As Dallas Area Rapid Transit considers teaming up to operate a new commuter bus line in Arlington, the agency's board wants to take a closer look at the process for bringing such nonmember cities into its service area.
The board will vote Tuesday on expanding the kind of contract service the agency can provide to nonmember cities. The board also will consider limiting the length of those contracts and requiring those cities to decide whether they want to commit to a long-term service plan. The discussion comes as DART considers filling one of the biggest public transportation gaps in North Texas: providing a bus line between downtown Arlington and the Trinity Railway Express.
The effort would involve joint negotiations with the Fort Worth Transportation Authority. With Mesquite already contracting with DART for express bus service — and with some officials eager to give residents in other nonmember cities a sample of public transit — the proposed policy change could have major implications for where local tax dollars end up.
"We're not interested in just dating," said John Danish, DART's board chairman. "We want to get married." The traditional requirement for receiving DART service is pretty simple: A city that wants to join has its residents vote on adding a one-penny sales tax to fund public transportation.
Thirteen cities have approved that since DART's inception in 1983. And last year, those cities provided DART with $432.5 million. There have been tweaks over the years, such as allowing contracts for commuter rail.
But things didn't get complicated until 2011, when DART's board amended its policies to allow nonmember cities to contract for express bus service. The change paved the way for Mesquite to start a two-year trial run of express bus service last year. But it left open questions of what happens after trial periods end and raised concerns about whether long-paying member cities were getting a fair shake.
In recent weeks, as DART's board discussed the Arlington proposal, some board members expressed frustration about the lack of a clearly defined process. The talks will culminate Tuesday, with the board voting on whether to pursue joint contract negotiations. Board member Mark Enoch said Monday that he supports DART's looking for ways to expand, but not by offering "a la carte" options. He said the issue boils down to equity.
"Why would someone want to pay a penny, as the 13 members have, if someone else could come in and pick and choose what they want and not have to pay the penny?" said Enoch, who represents Garland, Rowlett and Glenn Heights The resolution before DART's board would expand the agency's ability to contract with nonmember cities on regular bus service and paratransit. But it also would limit those contracts to seven years and require the cities involved to come up with a long-term plan within three years.
That would mean those cities would have to conduct a vote on joining DART and funding public transit through a 1-cent sales tax or some other dedicated revenue source. If residents opposed joining, the service would be terminated. One challenge is that many cities have reached their sales tax cap, meaning that their potential revenue is dedicated to other initiatives and that those cities don't have a sales tax penny to give.
So there's expected to be hearty debate over various aspects of the proposal, such as when cities would have to commit to joining DART and whether new member cities would have to pay a full penny or just a half-penny in sales tax.
"How do we do this in a fair way for the cities that have been part of this for 30 years?" said Gary Thomas, DART's executive director. "And how do we do it in a fair way for the cities that have not?" There seems to be agreement, however, that DART needs a policy that allows it to grow responsibly. And in Arlington, where the new commuter bus line will start later this year, Mayor Robert Cluck said that sentiment is reasonable.