City Hall

Why DART's Support for Both D2 and the Cotton Belt Could Threaten Both Projects

There was a mutiny of sorts at Tuesday night's DART board meeting. Five Dallas-appointed members voted against the expressed will of the Dallas City Council, despite being appointed by the council members. As a result, DART will attempt to build the D2 subway line through downtown Dallas and the suburb-connecting Cotton Belt rail line at the same time.

Both projects will be treated with same priority, in direct contradiction to recommendations passed by the city council earlier this month.

On the surface, Tuesday's vote reads as a compromise. The city of Dallas, by far DART's biggest contributor, gets something it wants in a subway. Dallas' northern suburbs gets the rail connection to DFW that they've always wanted. No longer, seemingly, will Addison remain without rail service despite handing over sales taxes to DART for more than 30 years.

But what the DART board did by tying D2 to the Cotton Belt is pair a long-promised expansion that is critical to DART's growth with a project that isn't essential. Doing so threatens the future of both projects, because it risks their funding.

DART needs D2 because adding a second, underground rail line to Dallas' downtown corridor will cure the bottleneck that limits the number of trains that can serve the system. As things stand, any train headed in any direction on DART's more than 40 miles of rail track must put up with surface traffic in the Central Business District, drastically reducing service frequency.

All the Cotton Belt will do is help people in North Dallas and north of the city to get to the airport quicker.

While DART expects to receive somewhere between $325 and $650 million in federal money to help with the construction of D2, which is expected to cost about $1.3 billion once the subway tunnel is dug and trains are running, it will still need to have some borrowing flexibility in order to finance the project. The same is true for the Cotton Belt, which is ineligible for any federal grants and will have to be financed entirely by either new DART debt or cash on hand.

Therein lies the problem. "DART's bond rating is based entirely on its cash position. If it is proposing to deploy all of its case assets at once in two different projects, its cost of borrowing is going to go up," City Council member Philip Kingston said earlier this month. "We will then be back at this horseshoe with some representative from DART telling us that D2 has to wait 10 years because their cost of borrowing went up or that they can't issue the debt because they don't want their cost of borrowing to go up. ... The two projects simply are not compatible."

After Tuesday's vote, Matt Tranchin, the head of Coalition for a New Dallas, a PAC that has pushed hard for the D2 subway, suggested on Twitter that the five Dallas DART board members who voted to make the Cotton Belt a priority should lose their jobs.
Those changes to the DART board could come sooner rather than later. In a similar tweet, Kingston also threatened to fire DART board members. And last Friday afternoon, Council members Scott Griggs and Mark Clayton, both Cotton Belt opponents and subway supporters, announced that they'd nominated longtime Dallas urban advocate Patrick Kennedy to the DART board.

Kennedy is an outspoken supporter of the D2 subway and could help turn the board over once his appointment is approved.

“The problem is that every single proposal so far seems to have fatal flaws whereas the flaw of the subway route is that it costs more,” Kennedy said at an August public meeting about D2 in Deep Ellum. “We think that flaw is solvable. It’s just a matter of political will to spend the money to do it right the first time. … The longer term policy question is can we afford not to have the subway?”
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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