A sea of yellow and green — supporters of the Cotton Belt rail line in yellow and downtown subway in green — filled the Dallas Area Rapid Transit board meeting Tuesday night as officials finally voted on their 20-year financial plan that had left many wondering which long-term project the board would support.
It was standing room only as the DART board members voted 12-3 to fund both the Cotton Belt rail line and the subway version of a second downtown light rail, known as the D2 subway, as part of their 2017 20-year financial plan.
DART officials expect to complete the projects in the next six years. Each project would cost more than $1 billion.
The three “no” votes were Sue Bauman, Amanda Moreno Cross and Michele Wong Krause, all of whom represent the city of Dallas. The city appoints seven of the 15 members on DART’s board and shares another with Cockrell Hill.
The much-anticipated vote comes after months of discussions over which project would take priority.
At a meeting before the official vote, board Chair Faye Moses Wilkins said the financial plan was one of the most contentious items the board had ever taken a vote on.
“We’ve been working a long time to develop a regional presence,” she said. “It has not been easy.”
DART staff this month recommended to the board funding both the Cotton Belt and D2 subway at the same time. But the long-range financial plan leaves the subway dependent on $650 million in federal grant money that may not come through. The agency would take out debt to pay for the Cotton Belt line through the northern suburbs of Addison, Carrollton, Richardson and Plano.
Dallas residents and council members were disappointed by the decision to fund both projects.
Dallas city leaders unanimously approved a resolution this month telling the transit agency to prioritize the D2 subway before the Cotton Belt rail line in the suburbs, as well as improvements to the bus service and a streetcar route in the central business district. The Cotton Belt was left out of their resolution.
Supporters of D2 have said they are concerned that funding both projects will weaken DART’s financial position, hurting its ability to secure grant money. DART officials said if the agency receives only a portion of the federal funding, it could delay the project by seven years. If they receive no federal funding for D2, it could delay the project several more years.
Residents in some Far North Dallas neighborhoods along the Cotton Belt have long opposed rail service on the line out of fear that it will be a noise nuisance to people whose homes are adjacent to the track. As part of the motion, an amendment was included that would place focus on community engagement on “operational and aesthetic issues” with affected residents.
Dallas Council member Lee Kleinman, who chairs the council’s transportation committee, supported the plan to fund both projects. In a text message he said he was “pleased to see DART enhance the reliability of the system with less impact to the central business district than the previous surface alignment,” as well as “fill in the service gap” with the Cotton Belt.
“Our work is cut out for us pursuing an FTA grant and an FRA loan,” he said.
Earlier in the day, Kleinman sent out a memo on an independent analysis of DART’s financial plan that had been commissioned by the city of Dallas at the request of Kleinman and council member Philip Kingston.
Kleinman said that the analysis showed DART could fund both projects. Kingston, who has been an outspoken critic of DART’s assertion they could fund both plans, said the analysis shows it’s too risky and that there wasn’t enough information available from DART to run a full risk analysis on the D2 project.
Before the vote, Kingston had urged the board to throw its support behind the subway and focus any energy and excess funds on improving rail and bus routes in the urban core.
After, Kingston called the vote “fantastically disappointing” and a “gut punch that we couldn’t get our own appointees to vote with us.”
“The point here is not suburbs vs. Dallas as much as they are trying to make it that way,” he said. “I’m not trying to hurt the suburbs. I like the suburbs. I really appreciate their participation, but we have to get the core of the system online.”
But officials from Addison and Richardson said they were thrilled by Tuesday’s vote. The Cotton Belt has long been seen as providing a necessary east-west transit connection between northern suburbs, the airport and existing north-south rail lines that currently connect only in downtown Dallas. Recently it had been considered as part of DART’s 2035 financial plan, even though DART had promised an east-west corridor since its creation in 1983.
“This has been a long time coming, but I’m very proud of the DART board doing what I think they are charged with and that’s thinking and acting regionally,” Addison Mayor Todd Meier said.
This summer, DART proposed a cheaper version of the full Cotton Belt route that would lower costs from $2.9 billion to $1.1 billion by single-tracking the rail line. Addison, Plano and Richardson have committed to kick in millions of dollars extra so the line can open in 2022.
Meier, who attended the meeting along with dozens of Addison residents and the entire city council, said the town would pitch in $5 million, after the rail line is completed. That money would come from liquidating several acres of real estate it owns, he said.
For more than a year Addison’s city council, frustrated by the lack of rail service, had talked about potentially leaving the transit agency. The town has been a paying member city of DART since 1983 but does not yet have a rail line.
Meier said he was excited about the prospect of the rail line being an “economic accelerant for our Addison economy.”
“We’re very excited about it from an economic development standpoint,” he said.