Friday, October 07, 2005

DARTing in and out of facts

You disappear for a month, view some of America’s greatest parks and natural sites and return home to Plano and the usual whining and complaining about the “same old same old.” People, such as former councilman Steve Stovall, continue to cry about how other communities choose to spend their money and why everyone isn’t on board with expansion of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART).
It would be helpful if some history and perspective were added to the conversation about how we got here and why. In 1977, I worked for a daily paper outside of Houston and was asked to write a news story (I was the sports guy) about introducing rapid transit and light rail to Texas, notably Houston. To recall, Texas was labeled as “Super state” and was flush with oil money, overflowing in the state coffers. The Legislature could have spent that surplus on anything – teacher pay, infrastructure improvement or rapid transit throughout Texas.
But as a local state representative grumbled to me, “In Texas, son, people want to get around only with rubber to concrete. They don’t want them fancy systems back East.” So nothing was done and Austin stuffed the money in its version of a mattress.
Almost 30 years later, that statement is as stupid as not paying for better teachers, not improving our highways until they start to crumble and failing to start building light rail systems in every major Texas city when the money was there. It wasn’t the first act of ignorance and it won’t be the last.
The Legislature offered no help to cities faced with this Sophie’s Choice. You tack on additional sales tax, up to 1 percent within a city, for two of three options – economic development, cultural/facility development (such as libraries, etc.) or support of a regional transit system. Two, but not all three. Of course, the tax system in Texas has been part of the problem since sales of goods and property ownership are the main means to fund everything in this huge state.
DART failed, in its mission, to sell itself 20-25 years ago. No city had a true idea of what was planned or what would be. Instead of beginning work within Dallas, and then going to the suburbs with what was happening on the ground, DART went with a concept - a “spec ad” in advertising lingo – but only a few ‘burbs bought it. Most voters, on a city-by-city basis, rejected plans to join DART.
It wasn’t just Allen and McKinney that said “no.” None of the southern suburbs joined DART, except for tiny Glenn Heights and it will never have light rail until Duncanville, Cedar Hill and DeSoto say “yes.” It will never happen because DART has always wanted retroactive payments for the missing years. It doesn’t believe in the philosophy that “here is where the ball lies; play on from here.” DART seeks taxing mulligans.
Not every city made this choice and convinced the Lege to alter the system to benefit some special project. The Ballpark in Arlington (a.k.a. Ameriquest Field) is a taxpayer-funded facility for a private entity, using a transit system tax. In San Antonio, the Alamodome is, for lack of a better description, the world’s largest bus terminal, built with the transit system tax. There is an evacuee football team as occupant but little else. And there is no public parking around it because part of the construction provision had fans using VIA (the city bus system) to get to-and-from the facility.
DART is the best light rail system in Texas and it is totally inadequate for the needs of this region. You can’t take the rail to Fair Park, Six Flags, Ameriquest Field, the Kimbell, the Dallas Arboretum, Deep Ellum, Knox-Henderson, the Galleria, North Park, Stonebriar Centre or 90 percent of what consists of the Metroplex. And that’s better than Houston (with a line from downtown to the Reliant Stadium) and San Antonio (with nothing). How sad is that?
If DART wants to solve its revenue shortfall, the answer is almost too simple to comprehend. All that is needed is for DART to 1) charge for parking and 2) stop the honor system for rider tickets. If you charge $3-5 to park all day in a DART lot, it would still be far cheaper to do that than drive downtown (or wherever) and pay to pay in a more expensive lot.
If you insure that everyone who rides on DART pays for that privilege, it will generate hundreds and hundreds of thousands of dollars into DART accounts. It would mean hiring people to work as cashiers and ticket dispensers, but it’s how it is done in all other light rail cities. Gee whiz, DART becomes a job producing machine AND pays for it by collecting more revenue. Duh, and I could have had a V-8!
Each community makes up its own mind and then deals with consequences. To try to interfere in this argument is as bad as early this year when forces outside Plano tried to influence the vote on Plano’s monetary participation in the proposed Arts Hall. Officials from other cities wanted to pipe up, but when the shoe was on the other foot, and Planoites tried to voice support for referendum in Frisco about housing construction, they were told by those officials to “butt out!”
It will take billions and half a century to build a system to satisfy the needs of this region. We pay today for mistakes made two or three decades ago. But we can’t whine about it now when the same voices were silent back then.

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