schedule for the entire system. Tedesco’s basic concept-that DART should focus on a starter line that had the greatest promise of success- quickly disappeared as board members took another tack. They were bent on salvaging as much of the original service plan and schedule as possible. It was obvious that the term “final service plan” was a laughable misnomer. There was nothing final about it. I started using “original service plan” and “latest service plan” to describe the rail plans.

If there’s one thing that has hurt DART’s credibility, it’s the constantly changing predictions of how much money DART will need to spend. To update Will Rogers’s joke about weather: if you don’t like DART’s financial projections, just wait five minutes. During the summer of 1986, Tedesco’s May 9 plan was said to be affordable, but only until June. Then DART officials came back with new pronouncements that the plan was affordable.

Then it wasn’t.

Then it was.

Then it wasn’t.

Finally, when the board voted in August 1986 for the ninety-three-mile system, the plan was again affordable. The DART staff, now headed by former Dallas City Manager Charles Anderson, returned in January 1987 with a new “affordability analysis.” That report predicted that DART would be able to pay for its bus and rail system without problems, assuming that DAFT adhered to strict financial guidelines. For example, no more than 50 percent of its sales taxes could go for operating expenses, a rule designed to keep the bus expenses and administrative costs from eating up the money needed for trains.

That good news didn’t last long. In early November 1987, Anderson and DART chief financial officer John McCracken presented a revised financial plan that was the grimmest in DART’s history. Sales taxes through 2010 would fall more than $800 million short of McCracken’s January projections. To close the gap, Anderson recommended that DART aggressively pursue-in fact, rely upon-federal funds. The rail system would need approximately $600 million in federal grants, and the bus system would need more than $500 million. Before the November surprise, DART was counting on less than $150 million from the federal government, all for buses and bus facilities.

Anderson also borrowed a page from Tedesco’s book. He recommended that DART focus on constructing a starter line and make no promises beyond that. Anderson’s line would have run from Illinois Avenue to Griffin Street, less than seven miles, with completion in 1993. That was the maximum that could have been built during the next five years without borrowing or needing federal grants.

But that idea didn’t last long. Some board members said it was important to open a line paralleling North Central Expressway from downtown Dallas to Park Lane by 1994. That construction was scheduled. Others said that DART had to promise opening dates of rail lines to Parkland Hospital. When those lines were added to DART’s calendar, other board members pressed to include lines to Tyler Street and Simpson Stuart Road in South Oak Cliff. And if those lines were to be scheduled, then DART certainly had to state a completion date for the North Central line from Park Lane to LBJ Freeway. Those segments, of course, were added.

The changes meant that DART would have to rely on federal funds and borrowing to a greater extent than Anderson recommended. Otherwise DART wouldn’t have the money it needed to hurry up those other lines.

It’s too easy to promise more than you can deliver (particularly when you’ve got an important election facing you), and DART almost certainly has promised loo much. After years of depressing news, the DART board has increased the chances that it will give taxpayers even more bad news in the future. As it is, if any little thing goes wrong with the income, DART will have to cut back its plans to build from Illinois to Park Lane by 1994, to Parkland Hospital by 1995, to Simpson Stuart Road and Tyler Street by 1996, and to LBJ Freeway by 1997. And something will go wrong. That’s the nature of transit projects.

But we may as well forget the 1983 service plan. The timetable has been set back so far that DART’s current plan is only a mutant form of that one, and not a very good likeness, either. Instead of sixty-nine miles by 1995, DART will have eighteen miles. The 147-mile system promised by 2010 has now shrunk to ninety-three miles. The grandiose network of suburban buses has been implemented and, except for the express buses to downtown Dallas, it’s a big, money-wasting failure that needs to be adjusted for demand and then expanded slowly. But I’m not surprised. Hardly anything from the 1983 plan has turned out as promised or envisioned. I’ve heard people say that DART promised a Cadillac and now has a Chevrolet on order. It could well wind up with only a bumper, a spark plug, and a door handle.

To predict what DARTs performance record from here on will be, look at other cities. Before the 1983 vote, DART officials said (and they continue to say) that they will avoid the problems of other cities. Since then, DART seems to be following in those other cities’ footsteps, despite the best efforts of its leaders. You want money problems? We got money problems. You want poor ridership? We got poor rider-ship. You want rapidly inflating costs for bureaucracy? We got it. Reliance on federal funds, not local control? We’re getting it.

Ergo, I think DART will overstate its potential ridership; its tunnels and other construction will cost much more than it has predicted; its other costs will be underestimated, and it’s going to take longer than DART now expects to build the thing. I don’t say that with any malevolence. I just think DART’s future performance will be little better than that of other cities, based on its performance so far.

Does the problem lie with the board? I don’t think so. I know (from phone calls and angry letters) that many citizens and some elected officials believe that DART is run by dimwits, thieves, and incompetents. That’s not the case at all. I’ve seen a few yahoos on the DART staff and some Rip van Winkles and Machiavellis on the board, but they are the exception. Most board members simply are trying to provide mass transportation as promised to voters, as directed by city councils, or as the member thinks best. The administrators are competent, although some are overpaid. Many of them, particularly those who came here from other transit agencies, took a DART job initially because it promised to be the most exciting transit opportunity in the country.

So, when I have doubts about DART, it’s not because I have many doubts about the quality of the people who are trying to implement the transit plan, by and large. If the task can be done, this group of people probably can do it.

And, although I doubt that DART can accomplish what it promised in 1983,1985, 1986, or 1987, I do not doubt that they eventually can build a rail system of some kind. All it really takes is money.

BUT THAT’S ONLY HALF THE EQUATION, the question of whether Dallas and DART has the ability to build a rail system. Should we build a rail system? is a far more serious question.

If you want to get a startling awakening, start talking to the academic experts in transportation and planning. Almost unanimously, their response to the above question is a resounding “No!” Only a few cities have the characteristics of population, employment centers, development patterns, geography, and such to make a rail system feasible.

And Dallas ain’t one of them,

Why won’t it work? First of all, the Dallas area is too sprawling for a rail system to carry very many of its people. The population densities are so low that trains won’t carry anywhere near the loads needed to justify the big initial investment.

DART’s response, first of all, is that it will integrate its bus and train system so that people almost anywhere within DAKT’s sixteen cities can ride a convenient bus to a convenient train that will whisk them almost anywhere.

Gosh, that sounds good. My problem is that I look at the DART map and see the long distances that most riders will have to take and I develop some real skepticism. Will a rider wait fifteen minutes for a bus that will carry him in twenty-five minutes to a train that will rush him to work in twenty minutes? Not when the rider has a thirty-minute trip to work by auto.

The system will work great for the guy who lives five minutes from the Piano train station and can get to downtown Dallas in twenty-five minutes by rail rather than spend forty-five minutes in traffic. If he has half a brain, he’ll ride a DART train. But should taxpayers throughout the area contribute the billion dollars to pay for his ride and that of a relatively few others? The cost of a bus system to serve that broad an area between rail lines will be enormous.

I do not agree with the critics who say that Dallas area residents won’t ride trains. My criticism is that the DART rail system, even when integrated with a bus system, will still not reach enough residents to justify its costs. Transit works best when it links high-density residential areas with high-density job centers, like downtown Dallas. The DART rail system focuses on the downtown area. That’s good. But if you work somewhere other than downtown Dallas-and most people in this area do- rail lines will not reach your company for years, if they ever do. That’s bad.

Las Colinas will not be touched until probably after 2000 under current schedules. More people work along and near Stemmons Freeway than in downtown Dallas, but the rail system reaches that area years later than downtown Dallas. More seriously, no rail lines for the shopping malls, hotels, and offices along the Dallas North Tollway and in booming west Piano are planned before 2010.

DART and the Texas Department of Highways and Public Transportation jointly arc sponsoring a study of a possible rail line along LBJ Freeway in northern Dallas County. Such a line would eliminate that deficiency in the rail network. But remember-if the three-year study recommends an LBJ rail line, the money to build it will come from some other part of the rail budget.

