Study Shows DART Light-Rail System Should Be Renamed KNIFE (In Our Back)

DART is the longest light-rail system in the nation and among the least used.
DART is the longest light-rail system in the nation and among the least used. Jim Schutze
The bloody handprint could not be more clear. In a city that should be enabling upward mobility for everybody, a core of impacted poverty only grows and deepens. The giveaway, the paw print that explains it, is Dallas Area Rapid Transit, our regional mass-transit agency.

No, I’m not saying DART causes poverty. I am saying that if you look closely at the map of DART rail service, you will get a very good clue what does.

Three telltale fingers of rail, built at costs in the billions, reach up into Carrollton, Plano and Rowlett — suburban areas that need light rail like they a ski lift. Meanwhile, according to a devastating new report from the University of Texas at Arlington, DART does an appalling job of providing mass transit to inner-city, low-wage workers who need it.

I’m not saying lack of access to light rail causes poverty, exactly. I think I’m saying something much worse than that. I’m saying that the DART rail paw print shows the hand of a suburban-biased regional leadership that has betrayed the city for decades.

The old-guard leadership did not invent poverty. Poverty happens. It always has. But a well-designed city thinking for itself, a city that understands where its interest diverges from the interest of sprawl, can be the rope ladder by which people pull themselves up out of poverty. That’s not so for a city betrayed, sold down the river by leaders who don’t believe in cities.

The study presented to a Dallas City Council committee Monday starts with the damage. Dallas ranks third in the nation, behind Philadelphia and Houston, for child poverty. In Dallas, more than 30 percent of children are born into poverty.

Poor people of color in the city’s southern hemisphere are walled off from the opportunities that could lift them out of poverty, and, again, DART is the handprint for that.

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Of major cities, we are among the worst for segregation by race and income. We have the highest rate in the nation of neighborhood inequality. Since 2000, the poverty rate in Dallas has increased at twice the rate of population growth.

What’s DART got to do with it? Of all the charts presented in the study, the most incriminating was one depicting growth in low-wage jobs in the region versus location of poor neighborhoods. The jobs are all far north of the city in Frisco, Hackberry, Allen, The Colony, where all of the hot growth is happening. The poor neighborhoods, where unemployment rates have been catastrophic for decades, are all south of downtown. In between those two locations is a transit desert completely ill suited to getting people back and forth at cheap rates.

So what does that mean? Are all of those poor people in southern Dallas hitchhiking to work in Frisco? Of course not. They’re not going to work in Frisco. Other workers, who live in low-cost rural and blue-collar suburban areas, are taking those jobs. Poor people of color in the city’s southern hemisphere are walled off from the opportunities that could lift them out of poverty, and, again, DART is the handprint for that.

Is this map the outcome of natural forces? Did things just sort of happen this way due to some kind of demographic gravitational field? Absolutely not.

When DART was created in 1983, there was heated debate on its first board about the path it should take. A minority made up of former Dallas City Council member Lee Simpson, developer John Tatum, former acting Dallas Mayor Adlene Harrison and engineer Tom Taylor fought hard for the kind of fast, heavy, comprehensive, densely woven system that could provide bone structure for urban growth.

click to enlarge The three upward fingers of the rail map are the telltale. - DART.ORG
The three upward fingers of the rail map are the telltale.
The city-side members of the board were vigorously opposed and sometimes angrily shouted down by suburban members, whose argument made sense from their point of view. Their suburban constituents were being taxed at the same rate as city dwellers to pay for construction of a new rail system. Why should suburbanites pay taxes for a rail system designed for and by the city?

It was at that point in the argument, at that point in time that the truth made its one brief appearance, only to sink beneath the waves of time and disappear from view until surfacing again now. People in that Simpson-Tatum-Harrison cabal began to suggest ever so quietly that the suburbs were right. Their interests did not merely diverge from the city’s interests: The two were in diametrical opposition.

The suburbs were all about one American dream — the mini-castle on the prairie with a moat and a media room. The city was about another American dream, where newcomers and shutouts could push their way in and work their way up. It was all good. It was just different.

The suburbs have always seen rail the same way they see roads, as spurs to real estate development, as amenities of sprawl. The urban cabal on the first DART board wanted to build a rail and bus system that would substitute for and replace the automobile, serving as a tool of density and upward mobility.

So what some of those early urban members suggested was a tearing of the sheets. Maybe the regional marriage imposed by DART had been a mistake. Perhaps the smartest thing Dallas could do was allow the suburbs to pack up their fishing poles and return to their mothers.

That delineation of interests made a certain amount of hard good sense. At least it recognized that the whole narrative of regionalism was a bland but insidious fiction. The city and the suburbs were not engaged in a true cooperation but in a contest. There was no joint savings account — more like a pile of chips on a poker table.

In all of that, nobody was lying. Both sides were clearly stating their own interests and their own view of their own destinies. The knife and the lie came from the back. The oligarchy that had always controlled the city and continues to control it today betrayed the city in order to further its heavy bet on the suburbs.

The city and the suburbs were not engaged in a true cooperation but in a contest. There was no joint savings account — more like a pile of chips on a poker table.

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Of the three Dallas mayors whose regimes covered DART’s creation and first years, two — Robert Folsom and Starke Taylor — were among the biggest suburban residential developers in the area north of the city. Members of the powerful and private Dallas Citizens Council, men like the late Robert Dedman, who for a while was chairman of the Texas State Highway and Public Transportation Commission, fought to push highways and one-way thoroughfares through old urban neighborhoods. Their main aim was to get people up and out to the new suburban tracts in the north where they were either building or investing.

Sadly for Dallas, there was no minority leadership in southern Dallas capable of spotting the play. Instead, revered southern Dallas leaders like Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price tended to identify with the Citizens Council types, whom they saw as the men with the money. Price threw in his lot with suburban mega-developer and Citizens Council stalwart Dave Fox and even allied himself later with the Perot family, kings of suburban sprawl development who were actively working to stall economic development in Price’s district.

There was always a certain center of gravity in the city made up of people who got it, who knew the Citizens Council and its abettors among black elected officials were stabbing the city in the back. But they were derided as silly and entitled white yuppies, people who didn’t even know where they were supposed to live, people who had a lot of hippie kumbaya notions about building a true city, stuff they couldn’t possibly ever deliver on.

DART, meanwhile, became the mad mountain of the engineers and bureaucrats, a thing that ran itself for itself and gobbled down new board members like gummy bears. The best evidence of DART’s fundamental inner cultural dislocation is that it brags about being the nation’s longest light rail system.

Sure. Longest. Great. But what else?

According to the UTA report, DART’s rail system is close to the bottom, 15th out of the 20 biggest systems, in terms of ridership per mile. Fewer than 8 percent of the people who need rail most can use it to get to more than 10 percent of the available jobs. A third of the city’s residents have no walking access to a transit station for bus or rail.

Red — the jobs. Orange — the people who need the jobs. - UNIVERSITY OF TEXAS AT ARLINGTON
Red — the jobs. Orange — the people who need the jobs.
University of Texas at Arlington
What does longest have to do with it? Who said we wanted it to be the longest? I can tell you exactly who said it. Robert Folsom. Starke Taylor. Robert Dedman. John Wiley Price. The men who sold out the city to promote suburban sprawl.

That’s what the handprint tells us. The DART light-rail configuration didn’t cause poverty. It didn’t help. Now it exacerbates. But the thing to see in the rail map is not that, exactly. The thing to see is the fossilized evidence of the region’s political origins.

None of this was or is inevitable. Everything out there is manmade and decisional. The difference between 1983 and today has everything to do with the arrival in the city over the last two decades of a new, younger demographic wave. It’s why we can see the truth again after such a long dark age.

Reflecting what’s going on in cities all over the country, the new wave here gets cities. Instead of being frightened by diversity, the new wave finds some sizzle in it, some interest. Therefore, the new wave is capable of achieving social trust — the key ingredient in successful density.

If the people who are on the verge of taking over Dallas look at that rail map and read this report, a great lightbulb will ignite above their heads. Aha! Someone’s been eating our porridge! Now is the time to put a stop to it.
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze