AS THE GLASS ELEVATOR IN THE WEST END HEADQUARTERS OF DART DESCENDED THROUGH the seven-story atrium of the mass transit agency’s notoriously posh offices-that’s right, the place with the million-dollar executive board room-two bureaucrats en route from six to four suspended what apparently had been a dispirited debate over a policy change on some tedious and perhaps pointless project-light rail, for example. The door opened and they got off. The heavier of the pair shook his head in the kind of mock exasperation you might get from an Army supply sergeant hoping for early retirement. “I don’t have any idea what’s going on, ” he said, walking up the hallway. His friend’s curt laughter trailed back. “So what else is new?’” Then the door closed. The men were gone-off to take their own small parts in the ongoing efforts of DART’s 432 staff employees to spend over $200 million a year in tax money without ever having to explain anything, account to anyone but themselves and the state penal code, or, after eight years, deliver on much other than cost increases and service cutbacks. Which is kind of like the Army, too, although in considering the record of DART, a better analogy might be the CIA, which infuses mere blundering and inefficiency with the miasma of secrecy and manipulation. As John Henry Faulk once said of the CIA: “You can no more reform it than you can a chicken-killing dog. “We can’t reform DART either. Nor can we shoot it, but according to a lot of people in town, some very strange political bedfellows including Tom Pauken, Diane Ragsdale. Jerry Bartos. Al Lipscomb, Dave Fox. Louis Beecherl Jr.. and Charles Tandy, among thousands of others, we can dump it. We can take the Dallas out of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) so fast they could call it Former Area Rapid Transit, Come the probable November city council elections, by which time DART is likely to replace redistricting as the Dispute du Jour of Dallas politics, we may just get that chance. Let’s don’t muff it. Thanks to an obscure piece of legislation pushed through the Legislature by DART’s mega-fee lobbying team ($266, 000 to a single lobbyist. Galt Graydon, in a five-year period), 1991 is the last time until 1996 that any of DART’s 14 member cilies can let its voters decide if they want to leave. I think they have a deal like that in Guatemala.
LIKE SOME INBRED SECOND COUSIN FROM out in the piney woods, DART never really was right in the head. Founded in 1983 as the self-propagated spawn of the old IRTA, the quasi-public agency called DART was set up to steer the cities of the region through the big questions about mass transit, not to mention build a new system, including 160 miles of rail, for about $4 billion. Fourteen cities, including Dallas, eventually agreed to abide under DART rule, though at the time the cities thought it would be the other way around, that they would be in charge. Encouraging that illusion was a form of indirect accountability in which the cities would appoint a board of directors to oversee the operations of the agency. Each city was allotted a proportional number of seats-Dallas got 14-on the re- sultant 25-mem- ber board.
Even paying the bills sounded easy. The same enabling legislation from the state which allowed voters of large Texas cities to create regional transit authorities also provided a means of funding. DART, like Houston Metro, could collect one cent of the sales tax of member cities. Mass transit could pay for itself! It sounded like such a good deal that almost no one was against it.
Former state Rep. Bill Ceverha remembers voting for the legislation that later came back to haunt him. “Nobody gave that much thought to how much money could be generated by the sales tax, or how arrogant DART could become, ” he says. “It was a mistake. “
In 1987, Ceverha signed on as president of SMART (Sensible Metro Area Rapid Transit), a collection of like-minded conservatives such as former county Judge Dave Fox and oilman and UT Systems board chairman Louis Beecherl Jr., who had also decided DART was a mistake. A year later, SMART would take part in decisively defeating a bond election to raise $1 billion for DART and would continue to dog it until a new pack of hounds joined the hunt.
What happened? What didn’t? From the beginning, DART was clouded in uncertainty, grandiosity, and obsession. The uncertainly had to do with how, exactly, it would deal with the problems of traffic congestion, shifting population patterns, and low rider-ship in a huge and politically fractious metropolitan area. The grandiosity had to do with the mystical faith that the professional engineering fraternity and downtown developers who are DART’s primary backers and beneficiaries could wave their magic wands and spin golden rail lines from leaden ideas. The obsession was that DART could do it, people, politicians, and planning be damned.
