By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
You know all those people you see riding the DART train? It costs you $3.66 every time one of them gets on a train.
Maybe you're like me and believe it's worth it, within limits. Theoretically we'll all be better off if DART can get more people out of cars and onto trains.
But it can't be run like a junk pile. They can't just shovel money out the window.
So now look at what's been going on in the last two months. In early December, DART revealed it had made a goof of a billion dollars in the cost of two suburban lines it is obligated to build. The cost was supposed to be one billion. They said they found out it will be two.
A billion dollars is more than twice their annual operating budget. The total amount they've got up in the air over these two new lines, $1.8 billion, is almost equivalent to their entire net worth.
DART director Gary Thomas said construction costs had gone up unexpectedly, and he got caught by surprise. But at a recent hearing, Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt asked Thomas pointed questions:
"When did DART first discover that there was this difference?" she asked. "Was this in 2007?"
Thomas said, "Yes, ma'am, as I said, it was in the April-May time frame."
"When was the DART board informed?" she asked.
Hunt did quick addition in her head. "So that's eight months," she said. "Why the delay?"
"As I said," Thomas told her, a bit archly, "We wanted to go through the process."
I'm sitting out there thinking, what process? You look down at the bottom of the page, you see that you are in the hole by an amount equivalent to half the net worth of the organization. You need to tell Mom and Dad right away.
Hunt, who has spearheaded the city council's inquiry, continued to press Thomas and eventually got him to admit that the numbers on the two suburban lines had been headed seriously south for at least three years.
I have to offer a sort of caveat here for Thomas. Just about everybody I talk to thinks he's a stand-up guy. At the same time, a number of people with inside knowledge of DART have suggested to me that the longer-tenured, more experienced members of the DART board knew all about this problem long before Thomas "announced" it to them.
I have to throw in one more factor, at the risk of sounding like a typical tin horn-tooting, self-aggrandizing newspaper columnist bozo. I knew about the billion-dollar shortfall a month before DART went public with it.
In fact I was demanding documents all about it under the Texas Public Information Act—and DART was stalling me—when DART went public through the convenient mechanism of a soft and friendly story in The Dallas Morning News, that favorite house organ of all well-connected miscreants in our fair city.
It's just a two-bit theory, but the scenario that makes the most sense to me is Thomas trying to warn them over a three-year period.
Hey. There's nowhere near enough cash in the till to pay for the new railroads you guys are promising your rube constituents.
And the board telling him, Gary, go to Neiman's, buy yourself a nice hat, stuff that story under it.
Here is what we know for sure. In a two-month period since DART did reveal this astounding goof in its construction budget, the staff has come up with a series of wildly off-the-wall and mutually contradictory plans for filling the hole.
First there was the idea of putting off the two suburban lines, since DART doesn't have enough money to build them. The mayors of Irving and Rowlett, where the lines are supposed to go, loaded up buses of angry constituents and came to the DART board to tell them they better not delay those lines.
So the board cried uncle. Immediately. It was like, Oh my God—constituents? Here? Please, make them go away and we'll do whatever you want of us.
Instead, a DART staffer told the board he thought there was a lot of wriggle room in DART's promise to build a second rail line through downtown Dallas. They could put that off, along with a new South Oak Cliff line, and build the suburban lines on time.
Why would DART think it could screw with the city if it couldn't screw with the suburbs? Well, here we come to another difficult but important issue—Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert.
When Leppert took office, you will remember, he wanted to punish council member Angela Hunt for leading the anti-Trinity toll road campaign. He made a big point of not appointing her as chair of the council's Transportation Committee, giving that post instead to council member Linda Koop.
Where Hunt tends to be tough, Koop tends to be not so much. I spoke to Koop at the end of last week, and she said she wasn't sure that DART is obligated to build the second line downtown anytime soon.