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DART Needs to Build a Subway Downtown

Being on a train, reading a book—good. Being stuck in your car, waiting hours to cross a train track—very, very bad.
MORREY TAYLOR

Look, if you're like me you don't wake up in the morning thinking, "I can't wait to find out what happened overnight in regional rail policy."

I could wait a lifetime. But I also don't want to wake up two years from now in a nightmare where downtown Dallas is a ghost town switching yard for suburban commuter trains.

That would be bad. And that could happen. Then I will be sorry I stayed in bed.

For the last five months the stories about DART, our regional transit agency, have been enough to make me want to bury my head beneath the pillow. Awful. Billion-dollar budget goof. Chairwoman tossed out in stink. Chairwoman .

But as terrible and incomprehensible as all of that may be, none of it is the real story. The real story is that DART could be on the verge of severely shafting downtown Dallas for the next decade. I mean the big shaft. The do-or-die shaft for downtown.

DART must build a second rail line through downtown, some of it in a subway, or downtown is screwed. Unpleasantly, aberrantly so.

Four extensions of DART's light rail service are in play here. Two will go out to new stations in the suburbs; the Green Line, from Pleasant Grove to Carrollton by 2010, the Orange Line from the Love Field area to Rowlett by 2012. Two will go in Dallas, one from downtown to South Oak Cliff, the other, a second rail route through downtown, which is the problem.

Unless DART moves quickly to build the second downtown line, the existing downtown line is going to become a solid wall of trains down Pacific Avenue from the east end of downtown to the west end, with car and bus traffic stacked up at the crossings like cordwood.

That second line downtown is the big story. It has been for nearly 20 years. In 1990 after years of debate, the Dallas City Council forced DART to sign a contract promising to build a second line downtown with a subway when train traffic on Pacific Avenue reaches a certain point.

A bit of history: The proper way to bring a train through downtown is underground. A subway is the only way downtown rail can reduce traffic congestion instead of making it worse. But in the late 1980s, the suburban cities that belong to DART rebelled against a subway for downtown.

It was always about money. The suburbs thought a subway downtown would cost so much that DART would never have enough cash left to build rail lines out to them in the boonies. They threatened to pull out of DART.

DART's supporters were able to fend off the desperate-housewife secessionists by striking deals with them. For one thing, DART gave the suburbs nearly $200 million for street improvements just to shut them up.

Then DART also agreed not to build a subway until absolutely necessary. In the meantime we got what we have now—a design by which all DART train routes must pass in and out of downtown on Pacific Avenue, like sand sifting through an hourglass.

Cars wait for trains. Trains wait for cars. And we have agreed to do it this way until the train traffic gets so busy that it is in danger of shutting down all of the north-south rubber-tire traffic in downtown.

Downtown is already a maze. Nothing goes exactly north-south or east-west. Sometimes the streets downtown run sort of northeast-southwest, but then you drive two blocks and the directions shift again. It's enough to melt your compass, even without trains cutting across the streets.

Now imagine putting a solid wall of trains down Pacific and Bryan streets. Then the only way you can drive from City Hall to McKinney Avenue is by going all the way out of downtown, either west to Industrial Boulevard or east somewhere in deepest East Dallas, because the stupid trains have got you totally blocked off.

What do you do? I know what I'd do. I'd say screw downtown. I've got enough aggravation. If I am a major employer, I don't think I'm going to rent three floors of a high-rise if it's going to take me and my employees an hour to get out of downtown. That's time a major employer could be playing golf, studying Greek love poetry, reading to orphans and planning for world peace.

Why is DART train traffic about to increase so dramatically downtown? Because DART is on the verge of completing and opening the Green Line, bringing new train traffic that must sift up and down Pacific Avenue with the existing lines. In 2010 when that happens, the traffic on Pacific will exceed peak capacity.

According to DART's own published traffic projections, peak capacity for the Pacific Avenue "transit mall" is 24 train trips per hour. DART figures that if 24 trains an hour pass up and down Pacific, that will leave two and a half minutes between them, which should be enough for the cars and buses to barely squeeze through.

 

Any more trains than that, and the cars and buses are dead in the water. All day long, crossing Pacific will be like trying to cross an eight-lane boulevard at rush hour without a light.

The solution? Don't put all those new trains to the suburbs down Pacific. Build a "second alignment" through downtown with a subway. Why a subway? Well, otherwise the second alignment will still have a tendency to screw up traffic, even if you put it 10 blocks from the first one. It's like two long lines of hurdles 10 blocks apart.

In fact, it could be even worse. You could get caught between the two, so you wouldn't even have the option of turning round and giving up. Then your only option would be to climb up on the roof of your car and hurl imprecations at the Fates. That would be a memorable way to spend your last visit to downtown Dallas. Ever.

That's why the Dallas City Council 18 years ago made DART sign on the dotted line: According to DART's "Interlocal Agreement" with the city, a copy of which I have in my desk, "DART will commit to construction of a subway downtown" as soon as the train trips on Pacific reach 24 per hour.

I mention that I have the agreement in my desk, because, incredibly enough, some members of the current DART board and the current city council have professed surprise in public meetings when informed that such an agreement exists.

It's not just a handshake agreement. It's a fully executed, written contract.

