A month ago civic leader Walt Humann posted an essay on the op-ed page of The Dallas Morning News saying it would be a terrible mistake for the city to take sales tax money away from DART, our regional mass transit agency, and use it to save the Dallas Police and Fire Pension Fund.
His entire argument was based on a wrong reading of the history of DART. This week as a so-called resolution of the pension crisis draws closer in the Legislature, it may be worth our while to go back and get that history right.
In the boom years of late 1970s and early ’80s, regional and city leaders were more transparent about their own true personal interests. Their bets were on the suburbs.
Two mayors, Robert Folsom (1976-1981) and A. Starke Taylor (1983-1987), were the two biggest suburban residential real estate developers of the era. Folsom bought an entire hick town, Renner, then jaw-boned the Dallas City Council into annexing it so Dallas would be on the hook for all of the basic infrastructure.
At that time downtown Dallas was still the region’s dominant employment hub. An outdated, terribly snarled Central Expressway formed a nasty bottleneck between downtown and the suburbs north of the city where the mayors and their friends on the Dallas Citizens Council, a prestigious private leadership group, were putting down their chips.
The cheapest, fastest, downest and dirtiest fix for Central would have been double-decking it. The mayors and the Citizens Council threw all of their weight behind double-decking. A Dallas business leader, the late Robert Dedman, who was chairman of the state highway commission at the time, pushed it so hard it became known as Dedman decking.
That was the period when the M-Streets district in East Dallas was just beginning to blossom again after decades of decay. But the idea that middle class people would deliberately move into an old urban neighborhood was foreign and unfathomable to the Citizens Council. Dedman said to me once in an interview: “I just don’t understand why nice people like that would want to live in used houses.”
Voters in East Dallas were smart. They got organized. They looked around the country, beginning with Austin, and saw a seemingly ironclad principle by which double-decked expressways almost always poisoned the real estate around them. East Dallas was determined not to let that happen just when the inner city was beginning to flourish.
The Citizens Council types, meanwhile, had tried unsuccessfully several times to get voters to approve creation of a regional light rail system. They never saw light rail as a tool of urban development. Quite the contrary, at a time when they were having trouble getting the new highways built that they thought they needed to service their far-flung subdivisions, they always saw DART as a tool to promote and enable sprawl.
East Dallas was not interested in light rail at all at first. A very few visionary leaders like developer John Tatum and former Mayor Adlene Harrison argued that heavy rail and a subway system would boost downtown, but the Citizens Council shut that talk down immediately. They wanted to use the sales tax to pay for light rail to Plano, not heavy rail downtown.
Some very bright people in East Dallas led by City Council member Lee Simpson hit on a strategy. They went to the leaders of the double-decking thing and said they would campaign to get neighborhood votes for light rail if the Citizens Council types would back off double-decking Central.
The Citizens Council accepted that deal. And it worked. That’s why Central Expressway was rebuilt down below instead of up above. That’s why we have DART. And it’s why today we have wonderful neighborhoods and high land values along Central.
Urban voters supported the 1983 election that created DART as a means of protecting the inner city from a Citizens Council leadership that would have ravaged renascent city neighborhoods. Simpson and others believed in mass transit in general and in rail in particular, but the immediate genesis of the inner city vote to create DART was the need to stop double-decking.
In his op-ed piece in the News last month, Humann short-handed all of this history to create a narrowly linear version of the story. He said, “The enabling legislation we developed in the 1970s and 1980s is clear that DART sales taxes are to be used exclusively for mobility.”
And he said, “There was and continues to be a covenant with the voters that the sales tax would be used for improving mobility.”
The legislation is one thing. Legislation, as we know, can be changed. But the notion of a sacrosanct “covenant” is another, especially when Humann wants to use it to argue that the city cannot and must not use its sales tax revenue for anything but transit.
If there was any true covenant with city voters in the 1983 election, it was a covenant to protect the city from suburban land developers. The city voted for DART to stop double-decking, not because the city was dying to pay for the nation’s longest, least efficient, suburban light rail system.
No one is saying the developers were wicked to develop suburban subdivisions. That was clearly what the big market wanted and where the money was. But the inner city was another market, a different one, a smaller market with fragile interests that needed to be cleverly defended.
The crisis with the pension fund is a direct parallel with double-decking, only it’s way bigger, worse and far more urgent. If the pressure to do double-decking was arm-twisting, the potential cratering of the pension fund for first responders is a knife to the city’s throat.
I told you earlier this week that the pension fund fix now before the Legislature looks more and more like a poison pill to kill the fund. The bill under consideration will put the fund in the position of having to garnish future pension payments in order to claw back money that already belongs to pensioners.
The fund won’t do that. Claw-back is a political impossibility. It’s a moral abomination and a legal nightmare. But under the terms of the bill as now written, the city will be able to withdraw its share of the money to fix the fund if the fund fails to do the claw-back.
The fund will die at that point, replaced by a new locally controlled 401K-like program for younger newer hires, which may be what the mayor and business leaders have wanted all along. Older pensioners who do not qualify for Social Security and have all their savings as well as their pensions in the existing fund may be pauperized.
You couldn’t do anything worse than that to destroy the city. You could double-deck every freeway in town, run elevated trains right through the day care centers and fill Main Street at night with pushcart meth dealers. None of that would poison the city’s future as badly as running off the cops and firefighters by screwing them out of their retirements.
Strip away the blah-blah-blah, and the Humann op-ed piece says regional light rail is more important than the pension fund. Who believes that? If his heart was in the city, even the biggest light rail fan in the world wouldn’t believe light rail is more important than cops and firefighters.
This isn’t one where you can say, well, I think both are important. No, that is not today’s problem or today’s question. Today’s dilemma may not be zero-sum yet, but it is about choices.
The plan in the Legislature now could kill the pension fund in two years. The mayor and the business leadership are dead set against a tax hike or a bond sale to fix it. The sales tax money is sitting there.
The proposal put forward by City Council member Scott Griggs is to take only one-eighth of the city’s annual contribution to DART. And that’s too much? DART is worth that much to Dallas? We can’t take an eighth of its allowance to save the police and fire departments?
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So here’s a little test we could do. Right now the Dallas City Council is insisting it wants DART to make good on a decades-old promise to build a much-needed second rail line through downtown. But DART keeps weaseling around about it, giving a very strong impression that once again it would like to devote its resources to building yet another new mainly suburban line called the Cotton Belt.
Why not say this to DART? If DART wants the city to believe it is so important to the city that the city must not deprive it of even one-eighth of its annual allowance, why doesn’t DART prove that importance? It could do so easily by agreeing not to build the Cotton Belt line until after it has completed the second line downtown.
DART won’t agree to that. It won’t, because from its very genesis DART has been a tool of suburban sprawl, intended to line the pockets of suburban land speculators. It’s not going to change direction by 180 degrees now. Dallas is important to DART as a source of revenue, but it’s not that important.
The true history is that we voted in favor of DART to save the city from suburban developers. If it came to it, we would vote against DART to save the city from the same guys again. DART is not the thing. The city is the thing.