Dallas City Council Appears to Be Growing a Backbone to Confront DART

When does City Hall do anything even vaguely related to your life? Can City Hall help you find you an apartment in a safe neighborhood at a rent you can afford? Can City Hall help you get to work? Can it leave enough money in your pocket at the end of the week so you can have a little bit of fun? When does it ever do any of that?

Right now. Just now. Lately. For a change. City Hall suddenly is growing a backbone. And I could be wrong, but I think they may even know you’re alive.

Yesterday buried in a boring City Council committee agenda was an item you might not have recognized as having anything at all to do with your life, but, believe me, it did. It had everything to do.

This won’t sound like it. The resolution (which I have reproduced below, not that I really think you’ll read it) is about how DART, the regional transit agency, needs to build a subway downtown, blah-blah-blah, and not build another fancy double-track rail line in the suburbs, blah-blah-blah. Not sounding like anything you recognize yet?

But you do know this: There will never be an abundance of nice but inexpensive apartments in and around downtown. Yes, there will be an abundance of $3,000 a month apartments close-in, because why wouldn’t there be? To get something in the under-a-grand range, you will have to do some kind of minor hike out.

For most people there will never be a way to drive your car into downtown every day for work — and have a safe walk to work from your car — for less than 10 bucks a day, and a couple years from now it will probably cost more like 20 bucks a day. If you can afford $200 to $400 out of your check every month, no sweat, but if you can’t, yes sweat.

To use the train, you have to be able to get to the train. To use the bus, either to get to the train or get to downtown, you have to live near a bus line with fairly frequent stops. Once you’re there waiting at the bus stop, you need to be able to count on the damn bus to show up on time and get where it’s going on time. For less than $10 a day.

Putting all of that together is putting together a life in the city. Leaving it all unstrung and crazy – apartments too far out, bad bus, no train, too dangerous, too expensive — makes life in the city sort of impossible. What City Hall needs to spend all its time doing is finding ways to help people lead good safe enjoyable lives on the money they make.

For the longest time – a good half century up until just now – City Hall didn’t do much of that, and I think it was because City Hall didn’t know how. It only had two ideas – rich people and poor people. Rich people lived in big new suburban homes far out, and poor people lived in slums close-in.

The whole idea of smart, hard-working, young middle class people living in the city and using mass transit is new. City Hall didn’t know how to help people like that put their lives together, because City Hall really didn’t know what those lives were about.
Example: Since 1983, the city of Dallas has contributed $5 billion to the regional bus and train agency, DART — well over half the amount contributed by all member cities – but has never managed to make DART live up to key promises about its rail line downtown and obviously has never forced DART to put together a true urban bus system that people could count on for work, shopping, going out at night and life in general.

So what’s DART been up to instead? Well, they haven’t been sitting on their hands. They brag all the time that DART has built the longest light rail line in the nation. Long to where, you ask? Long to the suburbs.

How does having the nation’s longest suburban rail line help you lead a life in the city? It does nothing. In fact, I’m not sure DART thinks about life in the city or even knows what life in the city is.

In order to do something for you – something about your life here in the city – City Hall would need to go to DART and tell DART three things: 1) Stop building super-expensive rail lines for people who have chosen to live in the suburbs, because they don’t really need them. 2) Build a second rail line downtown in a subway to make the whole system run faster without totally messing up downtown. 3) Fix the damn bus system.

That third one is about a bus system, not about some buses. No, not some more buses or some new buses or anything like that. A bus system.

You have a bus system, as opposed to just random buses wandering around town, when I don’t even have to have a map or a schedule. I know if I go to my regular nearby bus-stop corner, four buses will show up in 15 minutes – one going this-a-way, one going that-a-way and two going opposite-a-ways. So I can just get on a bus and go. And know. I know it will go on-a-ways until it gets where I am headed. That’s called a bus system, not random buses that I’m supposed to take a chance on like a game of bus roulette.

“Yes, boss, I’m so sorry, I know I’m three and a half hours late for work, but I played bus roulette and lost.”

That’s not only not a real bus system. It’s not even real life.

So make it every half hour. OK. We can plan around that. And take the trains away, if they’re too expensive. But then you have to make sure the buses run right on time, by the stop-watch, and you have to get people to work and back without major life tragedies.

That just doesn’t seem like a lot to ask, does it? But it always has been. Until now. All three of the things I listed above – yes to a subway, yes definitely to a true bus system, no to the most expensive suburban projects until we get the first two paid for and done – are embedded in that resolution the City Council’s Quality of Life Committee was supposed to ponder Monday.

It didn’t come to a vote, because DART, which must have seen it coming, seemed to blink and delayed a scheduled vote on its spending priorities. That’s all sort of inside baseball and not what I came here to talk to you about.

The council committee resolution was not authored by one of the council’s Young Urban Walkables (YUWs) but by a veteran North Dallas member (NDM), Sandy Greyson. Greyson, the NDM, lives in and represents District 12, up by Campbell and Coit roads in that part of Dallas that sometimes feels more like the suburbs than the suburbs, so far north you just know you’ve got to be in at least Richardson or Allen, surely not the city of Dallas, but, yes, somehow.

She also happens to have more experience and knowledge on transportation issues than any other elected official in City Hall, and she knows probably better than anybody else that we have to make choices.

Her resolution is not flamboyantly anti-suburban as it would have been had I written it. It says something about the suburb of Addison being “one of the original member cities of DART” and how Addison “has been waiting for the delivery of rail transit services.”

The resolution does not mention Addison’s multiple recent threats to leave DART and stop contributing sales tax to DART if Addison doesn’t get what it wants, which is a $1 billion rail line to the airport. The resolution makes nice, in other words, instead of saying what I would have said:

“You’ve contributed less than 3 percent of DART’s total budget over the years while receiving bus service; you’re a suburb; get in your cars and drive to the airport; we’re a city and need to provide viable urban lives for people; if you want to leave DART, adios and don’t let the door … you know the rest.”

Then again, I suffer from BPS (bad personality syndrome).

After the nice-making, the resolution, which I bet will be adopted soon anyway, gets down to business. It makes an assertion for the city of a type that has been all too rare in the past — a claim to priority. It says the city is next in line for a major project. It says the Addison fancy line to the airport conflicts with the subway downtown. It says we want the subway downtown first. And of course, it says it plainly but politely, because this is Texas.

The fact that Greyson is the one stepping out in front on this issue is very good news for those of you who do wonder what City Hall ever does for your life. It means that above and beyond the generational and cultural divide between the YUWs, the NDMs and the rest of the council, a collective wisdom and will are arising at City Hall.

It’s the wisdom to know what people really need to live well in this city. It’s the will to go get it done.

And just think. What if they really did work out the things about affordable housing and cheap reliable transportation and how to meet friends in a bar without getting robbed or chased down by a loose dog? You’d have to say they were actually doing their jobs. Would you not?

Dallas City Council Quality of Life Committtee resolution on DART 2016 Budget Priorities.pdf by Schutze on Scribd

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze