DART rolls into Mesquite... at a discount

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by JONATHAN BETZ

WFAA

Posted on March 11, 2012 at 10:56 PM

Updated Tuesday, Mar 13 at 1:09 PM

MESQUITE — DART buses make their debut in Mesquite on Monday morning.

While city leaders here are applauding the move, some of the Mesquite's neighbors are furious because it marks the first time a North Texas city is getting DART service without being a member of the agency.

"I'm really disappointed," said Garland City Council member Larry Jeffus. "When it comes to DART, it doesn't feel like it's a fair and balanced system."

Garland is one of DART's 13 member cities where, for years, residents have been paying a 1 percent sales tax to the transit agency. Over the years, the levy has raised billions of dollars to build DART's expansive — and expensive — rail and bus network.

Mesquite voters, however, have twice rejected becoming part of the DART network. Jeffus is shocked that the city will nevertheless begin to enjoy public transportation.

"They're getting in for chump change," he said.

For years, the agreement between DART and its member cities was clear: Residents in those cities would pay a penny of every dollar of sales to Dallas Area Rapid Transit. In return, the residents would enjoy exclusive access to public transportation.

Yet, facing tight times, DART last year changed its charter and agreed to offer bus service to Mesquite as long as the city covered the $300,000 cost of the bus and the driver.

"I think it's going to be great," said Mesquite City Council member Shirley Roberts. "It does give our citizens a choice."

With other cities spending billions for DART, critics say Mesquite is — in effect — getting a free ride. Jeffus says Mesquite kept its sales tax money and instead used it to lure new business, sometimes at Garland's expense.

He points to an empty Target store on Garland's south side, which Jeffus said, was lured a few miles away by Mesquite.

"What they’ve been able to do is use their cent to attract business," he said, "in some cases, I feel, attracting business from my city!"

DART insists that Mesquite is paying 100 percent of the cost of its own service.

For years, the agency has struggled with how to transport commuters from non-member cities. Stops at the end of rail lines are often jammed with commuters driving in from outside the service area.

DART points out that people in Mesquite have using its buses and trains for years. The new service simply makes it easier for the commuters.

Mesquite's new route is only a three-year trial run, yet DART spokesman Mark Ball says a handful of other non-member cities have also shown interest in getting a similar type of service.

"There's been a lot of interest," he said, "but none have stepped up to the plate yet to pay for it like Mesquite has."

Mesquite is starting small. A shuttle service will simply move riders between Mesquite’s Hanby Stadium and DART's Lawnview rail station, 10 miles away in Dallas. Customers riding the new Route 282 bus will have to pay a $7 fare, $3 more than the standard fare.

Yet Kenneth Behrend, 57, says the new service will make it easier for him to get to Dallas and look for a job.

"If you live in Mesquite, you're kind of stuck, because you don't have any public transportation," he said.

E-mail jbetz@wfaa.com

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