(Texas Tribune) -- North Texas’ largest transit system says it has figured out a way to fast track a controversial suburban passenger rail line that connects to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport without jeopardizing plans for a downtown Dallas subway.
But some new urbanism advocates don’t share Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s optimism. They fear the way DART is financially structuring the rail expansions is prioritizing the suburban Cotton Belt line above all other projects, including the urban subway and additions to Dallas’ burgeoning streetcar network.
Those subway and streetcar expansions were among the projects that the Dallas City Council this month unanimously said should take precedent over the Cotton Belt line. And the 20-year financing plan that DART is so confident about doesn’t resolve how to speed up a massive bus service overhaul, something else the Dallas council said was a priority over the suburban rail line.
“We’re trying to accelerate it,” DART spokesman Morgan Lyons said of the bus overhaul. “We’ve not done that yet.”
At issue is a 20-year financial plan the DART board is scheduled to approve Tuesday night. That document details how the agency aims to finance its planned expansion projects and daily operations over the next two decades.
A long-term plan passed last year called for service on a $2.9 billion version of the Cotton Belt to begin in 2035. That line would run from the airport through Carrollton, Addison, Far North Dallas, Richardson and connect to the existing Red Line in Plano.
The agency began fast-tracking plans after officials in Addison complained that the original timeline would take too long. That northern Dallas County suburb has paid more than $250 million into DART since 1984, but has yet to see rail service. Officials and residents have hinted that if rail service doesn’t come sooner, the city will pull out of DART and take its $12 million or so in annual sales tax contributions with it.
DART’s proposed new long-range plan relies on a new federal loan program to speed up construction on the Cotton Belt. Officials say that building the line sooner will help cut the overall price tag since construction costs are expected to rise over time.
But the new $1.1 billion cost of the project also calls for most of the line to be built as a single set of tracks, something that will limit the number and frequency of trains that can run on the line.
While Addison officials are eager for the Cotton Belt, residents and officials in Carrollton and Dallas aren’t so excited. Carrollton Mayor Matthew Marchant would prefer it be built as a bus rapid transit line, a much cheaper form of transit that would allow only buses to run on roads in the same corridor. And people with homes near the line fear additional noise and vibration the trains would bring.
Last year’s long-term plan also called for the second downtown light-rail route to be built mostly at street level. All four of DART’s current rail lines share a single route through downtown, which limits the number and frequency of trains that run throughout its entire system.
When downtown landowners balked at a proposed route for the street-level portion of the line, DART submitted three different route possibilities for federal review. That did little to ease the worries of downtown residents and business owners who feared DART was simply placating them without seriously considering moving the route.
When the transit agency said this year that the path many people preferred wouldn’t work, landowners and new urbanists banded together and made a vocal push to make the route a subway. The Dallas City Council, which has to approve the location or any new rail line in its city, agreed and passed a resolution calling for the new line to be built underground through the central business district.
That will significantly drive up the cost of the downtown project, dubbed D2, from $707 million to $1.3 billion. DART officials say they can still pull the project off. There’s one key caveat: It requires federal transit authorities agreeing to double their hoped-for contribution to the project from $325 million to $650 million.
“But we feel pretty confident that we’ll be able to still make it,” said Lyons, the DART spokesman.
What worries Coalition for a New Dallas, a new urbanism political action committee, is that the large amount of debt required to build the Cotton Belt will make federal authorities look less favorably on DART’s overall finances and be less likely to increase the D2 grant.
“Clearly, we’re putting ourselves in a riskier situation,” said Matt Tranchin, executive director of the coalition.
Plus, it could be years before DART finds out if federal officials will chip in $650 million for D2. And if they say no, D2 could be delayed for several years. By that time, Cotton Belt could already be under construction. That means DART could end up building a rail line that’s not on Dallas’ list of priorities ahead of projects that are.
Tranchin said the agency should put the Cotton Belt on hold until it secures money for D2, a streetcar expansion and figures out how to speed up an overhaul of bus service.
“That seems like the logical thing,” he said.
DART officials don’t see a need to put a pause on any of the projects.
“We’ve been in communication with [the Federal Transit Administration] throughout this process,” Lyons said. “We feel comfortable with what we’re doing and we’re on a solid path.”
Plus, DART isn’t explicitly required to follow Dallas’ list of priorities. There are 12 other cities that contribute sales tax revenues to the transit agency. The DART board is made up of 15 people. Dallas appoints seven members and shares an eighth with Cockrell Hill. The remaining seven members are appointed by the City Councils of the 11 other member cities.
But, Dallas officials say, improving the log jam of downtown trains and making bus service more frequent and efficient will benefit the entire DART system and its riders much more than connecting northern neighborhoods to the airport.
“The customer is not the cities as it relates to sales tax revenues,” City Council member Adam McGough said at a meeting earlier this month. “The customer should be the passengers. And I think we’ve missed that.”
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