DART Offers Hope to Plan to Employ Job-Hungry Ex-Cons to Recycle Old Tracks
You get a lot of sad news here, I know. I might have some good news for a change. Say, might. We must cross our fingers first.
We've been talking a lot in this space over the last few months about the staggering number of people in the city who are deemed "outside the labor force" by federal numbers keepers, as many as 60 percent of people in some southern Dallas census reporting tracts. That is, they didn't have a job yesterday; they're not looking for a job today; they're not going to get a job tomorrow. A connecting thread is that many of them have been to prison and have a tough to impossible time getting hired.
Just before Christmas I talked to the Reverend Eddie Lane, a southern Dallas preacher who described people to me who are still very young when they come home to his neighborhood from prison for the first time, determined never to go back. Many of them took some kind of vocational training on the inside and are all fired up when they get home, convinced they will find real jobs and have real lives like other people.
"But there is no opportunity for them whatsoever," Lane told me.
The bitter truth — we're still on the bad news part here — is that the vocational training was a cruel joke for most of them. No one is going to hire them. The Reverend Peter Johnson, who counsels ex-offenders, told me last week, "I have grown men come in here and sit in front of me and cry tears every day, because they have babies at home, and they can't do anything to support them."
If they could get minimum-wage jobs, they might have a long shot at survival. In Texas that's $7.25 an hour. Forty hours work produces a gross income of $290. Take about $28 out of that for federal income tax withholding, $20 for Social Security, $4 for Medicare, and you've got a take-home pay of $238 or $952 a month. According to the National Low Income Housing Coalition, the average fair market rental rate for a two-bedroom apartment in Dallas is $887. Now all you need is food, clothing, transportation and health care.
But they can't even get those jobs. Meanwhile the temptation is always there. Take those drugs from your old high school buddy. Go to the corner. Sell them and make more money in an afternoon than you could all week working. Do it. Take the chance. Give up on a real life.
I went to see Peter Johnson because he told me he had found a way to provide as many as 60 ex-offenders with full-time work at considerably better than minimum wage. But there were problems.
He has been working with two black railroad construction contractors who came to him with a good idea. Archie Fleming of Fleming Construction and Billie Ray Heath of Railroad Construction Co. both have decades of experience working on railroad tracks. They went with Johnson to DART, our regional transit agency, and proposed to remove abandoned railroad tracks owned by DART and restore the right-of-ways to natural conditions in exchange for the salvage value of steel tracks, spikes, connecting plates, wooden ties and gravel that they would remove and sell. There would be no cost to DART.
Fleming and Heath would hire mainly drug-free ex-offenders of their choosing. Heath told me has a pretty good system for choosing them: "Give a man a claw bar and tell him to go over there and start pulling spikes," he said. "If he'll do that, he's ready to work."
Johnson said, "This program will be a model that we can use all over Texas. These guys will train the ex-offenders to operate forklifts and other heavy machinery, run welding machines, skills that they can use to earn good money for the rest of their lives."
It's easy to understand why Johnson, Heath and Fleming became committed to this idea. First of all, it was a business opportunity for the two contractors, who intend to make a profit scrapping old tracks. But for Johnson, who looks in the eyes of ex-offenders every day, and for Heath and Fleming, who have hired them and used them in crews for years, this was a chance to demonstrate a truth in which they all believe passionately.
"Anybody can be saved," Johnson said, "if you give him a job and a chance."
I'm sitting in Johnson's office in the Oak Cliff Tower Building, looking at him and all these leather-faced railroad guys around the conference table. I don't see any naive people. I'm thinking the ex-offenders might be more naive than some of these guys. I think these guys know what they're doing.
Johnson and the contractors firmly believe they can change people's minds about the whole question of what to do with felons when they get out of prison. Instead of a life sentence of non-employment and a whole series of destructive disincentives, they want to provide ex-offenders with a solid opportunity to live straight and stay straight.
But there have been hurdles, of course. In a kind of funny story, more or else confirmed to me by DART, the first hurdle was that DART had no idea what tracks these guys were talking about. Apparently in the various agreements by which DART has acquired existing railroad right-of-way over the years, a good deal of disused track has come into the agency's possession, mainly in the form of abandoned loading dock spurs, without any full or complete inventory. Much of the track in question is not on land owned by DART, even though DART maintains possession of the track itself and the right to access it.
"These fellows had to drive around and take pictures of the track and take those pictures back to DART to show DART what they owned," Johnson told me.
DART's version was a little different. John Adler, a DART executive who was present at early meetings with Johnson wrote to me in an email: "He [Johnson] said that there was DART-owned track all over Dallas, and we said we would have to check it out first. If he would identify the track he is referring to, we would check it out."
Next, Johnson told me that DART instructed the group in how to present their idea as an unsolicited bid, even giving them a sample bid to use as a template. DART more or less agrees with that version. Then DART informed Johnson what kind of insurance or bonding the contractors would have to acquire. The contractors told me they found the proper insurance and paid for it.
And here they hit a bit of a snag. Johnson and the contractors told me they thought that this was pretty much a lock-cinch deal for them, once they met all the requirements, since they were the ones who brought the idea to DART and since DART didn't even know it owned the track in question until they told them.
DART told me that's not how it works. They say they told Johnson that they can't award a contract without going through a competitive bidding process unless the service or commodity being offered can only be obtained from the single source offering it. "We said that other parties have approached DART in the past proposing to remove track," Adler said. That meant the best they could do for Johnson's group was put out a request for proposals for a pilot section of track and wait to see who responded.
At that point, Johnson and the contractors began to come a bit unglued. Well, actually, they called me. Nobody calls me unless they're totally unglued.
The contractors, I am sure, saw a nice piece of business slipping away. But worse, all of them assumed the idea of using the salvage operation as a pilot program for ex-offenders would be lost forever in the bureaucratic maelstrom.
Did I say something about good news? Oh, yes, sorry. It is time for that, isn't it? Last week I was sort of at the point of bleak, weary, soul-shriveling despair in all this, otherwise known as Wednesday, when I called John Carter Danish, chairman of the DART board, and asked him if he had ever heard a word of any of it.
To my surprise, Danish said he knew about it and thought it was a great idea. He said DART had been busy with a lot of major fish to fry in the Legislature and with member cities and cities that have decided they want mass transit even though they are not member cities. He allowed that DART might have let this one slip between some cracks for a while.
"The concept is one DART likes," he said. "We have had a lot of stuff coming down the pike. We're wrestling with all kinds of issues. I think we're going to give them a positive response. We're probably not working as quickly as they would like, but we'd like to see this happen."
Just because I don't always trust what I think I'm hearing, I asked Danish again if he thought the plan presented by Johnson and the two contractors was a good one.
"We think it's a vision and a dream worth doing," he said.
I wanted to offer him a little secular amen, but I thought that might be over-familiar. When I told Johnson and the contractors what Danish had said to me, they were all overjoyed.
They know there's a still a fair amount of road to get down before anything happens. They'll be disappointed if the deal goes to some other bidder. But if the ex-offender element stays in it, they will all be deeply gratified no matter who gets the job, and so will I, and so should we all.
So that counts for good news, does it not? C'mon. It's not bad news. Yet. Best I can do.
Get the This Week's Top Stories Newsletter
Every week we collect the latest news, music and arts stories — along with film and food reviews and the best things to do this week — so that you’ll never miss Observer's biggest stories.