DART bus cuts, rail delay likely
Big sales-tax shortfall also means hundreds of layoffs are expected

By TONY HARTZEL Transportation Writer
Published April 30, 2003

Dallas Area Rapid Transit probably will lay off hundreds of employees, cut bus service and delay light-rail construction by at least three years to cover an impending $48 million budget shortfall.
Most of the cuts to bring next year's budget down from $342 million will affect bus routes, with the most drastic option affecting 116 of 135 routes. And DART officials all but committed Tuesday to a plan to delay light-rail construction by at least three years.

In October, DART officials warned that if revenues did not increase, a light-rail expansion delay of about 18 months to two years might be necessary. But the agency's president recommended a further one-year delay Tuesday.

The budget shortfall will have DART board members deciding over the next few months which service to reduce more - light rail or bus. The transit agency, which held a budget work session Tuesday at a commuter-rail station, will adopt a budget in September.

"I feel very strongly we need to have a minimal impact on bus service," board chairman Robert Pope of Plano said. "There is going to be some impact on the [rail] build-out schedule."

There are four options of cutting bus service, with a savings of $14 million at the low end and $29 million at the high end. Cuts at the highest level would limit rail expansion delays to two to three years in most places. For example, a light-rail line servicing Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport slated two years ago to open in 2010 would have a projected opening of 2014.

"I don't feel too comfortable going past the lowest level [of bus cuts]," said DART President and Executive Director Gary Thomas. "I don't want to see us delay anything, but my sense is we need to preserve what we have."

The bad budget news marks the third straight year that sales-tax revenue has failed to reach expected levels. Its projected $294 million budget for 2003-04 would be almost equal to the agency's budget total in 1997.

DART gets about 88 percent of its operating revenue from sales taxes, leaving it susceptible to economic downturns. The agency expects sales-tax revenues this year to be 7.3 percent lower than predictions in the current budget.

About 4,600 riders a day would be affected under the least-severe round of bus service cuts. The bus service cuts also would result in the elimination of 300 to 500 jobs.

Bus operators could be asked to forgo their pay raises next year, saving the agency $5.2 million. Some employees also could be offered early retirement.

In addition, proposals call for light-rail service to be trimmed to 20-minute intervals during nonpeak hours. The agency offers 15-minute service during mid-days.

DART should renegotiate its leases and contracts with its unions, not take away service from people who might need it, said board member Bill Velasco. "We're looking at the wrong side of the equation," he said, noting that the sluggish economy means that more people are riding transit.

Cutting bus service drastically will leave the agency in a precarious position, some board members said, adding that they also are not willing to go beyond the lowest level of cuts.

Instead, they targeted what they perceived to be a large administrative staff. Current budget recommendations call for cutting $11 million in administrative expenses, the equivalent of 103 jobs. Board members want the agency to look at deeper cuts, including an option that would eliminate 164 jobs and save $17 million a year.

In tight budget times, DART must strike a balance between bus service and rail service, and between Dallas and its suburbs, many of which have been awaiting light-rail expansion for years.
With more rail delays, "the suburbs are going to start talking about secession again. I don't want that," said board member Dick Watkins of Dallas.

Cities can hold votes every six years on whether to opt out of the transit agency. The next chance for elections is in about five years.
Suburbs have shown patience on rail construction delayed by revenue shortfalls, Mr. Pope said, "but they also expect us to operate as efficiently as possible. I think they recognize that we need to maintain our core business."

Suburban DART board members said Tuesday that they want the agency to consider raising its standard for minimum number of passengers on bus routes so that more routes could be cut. Savings from those cuts could be used to speed up light-rail construction.