Dallas’ DART Transit is Finally Forced to Admit it is Off-Track

COST Comments: For many years, Dallas has been full steam ahead on an unsustainable transit plan. The recession generated slow-down in sales tax revenues has forced the agency to face the inevitable reality which may otherwise have been postponed to a slightly later date.

The DART agency’s ill-advised expansion of rail transit has dramatically increased capital costs and their current debt service (interest payments) of $141 million are greater than Austin’s total annual transit operating costs. This DART debt service will almost double by 2018. This huge increase in cost has not increased transit ridership and the percentage of people using transit has declined. This is not sustainable as DART is demonstrating and as Austin’s Cap Metro has shown with a relatively small investment in commuter rail.

As COST has commented many times, and this article reinforces, the wasteful spending on ineffective rail transit degrades overall transportation and has a major negative impact on the bus service which serves a clientele that is more often lower income or transit-dependent.

The Dallas DART performance is not unique and will be experienced in Austin if current rail plans are pursued. Austin has already seen a major increase in bus fares and a cut in service for the 40,000 daily bus riders in order to highly subsidize less than 1,000 train riders who mostly have a choice. Austin’s is exhausting transit funds by subsidizing daily, two-way, train riders with more than $1,300 per month to ride. And, many train riders are complaining that the $71 monthly train pass is too high.

The City of Austin is pursuing additional train transit in face of a 10 year declining trend in transit ridership and a ten year trend in increasing costs per passenger mile which is almost double the inflation rate. This too, is not sustainable. Cap Metro has an empty bucket of reserve dollars and no way to cover significant contingencies or improve its backbone bus service.

Q&A: There’s no getting around cuts for DART

08:13 AM CDT on Thursday, March 25, 2010
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

DART officials say “profound” adjustments to the agency’s operations will be necessary to addv ss lower-than-expected sales-tax receipts.

Will DART service levels be affected by its financial troubles? No matter what DART does to trim its capital building efforts over the next decade or more, it still is going to have to cut service levels to reduce operating costs.

DART spends much more operating bus services each year than it does operating its trains. But with fares up, and some service already being cut in anticipation of the Green Line opening, that doesn’t leave DART much room either to drop routes or to decrease service frequency.

It also must determine whether those cuts should only be in bus service, which serves a clientele that is more often poor or transit-dependent, or whether rail service on its existing lines should be scaled back, too.

Will DART’s big-ticket capital projects be significantly delayed? That’s the big worry in DART member cities, particularly for long-promised projects such as the downtown Dallas line and the Orange Line service to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport.

The downtown line is most vulnerable, given that the route preferred by Dallas already is much more expensive than the funds DART has to pay for it.

How will fares be affected by DART’s money woes? DART expects to sell the equivalent of about 9.3 million round-trip fares this year, and an additional 300,000 weekly, monthly or yearly passes. Together, that will bring in just under $58 million.

With operating costs reaching $402 million this year, that’s not much of a contribution. The question for DART is whether to reduce that gap by raising fares.

It also could choose to spend big money to close off platforms and require riders to show a ticket to board trains. But there’s no guarantee such a move would make any appreciable difference in the bottom line.

Will DART’s commitment to operate and enforce HOV lanes be affected? Look for that issue to be scrutinized in coming weeks. DART’s 2010 plan says the agency has spent about $30 million in operating funds to maintain the HOV lanes. Capital funds have totaled an additional $64 million, and DART expects to have 87 positions dedicated to this work.

Will DART’s 3,000-plus employees face cuts? Maybe, but maybe not. DART has to hire employees to operate the Green and Orange Lines in the next two years, so maybe it will hire fewer people and make transfers.

On the other hand, as of last year, DART paid 88 people salaries of more than $100,000. There may be pressure to trim those ranks, as DART president Gary Thomas said the agency will look at its administrative ranks for possible reorganization.

What about DART’s already sizable debt load? You can’t build rail lines without going into debt. But as debt increases, so does annual debt service.

For DART, a big burst of capital spending in 2010 will mean difficult debt payments for decades to come. Eventually, as TxDOT is learning, you can borrow so much that your annual debt payments become so large they constrict your ability to pay for routine services.

DART’s debt service was just $29.7 million in 2005. It’s $140.8 million this year. By 2018, it will be $261.6 million.

What does DART’s gloomier financial picture mean for cities that do not have rail service, such as long-suffering Addison? The short answer is they’ll have to wait even longer. But the problem for DART goes even further.

For instance, in Plano, which has enjoyed a high level of DART service for years, there is some talk that the city spends too much for what it gets. The agency has begun discussions on improving services for the elderly in Plano, a difficult proposition in this financial climate.

How DART responds to frustrations in Plano and other established cities will be important as it confronts the twin challenges of keeping established members happy and finding ways to expand its reach – and revenue sources – beyond the 13 cities that have been paying in for so long.

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