Austin, Cap Metro: Are you listening? Dallas Dart rail is becoming a disaster.

COST Comments: The story below could be about a future Austin/Cap Metro if their leaders’ current aspirations are fulfilled. How sad it is that Austin and Cap Metro do not even observe the rail disasters taking place across the nation and here in Texas as strong indicators that the same actions will provide the same pitiful results in Austin as in other places.

Money woes will force DART to cut jobs, rail plans

07:59 AM CDT on Wednesday, April 28, 2010
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

Dallas Area Rapid Transit must cut jobs and scrap nearly all rail expansion plans for the next 20 years, agency executives told board members Tuesday, citing discouraging revenue forecasts.

Final decisions are months away, but Chief Financial Officer David Leininger warned the board that DART probably will have to cut nearly a third of the spending it had planned between now and 2030.

Only one building project not already under construction or under contract – the final leg of the Orange Line to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport – is likely to be saved. And even that rail project will depend on how aggressively the board cuts overhead, including jobs.

Plans for a second light-rail line in downtown Dallas, until now scheduled to open in 2016, will no longer be funded and are likely to be scrapped unless other money can be found. The line has a projected cost of $505 million to $820 million.

Projects that are under construction, including the Green Line rail expansion to Carrollton, scheduled to open in December, and the first two legs of the Orange Line, due by 2012, will be unaffected.

Leininger said the board will need to trim $30 million to $50 million in annual operating expenses. The higher number will be required if DART wants to preserve the Orange Line leg to the airport, he said.

Most of that reduction will come through eliminating jobs, though Leininger said it’s too early to tell how many will be cut through attrition and how many workers will be terminated. DART has 3,587 employees.

Many job cuts

Leininger told board member Jerry Christian of Dallas that the number of jobs affected would be large. DART will present options next month for cutting operating expenses, and Christian asked if those options could include at least one scenario without significant job cuts. “With respect, that is something I won’t be able to do,” Leininger said. “The number is going to be a big one.”

Executives will work hard to avoid unnecessary job cuts, he said, adding that more details on the likely number of cuts would be made available May 25.

In March, DART officials said disappointing sales tax receipts had caused the agency to take a fuller look at its finances. The agency concluded that its sales tax projections were wildly optimistic.

DART’s revenue problems, the agency concluded, go beyond the recession and are unlikely to improve soon.

For 10 years, sales tax receipts have been essentially flat, Leininger said, and demographic changes in DART’s 13 member cities, especially those in Dallas County, mean sales-tax revenue will probably grow slowly even when the economy recovers.

Dallas County’s population used to be younger, richer and better educated than the national average. By all of those measures, that’s no longer the case, he said.

The new forecasts reduce the agency’s sales tax receipts by $2.7 billion over the next 20 years. But the real impact on DART’s spending will be much higher because those tax receipts would have been used to borrow nearly $4 billion more and to secure about $1.4 billion in anticipated federal grants.

DART will no longer be able to count on any of that money. As a result, it will spend nearly $7.9 billion less by 2030 than the $27.2 billion its 20-year plan calls for now. That’s a reduction of about 29 percent.

Reduced ambitions

Dallas City Council member Linda Koop, chairman of the city’s transportation committee, said the reduced revenue forecast would greatly reduce the transit agency’s ambitions.

“Over the last decade or so, DART has had one of the most robust capital programs in the country,” Koop said earlier this month, when DART first said it would have to shrink its spending. That kind of growth – indeed traditional light-rail expansion of any kind – might no longer be affordable, she said.

“DART must also re-evaluate its 2030 system plan,” Koop said. “At $100 million a mile for light rail, I see little additional ‘conventional light rail’ in DART’s future.”

The city and DART will probably have to focus on more affordable modes of transportation, including cheaper types of rail and, for places like downtown Dallas, streetcars.

DART’s staff will present recommendations June 22 on how to cut the agency’s capital budget.

Maintenance and replacement of existing assets, when needed, won’t be shortchanged, Leininger said. DART will still have money to replace its bus fleet within a few years and to replace light-rail cars when needed, in about 15 years.

But just about everything else is on the table, he said. For example, DART had planned to spend $55 million to develop a fare-collection system, but that project will probably be put on hold. The agency also had planned to spend $500 million to build high-occupancy vehicle lanes throughout North Texas, but that total will probably be reduced to $103 million.

Also likely to be scrapped:

•The 2.9-mile extension of the Blue Line to the University of North Texas-Dallas campus.

•The 28-mile commuter line known as the Cotton Belt, though plans are under way to build that through a partnership with a private firm.

•A new spur off the Green Line along Scyene Road in Dallas.

•A 4.3-mile extension of the Red Line to Red Bird Lane in southern Dallas.

•A 6-mile rail line in West Dallas, probably along Fort Worth Avenue to Loop 12.

•Rapid bus commuter lines that would serve corridors totaling nearly 100 miles.

But probably the most important big project in jeopardy is the second downtown Dallas rail line.

That line has been seen as critical to DART’s expansion for more than a decade, and more recently has been a focus of Dallas city leaders who say it could spur economic development.

Until DART’s funding problems arose last month, agency planners had hoped to apply this year for federal grants to help pay for the line.

Now, those plans are almost certain to be put on hold. Uncertainty about DART’s long-range funding makes it nearly impossible to complete the federal application in time to keep the project on schedule, said Stephen Salin, vice president of rail planning for DART.

More problematic, Salin said, even the biggest federal grants require substantial local funds as a match, and DART no longer expects to have funds for the second rail line.

Still, new sources of revenue could turn up, either through a new kind of federal stimulus program or through help from the state or regional agencies, Salin said. As a result, he urged the DART board to vote by June on a preferred route for the downtown line, to better position the agency to take advantage of any windfall.

DART officials are scheduled to appear before Koop’s committee May 10 to discuss the second downtown line.

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