The Dallas Area Rapid Transit board is meeting today, with the board once more set to award HDR Engineering, Inc. the $351,536 Dallas Streetcar System Planning Study Consultant contract. (Last month's scheduled vote was deferred following a disagreement over minority- and women-business enterprise participation, as outlined in the January 25 meeting minutes.) And speaking of minutes...
DART has also posted its official recap of the February 8 committee-of-the-whole meeting during which the ice-and-snowstorm slowdowns of two weeks ago were discussed. And since trying to download DART's agenda and supplements occasionally causes one's computer to crash, that riveting novella follows in full.
Recent Inclement Weather Operations
Mr. Gary Thomas, President/Executive Director, briefed the Committee (slides on file with the Office of Board Support) as follows:
• Responding to Winter Weather
• "Super Storm 2011"
• Winter at Other Agencies
• "Super Storm 2011" wlDART Rail System map
• "Super Storm 2011" - pictures of under carriage of buses affected
• Powering DART Rail
• Tuesday Operations - Single train
• Tuesday Operations - Track temperature
• Wednesday: Rolling Blackouts - Arapaho Center Station
• Wednesday: Rolling Blackouts - 20 - 30 minute service to start
• Thursday: Restoring Service
• Friday: 5-7 inches of snow (pictures)
• Friday: 5-7" of snow
• Technical Issues
• Next Steps
Mr. Christian applauded Mr. Thomas and DART staff on the incredible job considering the magnitude of the storm. Although DART can learn from the experience, there was, in his opinion, very little that could have been done differently that could have made it better. DART is designed for North Texas weather not for Chicago or New York weather. He stated that it would be a waste to invest money in expensive snow/ice removal equipment. Mr. Christian continued that he had read in the newspaper a quote from the Board Chair concerning the DART staffs inability to perform up to par during the inclement weather and he went on to state that he thoroughly disagreed with the way the media represented DART's performance and he, personally, appreciated everything that was done and believed that the unexpected events were handled very well and he was proud.
Mr. Enoch stated he was less enthusiastic than Mr. Christian. He continued that it would have been preferable to execute an established plan of action, and then, after the crisis, be able to state that the plan either did, or did not work. Mr. Enoch pointed out that, in his estimation, it appeared that DART did not have an inclement weather plan of action and, as a result, nothing extraordinary was done to answer an extraordinary situation. He also stressed the need to establish and maintain communication with passengers who are waiting for service to appear at LRV (Light Rail Vehicle) platforms or Transit Centers.
Mr. Enoch focused on a point made by Mr. Thomas during the briefing: had DART allowed LRV's to run in the hours immediately preceding and during the (ice/sleet) storm, the physical movement of the trains, themselves, may have prevented the ice from debilitating DART's service. Based on this statement, Mr. Enoch asked who, exactly, had made the decision to not run the LRV's all night. Mr. Thomas replied that the Rail Operations department made the decision based on the previously explained set of circumstances.
Mr. Enoch asked if DART has any means already in place to communicate with customers waiting on platforms, etc. Mr. Thomas replied that the train and bus operators convey messages to the passengers on the trainslbuses. As for the platforms, the ability to communicate is not yet available. Mr. Enoch suggested having a FEO (Fare Enforcement Officer) stationed at platforms to communicate with the customers as the need warrants. He also requested a future briefing to review what steps would be taken to provide emergency service during various types of crisis situations (Le.; ice, snow, sub-zero temperatures, tornados, hostage situations, kidnapping, etc.).
Chair Velasco accepted Mr. Enoch's request as a Future Agenda Item.
Ms. Ellerbe applauded the efforts of staff, especially those that were driving buses on unfit treacherous roads. She said the Operators' dedication was above and beyond the call of duty. She asked Mr. Thomas if DART was fully staffed during the days in questions (February 1 st 4th) and Mr. Thomas replied that he had not seen the numbers for the attendance records. Ms. Ellerbe agreed that better communication between DART and waiting customers was needed.
