The general consensus growing in Dallas is that the bus and train system is broken. Routes need reworking. Wait times for buses are too long. Too many resources are being flung on lightly traveled light rail lines in the suburbs. The City Council wants Dallas Area Rapid Transit to focus more on moving people around the core of the city. It's going to be a costly, complicated fix requiring people who know their business.
Or, what the heck, maybe DART just needs a little better marketing. Forget the pricey steak. Let's just add some sizzle.
That's one, admittedly jaded, way to look at the Dallas City Council's Transportation Committee's decision Monday to recommend a new member to the board overseeing DART. The committee was faced with two candidates for an open board seat. One was Howard Gilberg, a local environmental lawyer and self-confessed non-expert about things like where bus lines should go who believes the key to DART's future is better marketing to millennials. The other was Patrick Kennedy, founder of Walkable DFW and a longtime advocate for Dallas-focused transit policy.
The committee voted to recommend the marketing guy, because as every DART rider who's ever stood in the rain watching the receding tail-lights of missed connection knows, what DART needs is salesmanship.
The DART board is made up of seven appointees from the city of Dallas, one appointee shared by the cities of Dallas and Cockrell Hill and seven appointees made by the agency's suburban member-cities. Collectively, the board decides how to spend a 1 percent sales tax collected in each of DART's 13 member-cities, plus a load of federal money.
Last month, after the Dallas City Council unanimously passed a resolution urging the DART board to prioritize the downtown Dallas subway line and reorganize the agency's bus lines, five of the members of the board appointed by the council voted against those priorities. Instead, they voted to set the downtown subway line and the Cotton Belt rail line, which would connect the northern suburbs to DFW airport, on equal footing. Proponents of putting the Dallas projects first claim that trying to build both projects at the same time is not financially feasible, something Kennedy agreed with Monday.
"Having spoken to independent financial advisers across the country who would speak off the record, what I was informed was that DART's debt capacity was significantly lower than what would be needed to handle both projects," Kennedy said. "At the end of the day, I don't really see the Cotton Belt as much of a transit project as it is an economic development project."
Throughout his interview with the council committee, Kennedy, nominated for the DART board slot by council members Scott Griggs and Mark Clayton, stressed the changes DART must make to increase ridership. Bus routes, he said, need to be streamlined so buses can run at higher frequencies. DART staff says that an overhaul of the system's routes could take as long as a decade; Kennedy pointed to Houston's recent overhaul, which took less than three years.
"If we have a high frequency, that's how waiting times are minimized. That's how we increase ridership, by making sure to get riders where they're going safely and efficiently," Kennedy said.
Gilberg, nominated for the DART post by the transportation committee's chairman, Lee Kleinman, told the committee that the biggest key to increasing DART's ridership was marketing.
"Riding DART is a quality of life issue," he said, emphasizing promoting transit as an environmentally conscious transit alternative to millennials.
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When asked for specifics about changes he'd like to see made to DART's current service, Gilberg demurred.
"Honestly, I'm not an expert on DART," he said. "I'm not an expert on where the routes go."
Gilberg could not tell the committee how he felt about the decision to prioritize the Cotton Belt, he said, because all he knew about it was "what [he'd] read in the newspaper."
After the interviews, the committee, led by Kleinman, voted to recommend Gilberg to the full council for a vote. Kennedy supporter Sandy Greyson, however, made it clear that she would seek to have the full council vote on Kennedy's potential appointment as well.