The entire history of DART became one of shrinking solutions, expanding costs, and increasing public rancor All of it focused on the one task DART was supposed to do best-plan and construct a state-of-the-art, interurban railroad system. But from the 160 miles promised when voters approved the agency’s existence in 1983, the plan-make that plans-have gone through more downsizing than a wildcatter’s bank account. In 1986, DART admitted it couldn’t build the full system by 2010, or maybe ever, but had a new, improved plan. And diminished-only 93 miles of rail. And more expensive-say, about a billion dollars extra. Unfortunately for DART, that required long-term debt, and that required direct input from the taxpayers. In August of 1988, despite out-spending its foes almost 5-1 in a campaign that took on the symbolism of a vote of confidence, DART was creamed at the polls by a percentage of 59-41.
But the defeat didn’t stop DART.
In fact, it emboldened it-obsession tends to run that way. The board and bureaucrats of DART simply made a tactical retreat. Chastened and humiliated, they adopted the Jimmy Swaggart line. They had erred, they had given in to pride, perhaps even lust, but they would be better from now on. They would rethink the Big Plan to turn Dallas into an expensive railroad grid, and they would rethink putting our greatgrandchildren into debt, and, well, they’d just roll up their sleeves and give us something that would work.
In October of 1989. DART went to the city council of Dallas with another new plan, this time down to half the size of the original. Now, DART would build a “light” rail system covering 67 miles, with a backup of 37 miles of HOV (High Occupancy Vehicle) and bus lanes, and 18 miles of “heavy” rail from downtown to the airport, mostly along pre-existent tracks. Light rail, which runs on overhead electricity, has a smaller track base, and carries fewer cars at once, is slightly less capital-intensive than heavy rail-traditional three-rail trains, like the New York subway. DART said the combination of both systems would cost $2. 45 billion by completion time in 2005, or 2010, or whenever, although by then the figure-as DART would acknowledge later on-would be closer to $4. 1 billion. The council said okay, but only by a 6-5 vote.
DART called that squeaker a mandate and announced it would begin design at once on a 20-mile “starter” line running along North Central Expressway then south into Oak Cliff. Should be done about 1996, at a cost of $749 million. They’d simultaneously get alt the northern corridor yuppies and southern Dallas minorities yearning to get to the central business district (CBD) and doubtless equally eager to abandon their cars to do so. Construction would definitely begin in early 1991. It didn’t, but costs rose anyway. Whoops, said DART, we misfigured. Actually, the starter line could be $823 million to $828 million-up to $79 million higher than we said a year ago.
And then there was the matter of the tunnel. DART engineers had been telling the cities and the public that the North Central light rail lines would straddle the expressway in transit boxes sitting just outside the lane expansion the state highway department has been undertaking and expects to have finished in 1997. But in March, DART’s engineers slapped themselves on their foreheads and announced, by golly, those darn boxes that we never really wanted are going to cost more-about $28 million or so-than the 2. 5 mile tunnel under the expressway we always wanted to build anyway. DART executive director Charles Anderson ($145, 000 salary and about $10, 000 in perks per year) said it was a “moral” duty to therefore recommend the cheaper option.
It was a moral duty too far.
Smoldering resentments that had been developing from the no-confidence vote in 1988 and had been intensifying throughout the city council and the general public erupted in a hitherto unseen anti-DARTism. City Councilman Jim Buerger, a former DART board member, called the proposed Mockingbird-to-downtown tunnel an accident waiting to happen and warned against “putting people down there. ” Councilman Jerry Bartos, head of the city transportation committee and ardent DART critic, echoed the view of several other members: “I am certain they were trying to do it all along… This is a last-gasp desperation shot and they don’t know how to pay for it. I question that anybody would build a tunnel in Dallas. “
Councilman Charles Tandy’s response became increasingly heated. “They’re adamant about that subway. ” he said at first. “The best I can understand is that they must truly feel they’ve got to get a line up Central before it’s closed for rebuilding. ” But he didn’t buy the numbers game-that somehow the tunnel was now the least expensive option-saying the planners didn’t factor in the continuing heating and air-conditioning costs of running a tunnel (DART says it did). The more he thought about it, the more he didn’t like it. “The fact is, they’ve wanted the tunnel for years, ” the usually placid anesthesiologist from Oak Cliff said, his voice steadily rising. “So they left the city with no options but take it or leave it. Well, they can leave it. I’ll take back the one-cent sales tax. For the number of people who ride DART we could send a taxi after each one of ’em and it would be cheaper. “
Councilman Lipscomb, who represents the portion of Oak Cliff where part of the starter line was scheduled to run. said he still wanted a rail line into south Oak Cliff-his district, after all-but that he had come to the end of his patience with what he, too, thought of as blatant manipulation. “I’m fed up with the delays, ” he said, “but I’m more fed up with the lies, the outright lies-right to your face. ” Actually, Lipscomb preferred monorail, but over the years had given up. “If one should speak of elevated rail in this city it becomes tantamount to un-American-ism, blasphemy, anti-motherhood and apple pie, ” he wrote to Bartos. He could have been talking about any critique of DART.
DART stonewalled, insisting the switch back to a tunnel was a simple engineering decision. That means the rest of us really couldn’t possibly understand it. Velocity, torque ratios, hydraulics-that sort of thing. But a het up and fed up council understood it fine, especially after Anderson termed tunnel criticism “the rantings of some lightweight politicians. ” The opposition not only spread, but began to dig in.
It really did seem as though “the council can’t get DART to do anything, ” as Councilman Bartos, whose letters to DART often go unanswered, had often protested. Even council resolutions had no legal effect on DART, which, by law, was shielded from direct response to city councils by its appointed board, which, in turn, has been roundly criticized as little more than a rubber stamp for the DART bureaucracy.
Stinging from the surprise tunnel, “lightweights” on the council went and had a surprise of their own last spring-a resolution requiring DART board members to be elected, not appointed. The motion barely failed on a 5-5 tie. DART executives began to squirm a little. They got the picture. Another uprising. Down in Austin, they had just beaten back an attempt by SMART president Ceverha and other DART opponents to force a public vote on DART’s most recent light rail plan, which SMART says, correctly, is a lot different than the one voted on in 1983.
In June, the city and DART came to a standoff. First, the council passed a resolution by the surprisingly strong vote of 8-3. with even Glenn Box and Mayor Strauss in support, calling on the DART board to reject the expressway tunnel. The board, whose members are appointed by the council, promptly voted 20-4 to build the tunnel. Councilman Tandy, furious, demanded and got the resignation of his own board appointee, vice chair Linda Wise. Then the council and the DART board began to argue, inconclusively, about whether or not the city could legally stop the tunnel.
A November showdown is all but unavoidable. Dallas can leave DART in one of two ways-an election called by the council, which probably means a new 14-1 council instead of the existent body. Or Dallas can get out through an election triggered by a popular referendum. Both council members Buerger and Bartos have said they would introduce resolutions to either modify DART’s plans-Buerger’s choice-or pull out completely, as Bartos prefers. Both council members also have said they would help organize a petition drive, requiring about 36, 000 signatures, due Sept. 21, to put withdrawal on the November ballot. Two suburbs-Coppell and Flower Mound-have already pulled out of DART. If Dallas did, DART would be dead.
