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DART election asks when, not what

By Suzanne Sprague

DALLAS – Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: DART's current plans for light rail in North Texas do not hinge on the results of Saturday's election. The same cities will get light rail service no matter how the vote turns out. The big question is when.

Jesse Oliver, Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) Board Chair: It moves up on an average of five years.

Sprague: Jesse Oliver is chair of the DART Board.

Oliver: So rather than waiting until 2010, 2008 for that service, we're talking about 2004, 2006.

Sprague: That's for areas like Carrollton and Pleasant Grove. Light rail to DFW Airport could come as early as 2010, as opposed to 2018.

Oliver: We want to move them up because we've been asked to move up by these member cities and the general public. They want the service, they want it now and we're merely saying, we need the authorization from the voters to meet your demands.

Sprague: Oliver predicts DART would be saddled with $1.2 billion in interest payments if it offers long-term bonds. But some analysts say that's a conservative estimate. During a recent appearance on 90.1's "The People's Agenda," Wendell Cox, with the Texas Public Policy Foundation, put the figure at $3 billion.

Wendell Cox, Texas Public Policy Foundation: There could not be a worse issue on the ballot because what this will do, if Mr. Oliver's prediction of $1.2 billion is right or if I'm right at $3 billion or whatever in the middle, the fact is that's between $1.2 and 3 billion that cannot be spent for transit improvements. Instead, it's going to Wall Street bankers. Jeran Akers, Mayor of Plano: It is going to cost more, but we believe the short term and long term benefits outweigh the small amount of interest that will be paid.

Sprague: Jeran Akers is the mayor of Plano and part of the Vote Yes! Build DART Faster campaign.

Akers: It's not going to benefit Plano per se, because the items they have listed they would like to finance are not in Plano. So the question you might have is, why would we in Plano want to support it? It's very easy. It's because we view ourselves as a partner with the rest of the Metroplex. Every time the citizens of Plano have had a chance to vote, we have supported the concept of regional transportation.

Sprague: However, if any of DART's 13 member cities do vote for the long-term bonds, and they later decide to opt out of DART, they are still responsible for paying off their share of the debt that results from this election, through sales tax dollars. DART riders, some of whom live in suburbs like Plano, are often supportive of extending light rail to their cities as quickly as possible.

DART rider: I wish the bond issue was double what it is so we could do it three years earlier. It's the greatest thing to happen to Dallas in 30 years.

Sprague: However, many others don't even know what Saturday's election is about.

Citizen 1: I am unaware of the issues so I probably won't vote.

Citizen 2: The same. I don't know what the issues are either.

Sprague: DART officials say they're holding the election now, instead of waiting for the November 7th ballot, because they don't want to get lost in the presidential contest. But Dallas real estate developer Vance Miller says he finds that hard to believe.

Vance Miller, Henry S. Miller Co..: I don't believe that's why they're doing it. I think they want to do it because they hope nobody will know about it and nobody will vote.

Sprague: Miller, who has tried to organize local opposition to the DART election, says the public's lack of awareness over Saturday's vote proves it's a stealth election. He's voting "no" because he wants DART to pay for the expansion with current revenues only. The rest of the public can vote in the DART election Saturday or today, the last day of early voting. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.