I also have in my desk a DART study called "Corridor Capacity" showing that the "trigger" level of 24 trips per hour will be blown through the roof in 2010 as soon as the Green Line becomes operational.

So the subway will happen, right? It's in the contract. Right? If it doesn't happen, downtown Dallas is screwed. DART wouldn't do that. The city council wouldn't allow that to happen. Right?

Umm. Think back with me. On November 22, DART CEO Gary Thomas reveals to the DART board that DART has under-estimated its capital construction costs by, uh, let's see...100 percent. Instead of costing $1 billion, DART's current expansion plans will cost $2 billion, Thomas says.

Thomas explains he has kept the shortfall a secret from his board for a year, because he was hoping it would go away. I submit this is like a guy with a large tusk growing from his forehead. You say, "Gary, pardon me, but you have a tusk on your head." He puts his fingers to his lips and says, "Shhh."

On January 30, DART board chair Lynn Flint Shaw resigns under a cloud involving personal finances, criminal charges, a secret personal contract with Deloitte Touche (DART's external auditor) and allegations of irregularities with political contributions. On March 10 she and her husband are found shot dead in their home.

Stick with me through another wrinkle here. Shaw was treasurer of a political fund-raising committee for Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert. Even though Leppert has denied it publicly, it is well-known and was widely reported at the time that in August 2007, two months after he took office, Leppert personally engineered Shaw's ascent to the chair of the DART board.

Leppert and the city council now are in gridlock over an appointment to replace the late Ms. Shaw on the DART board. Half the city council wants to replace her with Joyce Foreman, the person Leppert helped remove from the board in order to pave Shaw's way to the chair. The other half is listening to Leppert's personal pleas not to reappoint Foreman.

Leppert and the city council have been stuck on the dime ever since the Shaw situation began to unravel six months ago. The effect has been to leave the Dallas DART board members in disarray and without leadership, to say nothing of being generally humiliated.

The suburban members, meanwhile, leapt into action immediately when the budget shortfall was revealed.

A clever, coordinated campaign enabled them to get the Irving-Rowlett Orange Line on the books—committed, ready for contracting, practically under way—while Leppert and the Dallas City Council were still flubbering around about the Shaw situation.

You can't blame the 'burbs. They want their new lines built. We want new lines built. New rail lines cost about $80 million a mile. For a good five months, it looked as if there was only going to be enough money for one side to win.

The 'burbs will never admit this, but I have been talking to DART board members on both sides, off the record, for months: The truth is the 'burbs don't care if downtown traffic gets backed up. They want their lines. No matter what. If traffic downtown gets messy, too bad. Downtown Dallas is for the City of Dallas to figure out. The 'burbanites are just passin' through anyway.

 

DART now claims it has enough money budgeted to pay for the second alignment and subway downtown, at a cost of $464 million. But a close look at DART's 2008 proposed capital budget shows that almost 40 percent of that money isn't really in the budget before the year 2018.

2018? By then they will have changed the name of the city to Lower Frisco.

How about year 2010, when DART's own corridor study shows creeping gridlock downtown without a second alignment and subway? By then, DART only has around 8 percent of the requisite funds in the budget.

And what about that budget? It assumes more than 5 percent growth in sales tax revenues for each of the next 20 years, even though Texas cities are already beginning to report serious budget shortfalls due to declining sales tax collections in a recessionary economy.

I won't dredge too deeply through the rest of the DART budget, but it also assumes major new borrowing levels based on two types of costly loans the agency has never taken out before. And it assumes the Texas Legislature will change the law to let DART borrow money without voter approval.

Listen. If I had to bet right this minute whether they will come up with the money for the second downtown alignment, or they won't—I would put my chips on won't. And they'll tell us they are very, very sorry about it.

Of the six Dallas representatives on the DART board right now, there probably is only one who understands the gravity of the situation. Dallas member William Velasco told me last week, "We have secured the money to do the Orange Line, but everything else is at risk."

"Everything else" means the subway and the South Oak Cliff line. To get those done, Velasco said, he thinks Dallas must get its act together, appoint the right people to the DART board and press its case aggressively.

But do the rest of the Dallas DART board members get it? Not so much. Generally speaking, Dallas' DART board members have been a timid lot.

Dallas member William Tsao said, "I anticipate that there will be some shortfall in the Central Business District," but he said the problem of construction costs is universal and not DART's fault.

Dallas member Scott Carlson said there are uncertainties, but he's sure DART will resolve them. "Yeah," he said, "I think I'm comfortable."

Joyce Foreman apparently wasn't timid enough. Leppert's main ally on DART matters, city council member Dwaine Caraway, has repeatedly explained the putsch to throw Foreman off the DART board last year by saying she was "too confrontational."

Caraway verbally attacked Foreman when she appeared before the council April 14 to be interviewed for reappointment to the DART board. Foreman kept her cool, but Caraway became angry and ultimately left the room before the interview was over.

The DART bureaucracy and the suburban members, meanwhile, have come to a peace agreement on Thomas' billion-dollar boo-boo. There will be no formal external audit of DART. A few underlings have been fired. Thomas will keep his job. It's all forgiven and forgotten.

This may all sound complicated. It's not. Think of it this way: The suburbs have got their act together and are about to get what they want from DART. Dallas is mucking around about side deals, contracts and influence-peddling and is about to get screwed.

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