It’s possible. You can shut down a bad transit plan. If it doesn’t shut you down first. Last year, Buffalo, N. Y., suspended operations of its service, including a new state and federally financed $600 million subway, after attaining only a third of projected rider-ship on its bus routes. Other systems also are in big trouble. A recent federal study of 10 cities with new rail systems showed that only one had picked up even 50 percent of the passenger volume it had predicted. Miami has a lowly 15 percent. Some of the most oft-cited transit stars, such as MARTA in Atlanta and Metro in Washington, D. C., receive heavy operational subsidies. They were also constructed almost entirely with federal grants -80 percent in Atlanta. 100 percent in D. C. Metro, which cost $7 billion just to build, recently got $2 billion more from Congress in what The Wall St. Journal called a “pork barrel” grant.
It was also a rare one. Federal funds of that magnitude, slimy or not, have been almost non-existent since the Reagan administration began pulling the plug on the mass transit funding that reached its apogee in the 1970s under Nixon-Ford.
Of DART’s $828 million starter line, for example, only about $20 million in grants from UMTA (Urban Mass Transit Agency) has been okayed by Congress. Even the state balks at the project-the Texas highway department denied DART a S9. 6 million grant.
But money isn’t the real problem. What we’ve got here is a failure to incorporate the right technology. DART fluffs light rail around like it was Lite beer. Light rail is still rail: It runs on fixed routes, requires the purchase of right of way and the development of very expensive transit stations (an estimated $1 billion for a downtown facility), and in many cases runs at “grade” level, which means you have to wait on it to cross the intersection if you’re in a car. It’s a little less expensive than heavy rail, but what’s the point of either as a mass transit solution?
Light rail’s track record is weak to the edge of scandal. In every city in which it’s been set up, it has cost more, drawn fewer riders, and had higher operating costs than predicted. In Portland, Ore., which has one of the systems DART says is most comparable to the one for Dallas, UMTA figures from 1989 indicate ridership was down 54 percent from projections, operating costs were up 45 percent, and capital costs up 55 percent. Similar figures plague virtually every city in which rail, heavy or light, has recently been constructed. DART will dispute those figures with numbers of its own, or at least hedge them, but so would you if you were trying to justify your existence in an urban landscape in which your scenario for the future promised to do for commuters what the Maginol Line did for France.
THE MOST INTRACTABLE DIFFICULTY IN figuring out what to do with DART has to do with rethinking the concept of mass transit itself. Virtually all of us are “for” mass transit, in the same way we’re “for” green vegetables and honest government. Being for mass transit is being for growth and the people ail at once. The masses, in movement! Mass transit! That kind of thing. Very progressive. Very save-the-city-ish. Very urbane. And a very, very different creature than it was in the 1890s when cities first began to think about better ways of getting people to and from their jobs, their homes, and each other.
“It’s time to admit that conventional theories of mass transit no longer fit the fast-changing American economy, ” The Will St. Jour- nal said last year. “No bureaucrat can guess where new jobs and economic growth will create transit needs. Any attempt to do so will… lead to systems that are inflexible, outdated the day they open, and certain to keep the local community on a financial treadmill that never ends. “
An influential 1986 analysis of urban business growth in The Atlantic Monthly, which is as liberal as the Journal is conservative, argued forcefully that suburbanization and the automobile culture have changed the shape of cities so drastically that traditional mass transit ideas-once especially popular in liberal circles-have become irrelevant. “How can government alleviate suburban traffic congestion near urban-village cores?” the magazine asked. “The answer is not the construction of subways or elevated trains. “
The revolution in mass transit theory, almost Copernican in nature, holds that transportation routes cannot shape the dynamics of city growth, but are instead shaped by those dynamics. Two dynamics have been especially overwhelming: the automobile and suburbanization. Though mass transit ridership hit a peak in 1946 because of the stresses of war, most transit services in this country had begun to lose money as early as the 1920s, when automobiles began rolling off the assembly lines. By the 1950s, most private companies couldn’t turn a profit, and for that matter couldn’t provide the kinds of services that passengers wanted-a problem the industry has always faced. No one. ever, even before the automobile, has wanted to ride public transportation if a simpler, more convenient alternative was available, even if it was slightly more expensive.
