MESQUITE — As Dallas Area Rapid Transit expands service, concern is growing the transit agency is not playing fair.
On Monday morning, DART buses began rolling through Mesquite for the first time — even though the Dallas suburb is not a member of the agency. It marks a radical departure for DART, which originally required residents of a city to pay a one-cent sales tax to get access to its service.
"It is not fair," said Jack Lagos of Plano.
For nearly 20 years, a penny of every dollar he spends in Plano went to DART, even though he confesses he’s only been on its trains a handful of times.
"We are subsidizing another city," he said. "That right there says it is not fair."
Since its inception in 1983, the agreement between DART and its member cities was clear. Residents in those cities would pay a portion of their sales tax to Dallas Area Rapid Transit. In return, the residents would enjoy exclusive access to public transportation.
Over the years, the tax has raised billions of dollars to build the expansive rail and bus network that moves 220,000 people a day over 700 square miles.
Just last year, the 13 member cities turned over $400 million in local sales taxes to DART.
Facing tight times, DART last year changed its charter and agreed to offer bus service to non-member cities, like Mesquite, if the town covered the $300,000 cost of the bus and the driver.
The deal proved irresistible to Mesquite. The city gets to keep its sales tax and still enjoy public transportation.
"Nobody’s joined DART in some 20 years; you think anyone’s going to run and join now?" asked Mesquite Assistant City Manager Jerry Dittman.
Otherwise, he said, Mesquite could not afford DART.
"We need a regional transit system, not a country club, members-only transit system," Dittman said.
Mesquite is starting small. A shuttle service simply moves riders between the city’s Hanby Stadium and DART’s Lawnview rail station, 10 miles away in Dallas.
Customers riding the new Route 282 will have to pay a $7 round-trip fare, $3 more than the standard fare. On its first morning rush-hour Dittman counted 38 riders.
He expects the service to grow, and hopes to eventually bring a commuter rail line through town.
"This is a baby step to bring passenger rail service to Mesquite," he said.
Mesquite’s new route is only a three-year trial run, yet Mark Ball, DART’s spokesperson, said a handful of other non-member cities have also shown interest in starting a similar type of service.
"Our 13 member cities are not growing as fast as some of the outlying areas," Ball said. "If DART wants to take advantage of the growth occurring outside our cities, we need to consider other options."
McKinney, Allen and Balch Springs have all expressed interest in getting bus service - possibly to tie into a neighboring rail station. None of those cities have said they’d be willing to become full-paying DART members.
"There’s no discussion of that whatsoever," said Ed Morris, Balch Springs City Manager.
The move has raised serious concern with some of the member cities now questioning their long-term investment in DART.
Plano’s Deputy City Manager Frank Turner worries that newcomers like Mesquite aren’t fully paying their fair share. "There is a concern overall in maintaining equitable service," he said. "We’re not certain… whether or not the full cost of continuing that trip into the DART system is being recovered."
Other members, like Glenn Heights, feel ripped off.
The town of 11,000 south of Dallas is one of the smallest members of DART. Each year, it sends the transit agency nearly $350,000, yet the town has only one bus route.
City leaders say they now wish they had spent that money on recruiting new businesses.
"We don’t think we’re getting the benefit we anticipated initially," said Glenn Heights Interim City Manager Judy Bell. "All of the money that goes to economic development for Glenn Heights currently goes to DART, so it’s very frustrating."
Garland City Council member Larry Jeffus says neighboring Mesquite has poached businesses. He says Mesquite has more money to offer new companies because it’s not shouldering the full cost of DART.
"What they’ve been able to do is use their [saved one] cent to attract business," Jeffus said. "In some cases, I feel attract business from my city!"
He pointed to a shuttered Target retail store on the south side of Garland that moved to Mesquite.
Mesquite insists it’s playing fair and didn’t use sales tax money to lure Target.
"We just had a better deal," Dittman said. "We don’t have any different tools than they do."