Mesquite Is Ready to Bail on DART, but the Agency's Bending Over Backward to Keep It

After three years of bus service, Mesquite, DART's first non-member city partner, appears set to spurn the agency for Star Transit, a private bus company that serves Balch Springs, Kaufmann County and Rockwall County.

City officials said the potential move stems from DART's changing its policies for non-member cities and Mesquite's need to maintain funding for its in-house transportation service for the elderly and disabled.

In 2011, DART approved providing a la carte services to non-member cities where the transit agency doesn't collect a 1 percent sales tax. Mesquite, which turned down joining DART at the organization's inception in 1983, agreed to pay DART about $300,000 a year for a single bus route that carries passengers to a light rail station.

The next year, DART changed its policy to mandate that cities paying for individual services hold an election to approve the agency's 1 cent sales tax in the fourth year of that service.

Mesquite says the potential cost of voters choosing to join DART is more than the city can handle.

"The amount of resources it would take to join DART exceeds our abilities," Mesquite communications manager Wayne Larson says. "We would have to reduce or cut other services to afford to join DART."

Mesquite's sales tax rate is already 8.25 percent, the most allowed by state law.

Under Mesquite's proposed agreement with Star Transit, the company would take over the current DART route, which shuttles commuters between Hanby Stadium and the Green Line's Lawnview Station, as well as the city's in-house transportation services.

Mesquite residents would still be linked to DART, without the city giving the agency a dime.

"Star would need to make the arrangements with DART," Larson says. "In theory, [DART] would still be getting revenue that they hadn't been getting even prior to our non-member agreement."

DART plans to try to keep Mesquite in the fold and is working on a plan to sway the city before its final vote.

As of Monday, when Assistant City Manager Jerry Dittman made his latest presentation to the Mesquite City Council, the city had not received anything on paper from DART, so Dittman's presentation focused solely on information about the potential benefits of Star.

"The staff is currently looking at what we may propose to Mesquite, [the staff] is trying to decide if it's something that can or can't be done." DART media representative Mark Ball says.

"We're still evaluating different options of how we can provide additional value to Mesquite to continue to be part of an integrated and coordinated transit system," Todd Plesko, DART's vice president of planning and development says.

Plesko says the DART board of directors will consider changing the four-year election requirement in the fall. In the interim, pending board approval, DART plans to offer Mesquite a three-year contract that would not be subject to any election requirements.

Should Mesquite turn the proposal down, DART will have to evaluate how to deal with the city's riders.

"What does it mean to have DART service, and are there creative ways to have DART service in ways that leverage all of DART's assets in a way that helps riders? DART's interest is in providing improved transportation throughout the region," Plesko says, "not just in the 13 [member] cities."

Doing that is difficult when DART members have contributed so much to the founding, development and maintenance of the system, Plesko says.

"We're trying to find a way that's a win-win for everybody," he says, "in a way that's respectful of the investment that's been made by those people that have been part of DART for all these years."

Without finding that correct balance, DART riders who actually pay for the service might feel the brunt of Mesquite's move.

"DART's concern is that everybody has their own little system and they all work just to dump passengers into the DART system in a way that we can't meet the demand, we have no resources to handle the problem," Plesko says.

Nevertheless, Plesko is hopeful for DART and Mesquite's long-term prospects.

"There's probably got to be a way to skin this cat, I think," he says.

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Stephen Young has written about Dallas news for the Observer since 2014. He's a Dallas native and a graduate of the University of North Texas.
Contact: Stephen Young