Arlington Citizen-Journal

April 28, 2014

Candidates for Arlington City Council at-large District 6 differ on need for mass transit

Incumbent Robert Shepard, seeking a fourth term, faces challenger Chris Dobson, who is making his fourth bid for the council.

Public safety, improving streets and growing Arlington’s residential and commercial tax base continue to be among City Council District 6 incumbent Robert Shepard’s priorities.

Shepard, 55, is seeking his fourth two-year term as an at-large council representative in the May 10 election. Shepard’s challenger, 35-year-old Chris Dobson, said he believes city leaders should do a better job giving residents a voice in how their millions of tax dollars are spent and also in ensuring that the money isn’t squandered.

Early voting runs through May 6.

Shepard, an attorney, has served more than a decade on various Arlington boards and commissions, including as Planning and Zoning Commission chairman. Dobson, a massage therapist, is making his fourth run for the council. Dobson is studying to earn a master’s degree in public administration from the University of Texas at Arlington.

Finding ways to encourage private redevelopment of the city’s aging apartments and commercial properties, which may be declining in taxable value, remains crucial to Arlington’s property tax base growth, Shepard said. He pointed to Arlington’s recent work with developer Bob Kembel, who plans to tear down at least three apartment complexes along East Lamar Boulevard to make way for a higher-density $160 million apartment complex named Arlington Commons.

“The city ought to be committed to being a participant in that redevelopment through whatever means it can, whether through waiver of fees or tax abatements,” Shepard said. “That is always a very controversial position to take, but the alternative is to leave what is there, there.”

To help make Kembel’s redevelopment project more financially viable, the council approved nearly $10.5 million in possible economic development incentives for expenses such as demolition, abatement and drainage improvements, plus a 30-year, 90 percent property tax abatement. The existing complexes only generate about $78,000 in tax revenue annually for the city.

Shepard said those types of incentives help Arlington compete against other cities, which may have undeveloped land that would be less expensive for private developers to purchase instead of having to tear down existing properties for their projects.

Dobson said he’s concerned whether Arlington residents who may not have the time or the confidence to speak at council meetings have enough say in how their money is spent. He proposed to improve civic participation through an opinion poll on the city’s website or through a smartphone app that allows residents to tell their council members how they should vote on topics ranging from economic development deals to road projects.

“It’s a cheap and easy way to get an accurate measure of people’s opinion,” Dobson said. “It allows people to speak their minds without retribution.”

Dobson also believes the city should invest millions of dollars from its reserve funds into a public banking system that would allow residents to obtain low-cost mortgage, student and car loans. To generate revenue, Dobson said he would also raffle tickets to residents wanting to use the city’s suites at AT&T Stadium and Globe Life Park in Arlington.

“I would do my best to find a way to monetize that for the benefit of all citizens of Arlington rather than my family, people who have funded my campaign or business associates,” said Dobson, who has raised ethical concerns in the past about council members’ use of the suites.

Besides investing in the latest lifesaving public safety equipment such as GPS locators for firefighters who may get lost in a burning building, Shepard said he will continue to push for more funding to repair the worst of the city’s streets.

Shepard and Dobson offered differing views on mass transit at a recent candidate forum. The city is conducting a two-year pilot study with a limited bus services known as MAX, or Metro ArlingtonXpress.

“It seems simple to me that with a limited number of roads that we need to move people as efficiently as possible down them. Whether that takes the form of public mass transit or private mass transit, that is something we need to explore as far as a solution,” Dobson said.

Dobson said he thought the city should also explore allowing low-cost ride-sharing programs, such as Uber or Lyft, in which drivers can earn money by giving people rides using their personal vehicles.

Shepard said he’s not convinced that traffic congestion is severe enough to have changed the minds of Arlington voters, who have voted three times since 1980 against raising the sales tax rate to support a transit system.

“I’ve said it for years and years. Until it takes me longer to drive to Fort Worth than it does to take the train or bus to Fort Worth, I’m not interested in mass transit, either,” Shepard said. “It sounds appealing in the abstract. In the utopian world, it would be awesome. It would be very supportive of our entertainment district. But unfortunately, people in Texas like their cars. They like their mobility. … Until congestion looks like New York or looks like Boston, I don’t think a mass transit system would be supported.”

That appetite may change if Arlington has a connection with high-speed rail lines proposed for the region, Shepard added.

This report includes material from the Star-Telegram archives.

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