Mass transit thus became, in effect, a public ward, and most private companies were purchased by cities or by public utility cartels. Public ownership isn’t necessarily bad. The role of government is to provide services, through taxes, that no one else can provide, or can be trusted to provide-such as hospitals, schools, or utilities. But mass transit is different from, say, the electric company. We all need and want electricity. The burden of transit as an element of social policy is that we don’t all want or need to ride the buses or the trains, even if they got us where we wanted to go, which they don’t.
As transit ridership was shrinking, the cities were exploding ever outward into constellations of suburbs, which people were moving to as fast as they could, especially since they had a miraculous way to get there-by car. It is a well-documented addiction. In 1960, about 69. 5 percent of commuters went by cars; by 1980, more than 86 percent did.
The people who were redefining the shapes of cities via their cars also were forging entirely new, very decentralized patterns of traffic. In 1980, about 27 million Americans commuted suburb to suburb-twice as many as went from suburb to downtown. The numbers are similar for Dallas. About 110, 000 people work in Dallas’s central business district, for example, but 70, 000 others work in just one suburb-Richardson. Recent figures indicate that fully two-thirds of the Dallas-area metropolitan population live outside the urban core, with most growth to the north and northwest. Just 20 years ago, less than half of us lived outside the center.
Nor are we taking buses. Fare-box receipts, as high as 82 percent of operational revenues in 1970, have now fallen to about 39 percent nationally and to only 31 percent at DART. Although the agency has amassed $300 million in capital reserves from its sales tax cash-cow-accumulating at the rate of $600, 000 per day-it would have even more if it didn’t have to subsidize its own routes at 70 cents on the dollar,
Suburbanization wreaked another major inversion on the old urban pattern. Families were not the only ones heading out of town. Businesses were, too, often in pursuit of the families. In the new American city, the suburbs have become strongly synergistic mixes of residence and commerce. Whatever one may say about their tendency towards cultural blandness. the suburbs are no longer vassals to the CBD. They are peers and are evolving into nearly fully independent economic empires of their own. American Airlines, Exxon, U. S. Sprint, and J. C. Penney are but a few examples of corporate colossi who chose the burbs over the central city. They had plenty of reasons, from tax incentives to land giveaways. Would they have changed their minds and set up shop in the CBD if Dallas had offered a light rail system from Park Lane to southeast Oak Cliff? Not if they had their heads screwed on tight.
Far from being the savior of the city, the grandiose theory of mass transit solves none of the problems it was intended to solve. Fixed rail, in particular, is supposed to consolidate residential patterns by luring people and businesses closer to the lines. It is supposed to ease congestion. It is supposed to be cheaper to operate in the long run. It is supposed to be more energy efficient and less polluting. It may even provide eternal salvation and cure warts. But mostly it wastes money.
Think about it. Would you make a major investment decision about a community based on whether or not it had a fixed rail system? Or would you care more if it had good schools, effective crime control, decent streets, beautiful parks, credible hospitals, and a solid array of city services?
Would you be impressed by a city wracked by 20th century social ills that chose to divert scarce revenue to 19th century transportation technology? DART’s service area has 9, 200 miles of roads, including 2, 700 miles of freeways. Would you think the city had its act together if it sank $2. 5 billion into 67 miles of rail that didn’t even begin to address traffic flow in the suburbs? And spent only $5. 6 million to repair its own roads, a 7 percent decrease from 1988 levels?
Would you not, on the other hand, look with fondness at a city which put its hard-earned dollars into planning that fit the terrain? Instead of fixed rail, which depends on urban densities far higher than Dallas’s four people per acre to be cost-effective, why not lure drivers into buses, car pools, and HOV lanes? Houston-whose voters also shut down a rail plan in 1988-has done so with great success and comparatively little expense. Why not expand the DART bus system beyond the 900-vehicle fleet, then raise parking lot and tollway prices to make it economically more sensible to take the bus? Why not think about what kinds of technologies are going to be available two decades from now, not what kinds were available two centuries ago?