This makes it sound like scheduling is the problem with the DART rail system, that its shortcoming is that it can’t reach those areas soon enough. Sadly, the problems are much more serious. Even if the LBJ area, the Stemmons area, Las Colinas, and west Piano were quickly on the rail system, the population still is too dispersed to make good use of the trains.

Immediately after World War II, Americans began the great migration to the suburbs, but they still worked in downtown or in the inner city. However, in the past two decades, that trend has changed. The shift of the residential population is still away from downtown, but the jobs have gone with them. Now, Americans tend to live in the suburbs and work in the suburbs-a trend of job dispersal that DART cannot hope to reverse.

In 1970, downtown Dallas provided 12.5 percent of the jobs in the Dallas area, including all Dallas County cities plus Piano, part of Allen, and the portion of Grand Prairie in Tarrant County. By 1980, downtown’s proportion of the area’s jobs declined to 9.4 percent. By the year 2010, downtown jobs are expected to make up about only 7.4 percent of the total.

DART supporters respond that DAKT can encourage the necessary density. For example, the transit authority and a city can work with a private landowner to build high-rise offices or high-density apartments near or even on top of a DART station. (Remember the recent brouhaha over DART’s “working” with Southland?) Indeed, this has happened elsewhere, and it probably will happen here. Even without active DART participation, the access a rail station gives will encourage development.

And the forebodings pile up. There’s a , gloomy side to this claim that DART will provide transit to the entire area through an integrated bus and rail system: the experience in other cities has been that transit agencies often have had to reduce bus operations to afford to run the trains. Even as Portland, Oregon, was preparing to begin running its new “MAX” light-rail trains in 1986, budget shortfalls forced it to cut bus operations. When construction of rail systems in some other cities such as Miami grossly exceeded estimates, they had to dip into their own operating budgets and reduce bus service to make up the shortfall. As a consequence, there was less transit being offered because the cut in bus service exceed-ed the increase in rail service.

However, I doubt that the overall impact i on the area will justify the massive expen-diture needed to promote densities here and there at DART stations. Without the natural ! borders that confine and define cities such as San Francisco and New York, the Dallas area will continue to sprawl, That bodes very ill for rail supporters because if rail is really to succeed, you’ve got to focus that growth exactly where you want it. In Dallas’s case, , we’re about forty years late. The area’s development pattern has been permanently established.

Dr. John Cain, a Harvard University professor, has viewed the DART system up close during his stay as a visiting professor at the University of Texas at Arlington. His analysis is quite blunt.

“The DART rail plan is an inappropriate response to Dallas’s needs,” Cain said at a November 1987 symposium at UTA. “First, because it provides low performance. Second, because it’s horribly expensive. Perhaps most important, because it’s simply an inappropriate response to Dallas’s current and emerging land-use plans.”

All right, so why is there a nationwide boom in rail transit? Why are dozens of cities behaving like Dallas, with consultants busily preparing feasibility studies, drawing lines on maps, and preparing federal grant applications? How to explain this expensive lemming-rush to the edge of a cliff? Mass delusions? No. There are a number of reasons why DART still carries strong support among Dallas-area elected officials, business people, and just plain citizens.

First off, a lot of happy oxen are getting the grain. You have to expect downtown interests to like the plan because it serves their area best. Hop that train, come on down, and bring your wallets. Property owners along the rail lines, of course, like it because it will pass near their front doors.

Secondly, most good citizens believe that a good public transit system is part of the price of civilization, even if they don’t personally ride it. Many, like me, were educated to believe that we would all be better off leaving our polluting private autos at home if we only had a transit system to replace them. DART was to be that replacement.

And, just as we don’t tend to question fire department officials about how they intend to provide fire protection, most citizens accept DART’s. learned opinion about how DART should provide public transportation. After all, these are experts. That acceptance was true of most civic leaders, too, who embraced the conventional wisdom dictated by DART. That unanimity explains why DART backers were so concerned when an insider like Norman Brinker, the prominent restaurateur and civic leader, expressed doubts about the DART rail system. Establishment stalwarts aren’t supposed to break ranks and publicly question the rail plan. Ask Brinker some day how much heat he has had to endure simply because he questioned the cut of the emperor’s clothes.

