DART Doing Fuzzy Math

Dallas Area Rapid Transit was conceived in sin. Dallas wanted to father a light rail system, but in order to get the money to pay for it, Dallas married its first cousin, Suburbia. Now DART, the progeny of this cynical union, is sadly, uh...not quite right.

DART announced in early December it was suddenly about a billion dollars short on its rail construction budget. An editorial in the January 24 edition of Dallas' only daily said the deficiency has all been taken care of already.

"Dallas Area Rapid Transit officials are moving swiftly to shore up plans to deliver rail projects on time and perform damage control on the agency's credibility," The Dallas Morning News editorial page announced.

The problem is, that's bullshit. A $1 billion shortfall just went away? Give me a break.

The shortfall is very serious, and it has not gone away. It's money. Money doesn't go away. It just waits around the corner for you. What the DART staff proposed to the DART board last week was a concoction of screwball borrowing schemes—"off-shoring debt," as one DART watcher described it to me—inspired entirely by politics, public relations and a keen desire to avoid talking about DART's real problem: It can't go in two directions at the same time forever.

At some point DART has to decide if the primary purpose of light rail is to promote density in the city or development in the 'burbs. The billion dollar shortfall is a big, painful symptom of the fact that DART can't continue to do both forever as co-equal priorities.

Nobody wants to talk about that, because it's a conversation that can lead to divorce. But there you have it. If things like this didn't happen, we would never have invented divorce.

But first let's talk about the money.

DART staff conceded in early December that "new estimates" showed the agency was suddenly about $900 million short of the amount needed to complete promised rail lines to suburban Irving and Rowlett by 2011 and 2012, respectively, the promised completion dates. Under grilling by Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, DART director Gary Thomas conceded he had known for sure about the shortfall for at least eight months and had been seeing the signs coming for about three years before telling his board.

Hey, maybe he's shy. But let's move on.

Here's the squeeze. DART doesn't just owe the suburbs some rail lines. It owes the city some rail lines too. That's why there's not enough money. It has enough money to do the suburban lines. Or it has enough for the city lines. It doesn't have enough money for both.

Here's the bottom line. DART has to get more money. Close to a billion bucks. Or somebody gets shorted. Mom. Or Dad. City or 'burbs. They can't both get what they want, because there isn't enough money.

We voters told DART in an election in 2000 that it could borrow $2.9 billion for future rail projects. That's what's called a "hard cap." DART cannot legally borrow more money by selling long-range bonds, unless it comes back to us voters for permission or gets the law changed so it doesn't have to come to us any more.

Guess what the big idea is. You got it. Repeatedly at last week's DART board meeting, board members and their financial advisors talked about how they need to get the Legislature to change the law so we voters won't have the right to vote on their borrowing in the future.

Robert Estrada, the outside bond lawyer who advises the DART board on how to borrow more money, told the board it could borrow up to $5 billion, instead of a meager $2.9 billion, if the Legislature would agree to cut us voters out of the picture.

Estrada said he knows tons of institutions that would love to sign up DART for big credit deals right away. He said they are "beating our doors down here. They're salivating at the thought of $5 billion in capacity...They'd love to get their hands on a payment for the next 40 or 50 or 100 years."

I'm sitting in the peanut gallery thinking, "And this is a good thing?"

But wait, Estrada and DART chief financial officer Sharon Leary told the board there were plenty of other ways they could borrow lots of money without going to the voters—even without getting the law changed.

For example, they said DART could raise $300 million by mortgaging the fare-box revenues (ticket receipts). We voters wouldn't have a right to vote on that, they said. DART, like Nike, could just do it.

According to their most recent published financial statement, DART brings in about $41 million a year in fares. So Estrada and Leary were telling them they could borrow against that.