Leaders at Dallas Area Rapid Transit aren't mincing words. They want to expand their public transportation system to Arlington.
They envision their signature bright yellow buses and trains making routine stops near Six Flags Over Texas, the Parks and Highlands shopping areas and even in neighborhoods.
"We believe the only way for Arlington to get effective rail, and the faster way to get rail, is by joining DART," said DART board member Mark Enoch of Rowlett. "Once we're in Arlington it's so much easier for Fort Worth to hook up to that."
Clearly, DART is making a power play to move into Tarrant County. It's the first effort to build a public transportation system serving both the east and west sides of the Metroplex since 1980, when voters in Arlington and Fort Worth rejected a Lone Star Transit initiative that would have essentially put all the region's bus and rail decisions under one roof.
This time, the first step in Arlington would be small. City officials, business leaders and the University of Texas at Arlington are working to launch a two-year pilot bus shuttle service this year from the Trinity Railway Express CentrePort station to downtown Arlington.
DART and the Fort Worth Transportation Authority, which operates buses in Fort Worth, are proposing to form a partnership and run that bus service for Arlington for $700,000 annually. The Fort Worth authority, also known as the T, previously tried to run limited bus service in Arlington.
Arlington officials say that for now the bus service is nothing more than a two-year pilot -- although if successful it could lead to a transit election within four years.
"We are not talking about any future membership in a transit authority," Councilwoman Kathryn Wilemon said. "We are truly working on this as a pilot project."
But DART officials see it differently. They say that if Arlington wants even temporary access to CentrePort, the city must express an interest in permanently joining DART.
The DART board changed its policy last week on allowing service to cities outside its area. The rules now specify that even if DART is offering contractual services to a city, those services must end after two years unless the city agrees to begin preparing for permanent DART service. The rules also require the city to hold a referendum on DART membership within four years.
The goal is to prevent cities that haven't paid DART's 1-cent sales tax for more than two decades from gaining inexpensive access to its network, which is valued at billions of dollars and includes its half-ownership of the TRE from Fort Worth to Dallas. It also owns more than 90 miles of light rail in the Dallas area. It's a way for longtime DART member cities such as Dallas, Plano, Richardson and Irving to protect that investment.
In recent years, DART has had trouble with buses from nonmember cities dropping off loads of passengers at stations in places such as Plano, filling trains before they could stop in member cities on the way downtown.
"We think we have a good product to offer, particularly our connection to rail," said DART board member Paul Wageman of Plano. "If they want access to CentrePort and a connection to the DART system, then we want a pathway to membership."
The interest in Arlington comes as DART explores ways to increase its revenue, much of which comes from sales taxes in cities such as Dallas that are nearly built out. Other growing cities mentioned as candidates to join DART include Frisco, Allen, McKinney, Duncanville and Cedar Hill. DART's budget for 2013 amounts to $1.07 billion: $449.6 million in operating costs, $468.98 million in capital and other nonoperating costs, and $151.4 million in debt service. The agency's sales taxes have been flat for much of the past decade.
To address concerns about whether Arlington is eligible for DART services, a bill was filed in the Legislature late last week to clarify that a city may join a transit authority if any part of that city "is located in a county that is adjacent to a county in which the authority has territory."