DCTA: Like a Big Agency in a Small Package

It was eight days before a deployment that I interviewed Denton County Transportation Authority President Jim Cline. His current assignment was taking him to a deployment in Afghanistan for about a year.

“I was commissioned in May of 1984 as a second lieutenant in the Corp. Division of Engineers,” Cline says. “I’ve been in the whole time, over 26 years experience.

“My most recent assignment was to command an engineer battalion, the 386 engineers in Corpus Christi.”

It was by chance that Cline got in to transportation. “I was talking to my undergraduate advisor and he asked, ‘What’s your specialty?’ and I said, ‘General.’

“He said, ‘I’ll give you six hours of military science and technical elective if you just say you’re a traffic guy and I said, ‘I’m your boy.’ So that’s really how it started.”

His undergraduate specialty is in transportation and his master’s degree in civil engineering with a transportation focus; his master’s thesis on light rail transit grade crossing.

After he got his master’s, he worked for a private firm, Kenley Horne and Associates, then worked for the city of Beaumont, Texas, and then the city of Irving in August of 1998.

Working for the city of Irving, he did a variety of things and worked on a lot of big projects. “The Orange Line was one thing we were responsible for coordinating with DART on and everything to do with funding and right-of-way, everything we had to do to champion that project,” Cline says. “I got a chance to do a lot of different things outside of transportation, including public works, working with solid waste, utilities, a pretty broad spectrum.

“When you look at, just as an example, water utilities, the water utilities department is a separate fund, so it’s a lot like running an agency.” He explains, “You have to deal with all of the bonding and all of the finances and everything that goes with that. That part, outside of the engineering, really prepared me to do budgeting for an agency.”

Cline says he talked to some folks about what might be a good opportunity and then he went in, applied for the job, and then was the president of the Denton County Transportation Authority.

Cline had been responsible for the transit system for his eight years in Beaumont and now works with a lot of the same people he worked with while in Irving. Those include people from DART, TEXDOT and the regional council of governments. “That really helped out a lot. I’ve been able to use that experience I had working with those folks to help get things started here at DCTA.”

Denton County is located in Texas, in the Dallas – Fort Worth area and according to the 2007 census, has a higher than 612,000 population in the 958-square-mile area. Denton’s a university town, with the University of Texas having a major campus there and also the Texas Woman’s University and a growing traditional downtown area.

DCTA is looking at how it can best bring those areas together and work closely with DART and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority (The T), to have a regional fare system so from a passenger’s perspective, it’s transparent; you buy one pass and go all over the area.

Keeping the Momentum Going

“We talk a lot about our railroad but last year, we exceeded 2 million bus riders on our system and we’re on track to go up to 2.3 million,” Cline emphasizes. “We’re seeing record ridership. We’re serving a lot of students in Denton, but we’re also serving a lot of the public and we’ve done some changes to our routing.

“The staff here did some changes to how the routes work and it has just really paid off in both Lewisville and Denton, in terms of our connect fixed-route bus service.” He adds, “We couldn’t be more pleased with that.”

Cline says, “It’s a lot of excitement, a lot of glitz with the rail, but we want to make sure we don’t lose ground with our bus service and we’ve had good support for that.”

One of the things Cline says DCTA brings to the table is that it may be pretty small, but it’s more flexible than a lot of the bigger agencies. “We can respond pretty quickly to changes and so we’ve been able to adapt our system to meet our customers’ needs.

“We’ve been able to move so much faster than some of the other agencies have, in terms of implementing the service and growth on our bus services.” He stresses, “We’ve been able to move to market pretty quickly and react quickly to the needs of our citizens.”

In one news story, Cline says DCTA was compared to “The Little Engine That Could.”

“We’re just a small agency doing our thing in Denton County, but it’s happening. We’re seeing the kind of success that, the kind of growth in ridership … between 2005 and 2009 we’ve had a 63 percent growth in our ridership.” And looking between 2009 and DCTA’s projections, it will go up 15 percent alone.

