Highwaymen: Michael Morris (left) and Gary Thomas are behind a development model that has turned Dallas into the “new Los Angeles.” No, that’s not a compliment. David Vogin

Urbanism

Meet the Kings of Dallas Sprawl

DART's Gary Thomas and NCTCOG's Michael Morris have pushed North Texas in an unsustainable direction.

Let’s start with the way they talk. The two bureaucrats who, more than any other planners or elected officials in North Texas, have driven the region’s growth. Gary Thomas and Michael Morris. First up, Thomas, the president and executive director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, a position he has held for 17 years.

In August 2016, Thomas appeared before a transportation committee of the Dallas City Council and was asked a straightforward question by Councilwoman Sandy Greyson about DART’s application for a huge federal grant. The future of a budgeted $600 million project through downtown Dallas, it seemed, hinged on some curious math. Greyson pointed out to Thomas that if DART had asked the feds for slightly less to fund the new line—just about $2.5 million—its grant application would have received a higher rating and would have more likely been successful. So why did the agency overshoot by that small margin?

In the video of the meeting, you can see that Greyson never gets her answer. Thomas, who dresses like an accountant and speaks in a monotone, aw-shucks manner reminiscent of a Quaker preacher, first attempts to dismiss Greyson’s concerns. She doesn’t buy it. Then Thomas’ No. 2, VP of rail planning Steve Salin, steps in. Salin sports a 19th-century railroad conductor mustache and possesses a decidedly gruffer manner than does Thomas. He kicks up a dust storm of transit parlance, and, when he’s finished, he isn’t even talking about the light rail federal grant anymore, but rather a planned streetcar project. Greyson is bewildered by his performance and seems to not notice they are off topic. She smiles and thanks the men for the non-answer.

This is how much of the transportation planning in North Texas gets done—through a rhetorical ballet choreographed to create confusion. Just a day after the City Council committee meeting, Salin and Thomas offered yet another set of explanations for that federal grant application to the DART board’s planning committee. Which brings us to Michael Morris, the transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a role he has held for an impressive 29 years.

The best and most recent example of Morris’ work has to be his position on the scrapped Trinity toll road. For years, Morris told the Dallas City Council that we couldn’t build the downtown Mixmaster highway interchange without the toll road. And yet, by the time the idea for the disastrous toll road was finally shelved for good, in 2017, the Mixmaster reconstruction had already been completed. The toll road, it turned out, had nothing to do with the Mixmaster.

Most people in North Texas probably couldn’t pick Michael Morris or Gary Thomas out of a lineup, and yet the world in which we live has been greatly shaped by these two men. Both head organizations that are responsible for distributing billions in public dollars toward transportation projects that determine growth, job creation, and private investment. And because they lead organizations whose governing structure often allows the engineers who staff the organizations to function as the tail that wags the policy-making dog, Morris and Thomas have had an outsize influence on directing regional transportation policy.

That also means we have a clear picture of their track record. Over the past 40 years, North Texas has more than doubled in population, growing from 3 million residents in 1980 to around 7.4 million today. During that time, though, the city of Dallas saw a net gain of only 440,000 new residents, meaning the region’s growth mostly occurred in suburban communities. But there is evidence that that pattern of growth was a colossal mistake.

Last year, real estate investment corporation JLL released a report that suggested that the pace and pattern of Dallas’ rapid growth has turned the region into the “new Los Angeles,” a region that will be strangled by traffic problems and affordability issues. Charles Marohn, founder and president of the nonprofit organization Strong Towns, has argued that this development model is a “growth Ponzi scheme”—investments in transportation subsidizing new development to reap short-term economic rewards while pushing the costs of maintaining that infrastructure to an uncertain future. The scheme can’t work indefinitely, he argues. North Texas will become more hampered with traffic congestion, a shrinking urban tax base, an inability to maintain basic infrastructure, and a public transit system that, despite billions of dollars of investment, is still the most inefficient, unusable system in the country.

In any other field, if a CEO continued to implement solutions to problems that evidence shows don’t work, that CEO would be canned. But in the upside-down world of transportation planning, the opposite happens. In December, the Greater Dallas Planning Council gave Thomas an award for his success at DART, even though his transit organization ranks dead last in national comparisons with other transit agencies in terms of reliability and functionality. And when it comes to Morris, it is unlikely the huge board that oversees NCTCOG will ever move to replace him, if only because he has been there for so long. Both men are also talented when it comes to selling their success, presenting an image that rhymes with—but doesn’t quite match—reality.

Morris says all the right things about the challenges of sustainable development: balancing the requirements of maintaining a nationally scaled logistics infrastructure and community-level mobility, investing in multiple forms of transportation, and creating more vibrant communities, particularly in Dallas’ southern sector. But over the years, investments in the larger transportation network have come at the cost of local mobility. Morris once championed running a highway through North Dallas, an idea that evolved into a vision for a billion-dollar tunnel project under Northwest Highway. He carried water for the Trinity toll road even after the project was shown not to relieve traffic congestion. And when local business and community leaders came together around a proposal to turn the elevated downtown highway I-345 into a boulevard, thus stitching back together downtown and Deep Ellum, Morris took to the op-ed page of the Dallas Morning News, arrogantly deriding the plan and going so far as to tacitly suggest its backers were elitist racists (which he later apologized for). He talks about bikes and public transit, but the vanity license plate on his Volvo sedan reads “IH 35E.”

It’s a similar story with Thomas. He doesn’t hang his cap solely on having the longest light rail system in the country. He speaks to a laundry list of progressive advances at DART, including the unveiling of phone apps that will allow riders to book scooters and ride-share services when they buy their transit ticket. And yet the agency just saddled itself with $908 million in debt to build a Cotton Belt light rail extension expected to carry a tiny number of riders. Thomas’ staff initially pushed to run the second downtown light rail alignment above ground—straight through downtown and Deep Ellum neighborhoods—before residents and stakeholders fought back and forced DART to pursue a subway option. And a 2017 UTA study showed that the majority of Dallas residents who rely on transit have access via DART to only 4 percent of the region’s jobs.

To lay all the problems of sprawl at Morris’ and Thomas’ feet isn’t fair. There are a host of other endemic problems—from the way rules around federal and state transportation dollars heavily favor the construction of new roads to sociopolitical issues related to land use, public incentives, education, and race—that perpetuate sprawl. But while Morris and Thomas have run their organizations, the fundamental thinking about transportation has changed dramatically. Again, in any other field, if such a shift had taken place, new visions would be sought.

Neither Morris, 64, nor Thomas, 63, express any desire to retire any time soon—though surely, given their compensation and tenure, they are in a position to do so. Thomas, whose contract is up for renewal this year, makes $325,000 and just finished earning a $500,000 retention bonus. Morris earns slightly less, $245,000. If they retired today, both could step aside knowing that they dedicated their lives to public service and made difficult decisions that shaped a region during a period of unprecedented growth and economic success. Good for them. Their successors would surely appreciate their efforts.

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