I also think that many of DART’s strongest supporters are what I would call our cosmopolitans, the people who have seen the world’s greatest cities and want Dallas to emulate those cities’ finer points. Paris, London, and Ne|w York all have rail systems; ergo, so should we. Okay, so the transit system will cost a lot of money-$2.9 billion is the current (estimate for ninety-three miles. But isn’t that world-class image DART is buying wort* something? Maybe, but Professor Cain says it won’t work.

“They can do it, but I don’t think they’ll get it,” Cain says. “Dallas will be a laughing stock if they build this system. Basically, they’ll have a very, very large deficit, and what kind of image is that?”

The best explanation for this national love affair with rail may be found in what Cain calls the “Lionel complex,” a passion for playing with trains. DART, he said, is playing with billion-dollar trains under its Christmas tree.

That leads to the last reason I think Dallas leaders chose the rail system as the centerpiece of the DART transit network. It was because they couldn’t think of anything else they could do to fight traffic congestion, at least nothing with much pizazz.

What weapons do we have, short of rail? Tollways, bus ways, HOV lanes, new parking regulations to encourage transit usage, carpools, a bus system. Yawn. Pretty uninspiring, isn’t it? Nowhere near as alluring as those sleek, efficient trains. None offers a total answer to traffic congestion, pollution, or the other undesirable aspects of an automobile-based region. There probably is no complete solution. The problem with DART trains is that they would mitigate the problem far less than other less exciting solutions that cost a fraction of the rail system.

Cain used a statistical method to attempt to predict DART ridership, but the formula kept giving him ridership estimates that were less than zero. He pronounces himself amazed that Dallas is even considering a rail system despite the evidence.

“This is a crazy place to build ninety-three miles,” Cain said. “This is a crazy place to build ten miles. The odd thing is that if you talk to the transportation specialists, not just elsewhere, but here, nobody really disagrees [that DART is futile]. But everybody sort of says it’s important to Dallas or something like that.”

If voters give their approval this year and the rail system is allowed to proceed-and I bet they’ll say yes-it will be partly because many people have considered the alternatives and decided they will take a chance: a chance that the costs won’t be so high, that the federal government really will come across with a billion dollars for the rail and bus system, that riders really will climb aboard…

And if the rail system succeeds, be assured that DART and Dallas will be bucking the trend. Professor Peter Gordon, a planning professor at The University of Southern California, puts it this way:

“The story is, I think, pretty clear. New rail transit for any modern American city is pure foolishness and can only be explained by well-meaning voters and press, as well as unrestrained downtown boosterism. Dallas fits the pattern. This is an area with a fine future. It deserves better than to foot the bill for yet another planning disaster.”

DART

RESPONDS:



Will enough people ride the trains to justify their costs?



YES. Patronage forecasts in-

dicate that ridership will be sufficient to justify the integrated system of buses and rail, Also, ridership surveys consistently reveal that current and potential transit riders want and expect rail in the system, not just buses.



Will we be able to get federal funding?



YES. (Probably). DART will seek funds for its rail system from a trust fund financed by a 1 percent federal gasoline tax. DART backers believe that, in spite of necessary deficit reduction strategies over the next several years, this category of funding will be available for allocation to Dallas. In contrast with other cities like Atlanta, Washington, Los Angeles, and Miami, which received as much as 80 percent federal funding, DART is seeking only 21 percent. So DART is confident that its more modest requirement will be approved by the Urban Mass Transit Administration and Congress.

Will the rail system reduce traffic?



YES .When the integrated bus and rail system is complete, DART estimates that more than 200,000 single-passenger automobile trips, on an average weekday, will be removed from our highways. For every 15,000 to 20,000 fewer car trips, one less lane of freeway is needed to handle traffic. Though overall traffic congestion will continue to increase as population and employment grow, the level of congestion will be even greater without the bus and rail system. Moreover, while DART will not eliminate congestion on our highway system, it will offer advantages for trip time, cost, safety, and comfort, particularly during rush hours.



Can’t we just find solutions to traffic congestion in our streets and highways?



NO. There is not enough land available to construct new highways and tollways without significant adverse effects on the environment, including disruption and dislocation of residential neighborhoods and businesses.

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