The Money Agrees With Us On a Downtown Subway? Where Did We Go Wrong?

The biggest news across my own desk in the last several months — maybe decades — was the recent endorsement of a subway for downtown by The Real Estate Council. And maybe you think that means I live in a world of very small news. Maybe I do.

But, look, the issue of a subway downtown is the red-letter litmus for the kind of downtown we’re going to have in the rest of the 21st century — cool urban enclave or dystopian wasteland. That probably will have a lot to say about the kind of city and region we will occupy.

The subway question happens to be the focal point right now in the tension between enclave and wasteland. DART, the regional transit agency, says it must build a second light-rail line across downtown, which they are calling D2. If that’s true, then the choices for D2 are two, subway or street-level.

A subway’s greatest contribution to downtown would be staying out of the way. By providing new access to downtown without hammering the streetscape, a subway would spur vibrancy.

But a street-level line does the opposite. A street-level rail line is a wall across downtown, a gash that will gum up vehicular traffic and chop up the pedestrian flow, as the existing street-level line has done on Pacific Avenue.

The importance of building D2 in subway tunnels downtown has been a battle cry among a cadre of far-sighted urban thinkers for some time, but the business leadership of the region has been something between agnostic and hostile. That’s why last week’s news was so major.

Linda McMahon, president and CEO of The Real Estate Council (TREC), said in a press release a week ago: “We believe that complete underground alignment of the new downtown DART line is the best option for our city because it will create greater cohesion and connectivity among our communities and facilitate the ongoing flow of street and pedestrian traffic.

“An underground alignment will enable our city to attract new economic development opportunities by promoting a quality of life that will retain and expand a well-trained workforce and further develop downtown’s vibrant urban core.”

That’s huge. Why? Mainly because TREC is the money. They say on their website that they represent “more than 1,800 individual members and 550 companies, which make up 95 percent of the commercial real estate businesses in North Texas.”

Their members, they say, are “developers, builders, brokers, attorneys, architects, investment bankers, accountants, finance and title professionals and more.” They also say, “TREC wields strong influence in the region.”

That could be an understatement.

TREC’s move to the subway side of the D2 debate is a sign the Dallas business establishment — and maybe the regional business establishment — is now beginning to share some of the vision of that cadre of freelance thinkers. That means some substantial element in the business community must see value in turning the existing regional model upside down.

We all know the old model — dead inner core, all the action on the fringe. In fact a surface-level line across downtown would be both reflection and reinforcement of that vision.

But if you think downtown can be the hot motor that keeps the rest of the region cranking, the one place that isn’t like all the other places, then all of a sudden the extra investment cost of putting D2 underground is worth it.

To the extent TREC’s arrival in the subway camp signals a shift in the larger business community, it could mean that a lot of highly competent talent will be concentrated on this and other questions in some brand-new ways. And that’s a good thing.

I’ve been trying for some time — hmm, let’s see, maybe 100 years? — to explain to people who deal with DART infrequently that the bureaucrats who run DART will say whatever they have to say in order to keep other people’s noses out from under their tent. DART is run by a tribe of transit-doctors who speak in impenetrable technical incantations.

Asked a difficult question, they are able to chant long strings of empty technical-sounding syllables designed to put the minds of questioners into a resting state.

In early June, I asked DART a question that I don’t expect you to understand, mainly because it’s way outside the English language. In other words it’s me trying to get inside the magic DART language without accidentally putting myself into a coma.

And I should tell you that, most of the time when I try to do that, I just wind up looking like a 19th century lady with her hoop skirt pulled up over her head by a sidewalk prankster.

My question was on a very technical point about federal grant applications and why DART asked for 49.5 percent of the budget for one downtown project to be paid by the feds instead of 50 percent. I will explain that, I hope, in a second.

Stephen Salin, the DART vice president of rail planning, told me in writing: “We asked for 49 percent federal funding for the Platform Project because the project was more defined and we could achieve a high rating on the financial rating using warrants.”

It’s about federal rules. Ask for less than 50 percent, and the rules say you get a higher score on your application in competition with other grant applications from around the country. Oh, just typing this out makes me feel so, so sleepy.

So here is the amazing thing. Last Tuesday toward the end of an interminable meeting of the DART board's planning committee (go here to Item 6, minute mark 50), Paul Wageman, a board member from Plano, asked my question. The same thing. Why 49.5 percent, not 50 percent? And the same guy, Salin, gave Wageman a totally different answer.

This time Salin told Wageman that DART had asked for 49 percent, rather than 50 percent, not as a way to get a higher score, as he had told me, but because DART didn’t need the extra money. “We had $60 million guaranteed from TxDOT from the Mobility Fund,” Salin told Wageman, “and because the project was coming in slightly less than we had originally contemplated the full cost of the project we were able to ask for less money from the feds because it was being made up by TxDOT.”

All right, may I do you a favor here and not drag you through the full tick-tock? Let me summarize by saying that this becomes an important issue because the score on federal grant applications determines whether Dallas can afford a subway.

Either no, we can’t afford it, not the way they have written the grant applications. Or yes, we could, if they wrote the applications a different way.

And here is my point: Ask DART one week why they wrote the applications the way they did, and they give you one impenetrable incantation. A week later, somebody else gets the opposite incantation.

What’s the real answer? I have no idea. But the effect of the way they did write the grant applications is that DART staff, not elected officials, have made the decision that we can’t have a subway downtown.

Why? Probably because they want to save money and not run their credit card up too badly so they can build yet another suburban rail line in Addison.

Is building a rail line in Addison wicked? No. But slipping the decision into magical incantations where nobody can see or understand what you’re doing is not good, possibly wicked.

And they’ve always gotten away with just that. But I thought I saw a big difference last week in the video of that committee meeting. Last week the guy asking them was Wageman, not me. Big difference. Wageman has the authority, experience, expertise and ability to stay awake that I could never bring myself to bear.

He’s a partner at Winstead law firm, former chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority and, of course, a member of the board of DART.

Wageman took Salin’s first response and worked it down to its logical implication: No matter why Salin said the applications were written as they were, the board should have been informed in plain English that the distinction between 49.5 percent and 50 percent had major implications.

Yes. Huge implications. Wageman didn't say it, so I will. This is an obscure technical issue that decides whether we can have a subway, which decides what kind of downtown we can have, which decides what kind of city, which decides what kind of region.

I hope I can say this in a way that doesn’t sound dismissive of the brilliant pioneering work done by people like Matt Tranchin at Coalition For A New Dallas, Patrick Kennedy at A New Dallas, Robbie Good of Br_dge Creative Studios and a host of others I’m too dumb to remember. But I’m quite sure they would all agree that having a Paul Wageman on your team … somewhere near your team … at least not actively engaged in trying to kill your team ... is a very good thing, in the same way that having TREC on your side is a good thing.

I see it as a kind of forming up. The distance and the aura of warfare between the differing camps is simmering down, cooling. And as the new vision takes on mass and form and as it recruits new allies, those allies naturally are going to get on DART’s case and insist that staff members stop stirring up major decisions while chanting over smoking cauldrons.

The DART executives were only able to get away with their grant application voodoo because they operated in a vacuum of political interest and attention. Those days are either over or about to be.

For one thing, as more consensus gathers around the subway, a lot more attention is going to be paid to the way Dallas’ own members of the DART board vote on issues affecting the D2 project. Some of the Dallas members on that board have been utterly useless to the city, voting against the city’s interests every time.

Out of a new vigilance on D2 will grow a new awareness and a political confidence among people who share the new vision. The subway’s just the beginning.
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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