Hey Collin County, How D'ya Like DART Now?

Two years ago, DART proposed running a bus route from the city of McKinney to the Parker Road train station. The transit agency was hoping to gain a foothold in the northern boom towns of Collin County, both to advance its vision of a seamless regional transit system and, more pragmatically, because McKinney residents were heavy users of light rail even though their town's sales taxes didn't subsidize the service. McKinney, however, rebuffed DART's offer, opting instead for the upstart Texoma Area Paratransit System.

Now, McKinney is in the "Texoma Area" the same way that Brandon Weeden is close to being Tom Brady, but that hasn't stopped TAPS from aggressively pushing into Collin County over the past several years. In addition to the shuttle to the train station, McKinney contracted with TAPS, also in 2013, to provide bus service within the city. TAPS also contracted with AllenFrisco and Collin County. DART's efforts were handicapped by a longstanding policy requiring cities that contract with the agency for bus service to vote within three years to hold a referendum on becoming tax-paying member cities, but nevertheless, DART's northward expansion was stopped before it began.

Two years later, TAPS' decision to expand into Collin County — and the decision by Collin County governments to contract with the agency — seems dubious, and not just because of the disjointed Collin County transit system that resulted. The bad news began trickling out late last spring when the agency laid off nearly 10 percent of its workforce; its CEO, Brad Underwood, blamed the layoffs on Congress' inability to pass long-term transportation funding. That explanation was, at the very least, incomplete. By mid-September, Underwood had resigned. Shortly after that, new CEO Tim Patton, citing "higher than expected costs and operational issues," announced a "Moving Forward Initiative." Even still, TAPS acknowledged that half of the TAPS fleet wasn't operating. In a town-hall meeting with employees on October 2, Patton promised that "we're gonna crawl out of the difficulties we have."

Exactly what those difficulties were became somewhat clearer last week when the Regional Transportation Council, which steers funding and sets transportation policy for the region, was briefed on TAPS' struggles. Over the summer, according to the briefing, the Federal Transit Administration conducted an in-depth audit of the agency's books and identified a litany of deficiencies in its accounting methods and the way it handled its finances. Shortly after the report was released, the TAPS board of directors learned of "agency cashflow problems and year-end financial projections that showed a deficit." As of late September, the agency owed vendors about $4 million and was running a deficit somewhere between $800,000 and $1.6 million.

Jessie Huddleston, a transportation planner with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, explained it to the RTC thusly: "Sometime in 2015, they got themselves upside down, somehow stopped paying their vendors, so they stopped paying money out, which means they can't be reimbursed and all their state and federal funding came to a grinding halt, which is pretty much where they are today." About two-thirds of revenue comes from Medicaid reimbursements for ferrying patients to health-care visits. Most of the rest — the funding for the McKinney, Allen and Collin County routes — comes from federal transit grants, though local governments do chip in a bit.

TAPS' current troubles were, if the FTA audit is any indication, exacerbated by poor management and oversight, but the fundamental problem seems to be that TAPS badly overextended itself. The agency became a standalone entity around 2000, when it spun off from the Texoma Area Agency on Aging. For most of the next decade, it mainly provided on-demand, curb-to-curb rides to the elderly in Sherman, Denison and the surrounding rural areas. In 2009, the agency's budget was $1.4 million. Four years later, with the addition of fixed-route service and an increasing geographic footprint, the budget had increased by an order of magnitude, to $19.8 million. Another two years and it had topped $25 million. Employment growth was almost as dramatic, with the agency jumping from about 80 workers to nearly 400.

TAPS is already trimming its workforce and announced drastic service cuts, which sucks for the Collin County residents who came to rely on the service and those who would benefit from a decent public transit system. Dallas' exurbs are not economically homogeneous. According to the census, more than 8,000 adult workers in the McKinney Urbanized Area (about 10 percent of the working population) live in households that make less than one-and-a-half times the poverty level. None of these workers, it's fair to say, can comfortably afford a car. There are also thousands of non-working kids and elderly residents at or near the poverty line who would benefit from increased mobility provided by a decent public transit system.

That goal — providing a passable public transit system in a sprawling and car-centric exurb — may be a pipe dream, but McKinney, Frisco, Allen etc. owe it to their residents to offer something that's at least halfway descent. TAPS hasn't done that, and not just because of mismanagement; the agency's model of providing cheap, a-la-carte bus service can't really do the trick. DART would do a better job, even if it should focus on improving service and boosting ridership in its core area rather than chasing people to the suburbs.
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Eric Nicholson
Contact: Eric Nicholson