Slow Train Coming, And DART Doesn't Care

Why is the DART board nonchalant about a billion-dollar shortfall?

DART, the regional mass transit agency, announced a couple weeks ago that it had underestimated the cost of building a new billion-dollar suburban rail line by, oh, say, give or take, you know... about a billion dollars.

Was gonna cost $1 billion. Now the DART staff says it's gonna cost more like $2 billion. Oops. "Inflation," they said.

So the board of directors of DART basically humped its shoulders and ho-hummed and said to the staff, "Well, OK then. But try to scrimp."

DART President Gary Thomas should have warned Mom and Dad earlier about the bad credit card bill.
DART President Gary Thomas should have warned Mom and Dad earlier about the bad credit card bill.

Think of it this way. The mechanic tells you he will put a rebuilt transmission in your car for $2,000. Three days later he calls and says, "If you want that car back, the bill is going to be more like $4,000. You know, man. Inflation."

Do you say, "Great, guy. Just try to hold 'er down every little chance you get."

I don't think so. That's not what I would say. I think I would say something more like, "How about this for inflation, Geronimo? 911."

I have listened to tapes of the original committee meeting a month ago in which the DART staff made this amazing announcement about missing the cost estimate by a big B. On those tapes, you can hear the kind of reaction you would expect from a board of directors: At least two members, the Reverend Jerry Christian and Faye Wilkins, reacted with shock and awe.

Wilkins, who represents Dallas, Cockrell Hill and Plano on the board, tells DART President Gary Thomas on the tapes that she hasn't missed a board meeting in a year, hasn't ever heard a whisper of a billion-dollar shortfall before the November 27 committee meeting and doesn't appreciate being "blind-sided."

"This is the first that I have known that it has come to the board that there is an issue with the financial plan... It really concerns me, Gary... I don't have a huge vocabulary. I can't come up with a bunch of words that mean 'dishonesty' and 'incompetence.' Those are the two words that I know. And that's what this appears to be to me."

I should mention that it took me more than a week to pry these tapes out of the DART lawyers. In that time, lo and behold, a story appeared in that favorite organ of people with something to hide, The Dallas Morning News, announcing that there had been a bit of a hiccup with the DART budget, but that, happily, everything is now well under control.

Sure enough, when I attended the next public meeting of the same committee on December 11, well, it was all sweetness and light. Yes, they had sorta missed the budget by a B or so, but, gosh, the kids on the staff had come up with a lot of great ideas for saving money. For example, they could sell more advertising to put up inside the trains. Or they could look for more "public-private partnerships."

In the face of a billion-dollar shortfall, this kind of thinking is equivalent to the 1939 classic Babes in Arms in which Judy Garland and Mickey Rooney say to each other, "Let's put on a show!"

Let me tell you what they're really talking about. You had to attend the whole meeting and listen closely for that. The overwhelming bulk of the cost-cutting they want to do would come from delaying construction of a second rail line in downtown Dallas by five years. That is Dis-ass-trous! That's Mickey and Judy saying to each other, "Let's jack a crack house."

All of these new rail lines that DART is building have to go through downtown. Without a second line and a subway to carry some of the new train traffic downtown, downtown will wind up with a solid wall of trains at street level. That will screw up vehicular traffic from here to high heaven.

That's why Dallas has a contract or "interlocal agreement" with DART by which DART has promised to build a subway and a second line downtown when the train traffic reaches a key point. The talk at the most recent meeting was about how the interlocal agreement only forces DART to begin planning for the second downtown line when the new suburban lines are completed.

A staff member told the committee he didn't think the interlocal agreement really pinned DART down on when the second downtown line actually must be built. So, great news, in other words. DART can weasel on the contract and screw the hell out of downtown for several years to make up for blowing the budget.

This is not a small matter. This is not an adjustment. In naval terms, the captain just knocked the end off the pier with the ship and dumped the visiting orphans into the briny blue.

Up until about a month ago, the staff of DART was telling the board of directors they could build light rail lines out to suburban Irving and Rowlett by 2011 for $988 million. At the committee meeting three weeks ago the staff said the bill was going to be more like $1.9 billion, which they sorta don't have in the bank.

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