DART tries to make Tarrant inroads with bid for Arlington service

ARLINGTON -- 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.

New rules

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."

That would be more clear than current law, which says a city must be in the same county as the transit authority or adjacent to a city that is already part of the authority.

Tough sell

Although seeking new cities to pay a 1-cent sales tax could be an extremely tough sell, the new DART plan allows for a slow buy-in. For Arlington, the 1-cent sales tax is the equivalent of $50 million a year, according to a city estimate.

But Arlington and other cities could commit sales taxes currently reserved for other uses. One fund that has already been identified by DART would be the money Arlington uses to pay off Cowboys Stadium debt, which is paid for by a half-cent sales tax. City officials say those 30-year bonds, issued in 2004, are going to be paid off early and by one estimate could be available as soon as 2019. The city owed $248.2 million on the stadium as of October.

Arlington also has a quarter-cent sales tax available for essentially immediate use. In Texas, the maximum sales tax is 8.25 cents: including 6.25 cents for state government and up to 2 cents for local government. Cities with sales taxes may collect up to 1 cent for general government and up to 1 cent for special purposes such as transit, crime control, libraries or economic development.

To make the project easier to sell in Arlington and other cities, the DART policy allows cities to take as many years as they need to get to 1-cent DART membership, as long as they don't divert those uncommitted sales taxes for other needs.

But transit critics will no doubt point to other city needs that could be covered by the revenue. For example, at a recent Arlington City Council meeting it was noted that the city has an estimated $425 million street repair backlog.

If Arlington voters rejected DART membership, the bus service to CentrePort would cease within 30 days, according to DART's new guidelines.

Tarrant County

Except for Arlington, DART hasn't approached Fort Worth, Grapevine or other Tarrant County cities about joining, officials said. But DART's courtship of Arlington could speed up what many observers believe will eventually happen anyway -- the creation of a region-wide transit authority.

In addition to DART and the T, the Denton County Transportation Authority operates the A-train commuter line from Denton to Carrollton.

The three agencies often work together on projects, but occasionally they can be territorial.

"We've got to evolve," said Fort Worth Councilman Jungus Jordan, who is chairing a passenger rail working group for the council. "We believe we are at a crossroads with rail on the western side of the Metroplex. The 1 cent charged by DART is a challenge, but we've got to overcome it."

The T did try offering express bus service between downtown Fort Worth and two Arlington park-and-ride lots. But the service, which began in 2008 and was funded by a $75,000 grant, was canceled in 2011 because of low ridership.

Fort Worth officials cleaned house last month at the T, bringing in new board members and directing them to focus on getting the proposed TEX Rail commuter line from southwest Fort Worth to Grapevine and DFW Airport open by 2016.

Fort Worth's decisive action on TEX Rail wasn't a response to DART's recruitment of Arlington, Fort Worth Mayor Betsy Price said.

"I know DART has a lot of energy right now, but our focus is on TEX Rail," Price said.

There are no plans to change Fort Worth's relationship with the T or DART, she said.

But Fort Worth officials who are creating a master plan for the T that spells out what other rail projects could be done in the next 20 years -- rail service to AllianceTexas, or perhaps Mansfield, for example -- are finding they simply don't have the funding.

Arlington election

If Arlington's pilot project is a success, city officials would schedule their fourth transit election since 1980.

"We would be expected to give them a decision during or shortly after this trial is over," Mayor Robert Cluck said. "Eventually we have to take it to the voters. If the trial is successful, we will start making plans to see how people feel about it."

He said the city could choose between DART and the T, which charges only a half-cent for bus and rail, or an arrangement involving both.

"If the trial goes well, we'll try to work out a permanent arrangement with DART and/or the T," he said. "Obviously we can't put a penny of the sales tax into the deal. We would have to look at other ways to get that money with which to buy into the DART system. We would have to pay a penny or the equivalent to that. There are several options that we are looking at."

Cluck declined to go into more detail, but he did say he strongly believes that Arlington's future must have passenger rail.

"We can't be sitting here in the hole in the doughnut," he said, "without some option to get us around like other people will be doing."

Staff Writer Susan Schrock contributed to this report.

Gordon Dickson, 817-390-7796

Twitter: @gdickson

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