“We’re always going to have and we do have the same challenges everyone else has got with vehicle replacement and fuel costs, employee issues, all those things, just scaled down a little bit; but we’ve got all the same challenges,” Cline says. He adds, “The staff has been able to really take those on and deal with it.

“We’ve been able to find some real quality people to take on multiple roles.” He emphasizes, “For an agency our size, you really can’t do just one thing; you have to do multiple things.”

Getting on Track

“The first step for us is to get the A Train in operation and make that happen,” Cline declares. The authority is in the middle of a system planning process right now and is looking at what the next services ought to be.

The A Train is a 21-mile commuter rail system that extends north from Trinity Mills Station on the Green Line for DART, up to downtown Denton.

One of the challenges it is facing, is a common one — funding. “Our base of our funding is a half-cent sales tax,” Cline says. “DART does a one-cent sales tax, so we’ve got to be pretty tight with our funding.

“The way the sales tax works here in Texas, you have a one-cent option above the normal sales tax to implement transit, or in some cases, economic development.” He elaborates, “A lot of folks have chosen to implement economic development and that’s a pretty broad thing, so they’re paying police officers and firefighters. We’re doing economic incentives and economic development activities.”

DCTA is looking at June 2011 for full service. It looked at a phased opening starting at the end of this year, but after review, it looked best to open it at one time. “It will allow us to communicate to the public better, will make it less confusing and will also save us some money at the beginning, help us keep our capital numbers right,” Cline says.

For its A Train service, DCTA was looking for a car that’s a lot more like a light rail car, but can operate with mixed traffic without having to do temporal separation or visceral separation of the new tracks. Cline says they’ve been working with the Federal Railroad Administration to get the Stadler GTWs certified under the alternative compliance requirements.

He says that the point they are at, they are pretty confident they are going to be able to work that out. “Right now the biggest issue we’re facing is the seats, I mean we’re down to that level,” he says. “So it’s not a question about things like stability, is the car good, things like that; we’re past that point.

“A lot of steps between here and there, but we’re pretty confident about the ability to deliver that. It would be a great thing not only for DCTA but for the region and the nation.”

To run on a freight track, the design standards to withstand an 800,000-pound axial force results in a pretty stout car, Cline explains. It’s also a car that’s going to have higher loading platforms.

He relates a story from Europe, where one of the cars hit a semi truck that was stuck in a crossing. “It actually separated the vehicle, the truck from the trailer, and the train didn’t derail.” He elaborates, “It took a pretty good beating, but the crew compartment and the passenger compartment were not compromised so we were really impressed with that.

“We’re pretty confident in the safety aspects of it,” Cline says. “You know I’m a licensed engineer, one of the things I want to make sure we do is protect the public we’re doing a job with.”

When Duty Calls

“There are very few places you get to lead an 800-person organization, like as a battalion commander,” Cline says of his military experience. “There’s something to getting over being able to stand in front of a group of people and being able to speak intelligently. You get a real chance to learn how to do that in the military environment.”

And while Cline is overseas, there is an interim CEO in place. A former city manager, Jim Witt had the job for a period of time before Cline came to DCTA. “We actually worked together when he was the city manager at Capelle and I was the public works director in Irving,” Cline says. “We worked on some things together and so I knew him from before and again, from the staff and board’s perspective, we’re real fortunate that he’s coming back to help out during this time period.

“This whole military thing, it’s part of what we need to do,” Cline states. “It is difficult and I’d love to see construction happen and opening day and all of that, but when duty calls, you’ve got to go take care of it.”

Regarding the opening of the A Train, he knows everything is in place to get done. “Between the board, the staff and Mr. Witt that’s filling in for me, I don’t think we’re going to miss a beat,” he says. “I’ve got a lot of confidence in the folks here; everybody’s got a job to do. As of next week, mine will be to go take care of some Army business. I’ll go take care of that, then come back and get on with running a railroad.”