DART Board Should Resist Park Cities' Demands for Millions in Rebates to Keep From Bolting

It's easy to get in and devilishly difficult to get out. That's true for presidents who send troops to war zones, and it's true for people or institutions who write checks to meet demands for blackmail. DART is about to learn that lesson this afternoon, when its board votes on whether to cave in to demands by University Park and Highland Park — pay up, or watch them walk.DART says the two cities began exploring leaving the agency in 2014. To keep them in, DART has been looking for ways to make the two tiny but wealthy cities happy.The policy the board will vote on today would send 21 percent of the DART sales taxes collected in Highland Park and University Park each year back to the cities every year until at least 2025. They could use the money for a range of preapproved projects that are loosely tied to transit. Plans include widening some roads and paving others, and improving sidewalks near bus stops. The cities had demanded 50 percent of their sales taxes back, arguing that, after all, they don't have a rail stop within their boundaries, and so they are entitled to a large rebate.DART countered with the 21 percent offer, which comes to about $17 million by 2025 for the two cities. Michael Morris and the Regional Transportation Council agreed to match those outlays, bringing the totals to about $33 million — or 42 percent of the total amount taxpayers in UP and HP contribute to DART each year.That's real money. More, it turns out, than the entire booty expected from the 20 percent across-the-board fare increases the agency has proposed — fares that its own estimates acknowledge will drive some riders to quit the system altogether. If the new fares are so badly needed, why is DART about to be so spendthrift with $17 million? And if RTC has money to burn, and wants to help DART out, it ought to send the money to improve the bus service, rather than ease the transit sticker shock for two of the wealthiest cities in the state.DART is right to try to keep its member cities happy. But the way to do that is to make its services more vital, and, when possible, to make itself more efficient. The cities have every right to decide being part of DART isn't a good bargain, and make whatever choices they must. After all, one person's blackmail is another's hard-nosed look at return on investment. [Note: I reached out earlier Tuesday to Highland Park's town manager for comment. If he calls back with additional perspective, I'll share it here.]But by pulling back on DART, Highland Park and University Park are turning their backs, even if only partially, on one of the few truly regional commitments in North Texas. Even worse, by sending a rebate back to Highland Park and University Park, DART is giving up on itself. If the best argument it can make for those cities to stay involved is to cut them a fat check each month, then DART has succumbed to a crisis of confidence.Besides, what's to keep the next city down the roster from making the same demands in a week or a month? Plano has two rail stations, sure, but its bus service is anemic. Taxpayers there have paid nearly $1 billion into the system, and they've not asked for a rebate.The board has long ago approved the policy, but it doesn't mean anything until the details are signed off on. That's scheduled to happen Tuesday at a committee meeting at 5:30 p.m. If it passes there, it'll be on the agenda for tonight's board meeting.Dallas members have raised some questions about the wisdom of the agreement in recent weeks. Objections by Plano board member Paul Wageman delayed a vote on it two weeks ago.What that means is that there is still time for board members from Dallas and other suburbs to vote it down. That's what they should do.If they don't, they'll find saying no the next time a member city comes asking for a rebate just that much harder. Remember: Easy to get in, and damned hard to get out.  Continue reading...

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