She referred to Mr. Thomas's statements, made during the presentation concerning electronic message boards at equipped stops had not been updated because the individuals normally responsible were overwhelmed with what Mr. Thomas referred to as more urgent matters. Ms. Ellerbe suggested, if the circumstance ever arises again, assigning a specific individual to keep the message boards updated or, if that is not feasible, simply turning the boards off so that customers would not expect to get updated information from that venue. Ms. Ellerbe agreed with Mr. Christian's earlier statements, saying that spending money to better equip the agency transportation for severe winter weather was not necessary.
Mr. Chrisman added his personal thanks to the entire DART staff who had endured the cold and dangerous conditions to provide service. He continued that he had seen news reports showing hundreds of immobilized vehicles unable to travel on the ice coated roads, but could not recall seeing a single DART bus in the same predicament.
Mr. Chrisman concluded by stating that Chair Velasco had to remain as the single VOIce representing the Board to the public (in news coverage) along with Mr. Thomas.
Mr. Danish commented that he too had ventured out and was amazed by DART employees that had made it to work during the inclement weather. He suggested recognizing those employees for arriving to keep the DART system operating. Mr. Danish continued that he saw an opportunity for DART to attract a great new number of riders anytime the region was visited by treacherous driving conditions because it was understandable that many would find it preferable not to drive themselves during such times.
Ms. Dunlop Gates echoed the compliment to Mr. Thomas and his staff. She continued that she, personally, had contacted staff during the days in question to obtain a status on service and was impressed with the number of employees who had, in fact, made it to work. Ms. Dunlop Gates stated that the vitriolic criticism published by Dallas Morning News should be countered with a public statement commending DART staff.
Ms. Dunlop Gates like Mr. Chrisman, referring to published statements made by Chair Velasco, agreed that there had to be one voice representing the Board of Directors. However, she drew a line of distinction between speaking for the entire Board and speaking one's personal opinion as a single member of the Board. Ms. Dunlop Gates encouraged her fellows, especially the Chair, to keep the needs of DART's customers in mind when making statements. Ms. Dunlop Gates concluded by agreeing that regular and timely updating of the electronic messages boards was critical and it was a vital task that warranted a specific assignment for a specific employee.
Mr. Enoch rejoined the discussion to clarify that his earlier comments were not intended to be critical, but were in reference to what could be done in the future. He was, like the other members of the Board, grateful to the DART staff that had done what they could to keep service
running. He recapped that in future, if there was ever a doubt concerning the severity of incoming weather, to make the decision to move the threshold and run the trains. Continuing in this vein, he said the same philosophy would apply to communicating with passengers waiting on platforms: when in doubt, if for whatever reasons the electronic message boards are not available, deploy Transit Police Officers and FEO's to communicate real-time service details to passengers waiting for service.
Mr. Williams reminded the Board that similar inclement weather was experienced during the 2010 NBA All-star event. By his recollection, after that particular incident, DART had expressed the need to learn from the experience but, given what had occurred, it appeared that the inclement weather operating procedures still required improvement. He concluded by stating that, in his opinion, the Board was obligated to support Chair Velasco's comments and opinions because they, the Board, had elected him to be their leader.
Mr. Noah observed that there were two different issues at play: the operations and the communication issues. The operations issue had been discussed at length, but the other issue was getting communication to commuters before they had to venture out into the inclement weather. Mr. Noah requested Mr. Thomas to return with a report detailing how DART communicates with the general public.
Mr. Noah moved on to discuss the "rolling blackouts" which effected service on Wednesday, February 3rd (refer to slides 9 and 10 entitled 'Wednesday: Rolling Blackouts - Arapaho Center Station' and 'Wednesday: Rolling Blackouts - 20 - 30 minute service to start' on file with the Office of Board Support). He said that he found it very significant that ERCOT (Electric Reliability Council of Texas), the entity responsible for the "rolling blackouts", had been able to communicate their service problems to their customer, DART, but in tum, DART had been unable to be as considerate of its customers.
Mr. Noah concluded by saying it was absolutely necessary for staff to keep each member of the Board comprehensively updated so that each individual Board member could accurately reply to inquiries made by concerned Stakeholders.