Downtown Dallas Subway May Be More Popular and Possible Than We Think

Diverse constituencies, not just Presbyterians, like the idea of a subway in downtown Dallas.
Diverse constituencies, not just Presbyterians, like the idea of a subway in downtown Dallas.
Roderick Pullum

Psst. Hey. Downtown property-owners and major institutions. I’m talking to you. This is between us, OK? That subway idea might be more popular and more feasible than you think.

But you need to not listen, block your ears, totally ignore the arguments you are getting from our regional mass transit agency, City Hall and The Dallas Morning News about why the new downtown rail route can’t be built underground.

It’s at least more possible than anyone has been letting on. It may even come down to a simple matter of choice, which would make it a matter of political will.

Bottom line: In spite of everything you are being told, putting a much-needed second rail line underground or above ground is not — repeat NOT — a decision driven entirely by money.

The second downtown rail line project is called D2. Substantially more federal funds could be available for D2 than you have been told. DART simply is choosing not to ask for that money.

Why? Oh, I’ll try to get to that. Think in terms of competing interests, sub rosa agendas and, you know, City Hall. But for now, the thing to know is this: More cash is there for the asking. DART just isn’t.

DART is asking the federal government for $325 million or 50 percent of the planned cost of D2 (see document below). But federal regs would allow Dallas to ask for a grant of 80 percent of that cost without risking any penalty or downgrade to the competitive status of Dallas’ grant application. The Federal Transportation Authority already has awarded a quite high competitive rating to D2 compared with other grant applications from around the nation. 

The amount of money DART stands to get now from the feds for D2, with the 50 percent ask, is $325 million. If DART asked for 80 percent, it would stand to collect $1.3 billion from the feds — a bonus of $975 million.

First Presbyterian Church downtown is one of several institutions and businesses that objected strenuously to a proposed surface rail line downtown last spring, now apparently back on the table already.
First Presbyterian Church downtown is one of several institutions and businesses that objected strenuously to a proposed surface rail line downtown last spring, now apparently back on the table already.
Courtesy of the First Presbyterian Church of Dallas

If Dallas kept its contribution at $325 million and asked for a 65 percent match, that could deliver $603 million in federal money and produce a total budget for D2 well over the estimated cost of a subway system on Commerce Street. But DART is asking for a much more modest federal contribution than it could under federal rules.

And DART has its reasons. They have explained to me why they are not asking for 80 percent. I am not telling you that DART’s reasons are fake or nonsense or anything of that kind.

But I am telling you two things: 1) While everybody was telling you that a subway was too expensive, nobody told you yet, I believe, that from $200 million to almost $1 billion more in federal funding is on the table for the asking. 2) While DART has its reasons for not asking, I don’t think anybody told you that this is about asking — a subjective matter with all kinds of political overtones and undercurrents.

They could ask. They don’t want to. They have their reasons. But they could have mentioned it.

One thing is certain and not up for debate. The city flat needs a second line through downtown. DART has light rail lines strewn around the region like silly string, and every bit of that mess must pass through downtown on the one rail line that now crosses it.

Is that a stupid bottleneck design? Yup. Why did we do it like that? Story for another day. Just did. Now we have got to fix it by putting a reliever route across downtown.

We told you here last March how the first bright idea for a second rail line across downtown really put the fear of God into several major downtown institutions. They looked at the drawings for the proposed route and saw themselves railroaded right off the map.

We also have been telling you for years about a guy named John Tatum, a downtown real estate developer who was a founding board member of DART. Tatum hasn’t served on the DART board in years, but he has evolved into a kind of visionary on ways that a subway can foster downtown development.

Tatum has been trying to tell Dallas for years that all of the bad stuff associated with surface rail — the traffic interruptions, the damage to existing businesses and institutions — goes away and a whole new universe of positive possibility emerges if we just put the second line underground.

The argument against Tatum has always been money. As Brandon Formby at The Dallas Morning News explained — sort of, pretty much — in a piece Monday, the money argument really is about competing routes. Dallas taxpayers pony up fully half of the $520 million annual sales tax revenue that funds DART.

Dallas was promised the D2 line when DART was formed 31 years ago. In the intervening decades, however, the superior political and lobbying skills of the affluent northern suburbs have caused DART to expend its energies on light rail lines all over the map — to Plano, Farmers Branch, Carrollton and Irving and beyond — while D2 still never has been built. 

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Formby explained in his piece that a new suburban project called the Cotton Belt, east to west across the northern suburbs to DFW Airport, is now snarling at the same dog food bowl with D2 — a reason DART doesn’t want to commit too much money to D2.

Formby also mentioned that another high-dollar cost competing for money that might otherwise be spent on a subway is a proposed spur line off the D2 line to the Dallas convention center.

Not said, however was that the convention center spur, like everything the News talks about having anything to do with the convention center, is a Dallas Morning News boondoggle, part of their never-ending quest to improve land values in the corner of downtown where they own a lot of land.

Using light rail to ferry the occasional gang of conventioneers around to the bars is a stupid idea. Chop that spur off and all of a sudden you’ve got the better part of another $200 million to spend on a subway.

Go back and read our piece last March about the massive damage a surface line would do to churches, hotels and other entities at the other end of downtown, the east end: All of a sudden putting it underground starts to look like a great deal even if it means no convention center spur and the conventioneers have to use Uber. In fact a subway would be a great deal even if the members of First Presbyterian Church had to go down there and carry all of the conventioneers to the bars on their backs.

The main thrust of Formby’s piece, however, was that a compromise route – part subway, part surface, a route urged on DART by the Dallas City council last spring – now is no longer feasible, according to DART. That may mean the worst surface route is about to be back on the table.

In that discussion, I saw only scant mention of extra funding DART could seek simply by asking. Steve Salin, vice president of rail planning at DART, has explained to me, meanwhile, why that ask is not being made.

One of the main reasons Salin gave for the conservative ask for D2 was that DART, which has other projects for which it is seeking grants, didn't want to imperil those other projects by seeming too grabby. Those projects all are within Dallas. He did not include the Cotton Belt, which is farther out in development 

Salin took a good deal of time with my questions and obviously tried to work out answers for me that I could understand. Transportation funding is complex, in part because of the regulations but maybe more so because of the competition between projects all over the country seeking federal funds.

DART has to be able to guess how its grant applications will match up against those of other agencies and, as Salin explained to me in a letter, DART must work in an environment of ever-changing legislation and ever-moving targets.

Projects all over the nation are competing for the same federal dollars Dallas seeks for a second downtown rail line.
Projects all over the nation are competing for the same federal dollars Dallas seeks for a second downtown rail line.
fta.dot.gov

Given all of that, he said the D2 ask was held at 50 percent in part because the project itself was not yet well defined: “DART conservatively matched at 50 percent given the merits of the project and our need to still develop the final alignment and cost estimates,” Salin said.

“We anticipated that the cost of the project would still be adjusted as we advanced through project development.”

There is another piece of this puzzle that I need to provide at this point. The existence of additional possible federal funding for D2 is not something I excavated through months of diligent investigative reporting, nor did it come to me in a dream.

The availability of that funding, literally buried in fine print and footnotes in federal documents, was discovered in some brilliant research by the Coalition for a New Dallas,  a political action group seeking major changes to Dallas infrastructure to promote a more modern new-urbanist streetscape. They brought it to me.

Without the coalition’s work, I would not know about this. I don’t think you would, either. DART didn’t tell us. The Morning News has never explained it. I’ve never heard it from the City Council. So, thank you, Coalition for a New Dallas.

Finally, I am not telling you about a conspiracy. I am not telling you about skullduggery. If you stop and think about it, we really are just talking here about things the way they are.

The suburban sphere of influence has been more clever and more effective than the urban sphere of influence since the day DART was born in 1983. Of course DART wants to hold back its urban commitments enough to prepare itself for the next big suburban yank on the chain.

The Dallas Morning News’ sphere of influence has exerted a consistent gravitational tug for the last 30 years, sucking every penny of street and convention center and train and trolley money it can possibly gulp into the moribund southwest corner of downtown, in order to make it less moribund.

Of course those competing interests did not volunteer to tell the institutions and businesses along the D2 route that there might be more money available for a subway. They don’t want it spent on a subway. They want it spent on themselves. Free country. May the best man win.

But there is more money. In order to find out how much and what can really be done with it, the people who want a subway will have to recognize that the technocrats and bureaucrats are all just carrying water for other interests anyway and stop allowing them to decide things.

These are matters to be decided by citizens and stakeholders. All of the cards need to be on the table. Everybody’s hands need to be on the table. Everybody’s sleeves need to be rolled up. Everybody needs to agree to a quick pat-down. Then, of course, everybody needs to trust each other.


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