Why not face the real issue-that people aren’t going to give up their cars unless there’s a clearly preferable alternative? And reducing the level of automobile traffic, the major source of urban air pollution and a central culprit in U. S. oil dependency, is what mass transit is ultimately about. For too long, the mass transit industry, which includes its governmental extensions like DART, has wrapped itself in the flag of pollution abatement. But how can that be true if, in city after city, the fixed line transit solutions advanced by the industry don’t draw the necessary passengers and squander resources that could be devoted to more forward-thinking solutions? How are a few miles of rail up North Central, for example, going to make a credible dent in traffic? Are you going to park your car near the LBJ Freeway and hop a train downtown? The figures say no. According to SMART, the North Central line, whether tunneled or not. is likely to pick up only 2, 000 new passengers a day. DART says that’s not true, that it will ultimately siphon 32 percent of North Central commuter traffic. You be the judge. Right now. the entire DART transit system only draws about 5 percent of the total commuting public. To defend that kind of mass transit as a way out of pollution, congestion, or economic vulnerability due to reliance on foreign oil is not only perverse, it is dangerous public policy. It gives us the illusion of dealing with a real problem when we’re only making it worse, sort of like the national drug policy.
But the real point is that none of these transit options have that much to do with saving the city. What really makes a city attractive and saves the CBD aren’t flashy trains and subways, but the social environment in which they would run. People move to the suburbs regardless of bad traffic. They’ll deal with congestion, even pollution. What (hey won’t deal with are scary neighborhoods and bad schools.
People want to live in places where they have a better chance at life and so do their kids. Deal with the reasons people want to leave the city, not the Tinkertoys to shuffle them around. Fix the schools. Protect the streets. A clean, well-taught classroom travels farther into the future than 67 miles of track, and its passengers could use $2. 5 billion a lot more than phantom commuters.
SO WHY IS THIS DART THING STILL HAP-pening? Two reasons: (I) the frightening power of a bureaucracy, especially one that’s loaded, to perpetuate itself; and (2) the appalling willingness of the public to fall for schemes too muddled with jargon and numbers to understand. The lay response can be somewhat forgiven. Transitology is hideously complicated and boring. It is also very, very expensive to ignore.
The trick is to keep the numbers and ob-fuscations in perspective. DART certainly does. Its wizards can make anything seem upbeat and indicative of improvement. Currently, for example, DART is talking about nearly two years of consecutive monthly ridership increases. That’s true, but the total of 170, 000 passengers per day is still down from the peak of 200, 000 in 1986, and represents only a very slow rise at best. In 1990, annual ridership totaled 46. 4 million-an increase, but still only about 4 percent from 45 million in 1984.
The point of all this is that DART numbers and DART plans can be tossed out like the line on a fly rod. When Lt. Gov, Bob Bullock was the state comptroller, he drove legislators crazy changing revenue forecasts to support or defeat budget items. Bullock knew that, in government, numbers and jargon are information, and information is power. DART knows that, and it’s time we did, too.
There isn’t any scientific or engineering law. no exercise in computer crunching, that says a city has to go for some sort of transit option because it’s the “technical solution. ” There is a scientific and engineering profession heavily dependent on government contracts that would like us to think that’s the case. For a long time in Dallas, these guys had everyone hoodwinked. But when the numbers started getting soft, then flabby, then gelatinous, it was possible to see the expertise sans mysticism. “Is it common for engineering firms to miss so damn far?” exasperated DART board member Don Raines of Garland asked after being informed of the $79 million estimate error on the tunnel.
Transportation theorist John F. Kain, chairman of the economics department at Harvard, put the question much more directly a year earlier. In “Deception in Dallas. ” a devastating critique published in the spring 1990 issue of the American Planning Association Journal, Kain accused DART of systematically lying to the public through bogus data. “DART could not be trusted to provide voters and policymakers, or even its own board, with accurate and unbiased information about the ridership, benefits, and costs of its proposed rail systems and, more important, of alternatives to its extravagant rail plan. ” Kain’s detailed study concluded. DART executive director Charles Anderson dismissed Kain as an “anti-rail guy. ” Others called him an “arrogant academic. ” His report received scant local publicity.
The question about DART, however, isn’t so much about its numerology as its plans. Is light rail the pillar of 21st century mass transit in North Texas’? Charles Anderson says it is, and believes it’s “too late” to rethink it. Those who criticize rail are either “highway-oriented” or “fundamentally don’t like the technology we have selected, ” he says, “I don’t know how to help them, ” he says of critics. “We have winners and losers in every deal. “
If the experience of transit-bled cities throughout the country is a guide, the losers are about to be us. Fixed-line ideology flies in the face of urban development and passenger need. Fixed rail doesn’t benefit anyone except the companies that make rail systems, the engineering firms that design them and that have so far sucked about $140 million in sweetheart contracts out of DART, and an assortment of developers with property in the rail corridors.
To those who say DART can be reformed, I say: Why? Given the history of corruption, kickbacks, cost overruns, and delays, what’s to save? Dallas needs a coherent, thoughtful, and forward-looking mass transit plan to control its traffic. That’s not the same thing as saying it needs DART.
And if Dallas doesn’t need DART, the suburbs damn sure don’t. The cost of light rail is exactly the price of not developing what is needed far more-adequate bus lines stretching to and from the places where people really live and travel, not where engineering consultants seem to dream that they do.
Minorities don’t need DART either. Fixed rail into southeast Oak Cliff would serve some minority customers who need to travel into town, but the line leaves far more passengers in the same old lurch. Oak Cliff is half the size of Dallas. What’s a line through its southeastern edge going to do for anyone west of I-35?
The Oak Cliff rail car assembly plant, of course, would provide jobs, and that’s important. But why couldn’t jobs be created by augmenting the bus driver corps, hiring more mechanics, technicians, and supervisors, and by putting more money into road improvement and system repair? The resulting jobs could easily exceed the numbers to be employed at a single assembly plant and would be of far more overall benefit to the community.
One reason DART would resist that option is that DART thinks building light rail will actually reduce the labor force, not augment it. According to DART, 70 percent of the cost of running a bus, which might carry 45 passengers, is labor. Replacing buses with rail would drive costs down because one driver could handle several cars of 170 passengers each. For every job created to build rail cars, how many will be taken away by eliminating bus drivers, mechanics, and maintenance crews? We don’t know, and we can’t rely on DART for the numbers, but it’s a safe bet that the minority community will lose more than it gains.
Perhaps the way to evaluate DART is to simply ask yourself what mass transit is to a community. It’s not transportation, or technology-it’s politics. The politics of growth. The DART engineering and managerial network has it that Dallas is a terribly political entity-it’s tough just to do the work in such a politicized environment. Good. We ought to make it even more political, to bring back the idea that how we decide to spend our money is ultimately a decision of the people, not technocrats, and that technocrats who have decided they are above the direction of the people are technocrats who are free to dust off their résumés.
That the early opposition to DART came from conservative naysayers whose idea of government is rooted somewhere in the dawn of time really ought not to cloud the issue. Those guys are right every once in a while, same as Rangers fans. But SMART is just part of the revolt. Opposition to DART has gone way past that to become almost populist in tone.
The most common thread of outrage against the agency, finally, is that it is simply non-democratic-beyond the control of the people. By any measure of accountability, it is. The most vociferous opponent of a simple, long-overdue referendum to allow citizens to say “yes” or “no” to unchecked multibillion-dollar spending by DART will be, has been, and is, DART itself. The chicken-killing dog is already in the henhouse. We can get a better dog.