Hopefully this doesn't delay any further expansions...
DART ridership falls, despite opening of Green Line
06:52 AM CST on Wednesday, February 24, 2010
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News
Dallas Area Rapid Transit blamed lower gas prices, rising unemployment and higher fares for a steep decline in ridership in the last three months of 2009, according to a report released by the transit agency Tuesday.
DART's bus ridership took the biggest hit, but the sagging numbers affected light-rail and commuter rail service as well.
At the same time, senior executives unveiled gloomy revenue forecasts that could significantly delay major rail projects in downtown Dallas and in Irving, where there has been enormous anticipation of the scheduled opening of the Orange Line in phases beginning in late 2011.
"I don't know how serious this is," DART president Gary Thomas said, declining to reveal specifics of the short- and long-term sales-tax revenue forecasts, which his agency only recently received. He said the board would receive more details in March about what the numbers could mean for major projects.
Chief financial officer David Leininger said projects already under contract – including this year's completion of the Green Line to Carrollton and the early phases of the Orange Line in Irving – are safe.
But "any project not yet under contract" will have to be evaluated, he said. "There are some choices the agency will have to make."
Leininger declined to rule out significant effects on big projects, including the second rail line in downtown Dallas, scheduled to open in 2016, and the final leg of the Orange Line, scheduled to reach Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport by 2013.
The short-term picture is better, but only slightly. Leininger said revenue will probably be $13 million below expectations for fiscal year 2010. "All these numbers are manageable," he said.
The bad news about the finances – triggered primarily by sales-tax revenues that have slumped in the past 18 months or so and are seen as unlikely to recover quickly – came as the staff produced its quarterly report card on DART's operations.
That report, which the board did not discuss and which the board chairman said he had not yet seen, painted a somber picture on other fronts as well.
DART's 674 buses carried 16.9 percent fewer passengers in the final quarter of 2009 than they did a year before. On weekdays, the average number of one-way trips on the Trinity Railway Express commuter service fell 9.9 percent, and even the newly expanded light-rail attracted fewer passengers.
Despite the opening last fall of four new stations along DART's heavily promoted Green Line, average weekday ridership on the transit agency's 48 miles of light-rail fell 5.8 percent, to about 66,000 rides. That works out to roughly 30,000 round-trip passengers, including those who make connections from more than one transit vehicle each way.
Overall light-rail ridership fell less steeply, more than 2 percent, probably reflecting the big crowds on October weekends during the State Fair of Texas, which was the first time DART had offered direct light-rail service to Fair Park.
The report also makes clear that DART had a tough quarter across a wide range of performance and financial measures that go beyond declining ridership and falling sales tax revenue. Accidents with buses and trains were more common, buses and trains were more likely to be late, and even as the buses and trains became less crowded, complaints from passengers soared across the network.
Roy Hutt, a 32-year-old nursing student at El Centro College, says DART has been a tremendous help to him as he finishes his degree. "Oh, yeah, I think it's great," he said, noting that his train is almost always on time.
State government worker Joe del los Santos of Dallas agreed that the train is on time almost every day but said the buses – which he also rides daily – are not. "They are always late. Always," he said.
He also said he wished DART would patrol rail cars more frequently, because young "hoodlums" make him feel unsafe.
Security was one of the few bright spots in the report, however. So-called security incidents, which include reports of crimes, were down across the system – on trails and buses and at stations and transit centers.
The ridership slump followed a DART board decision last year to raise fares Sept. 1 to help offset a fall-off in sales-tax receipts. DART's fiscal year begins Oct. 1, so the report represents a review of the first quarter of fiscal year 2010, a year that DART forecasters had anticipated would bring both ridership and budget difficulties.
DART had taken in about $108 million in sales taxes in the last three months of 2007 and $101 million a year ago. The last three months of 2009 brought in only $97 million. The downward a trend has been offset in the short term by cost-cutting but has become increasingly worrisome for DART's long-term planners.
The agency is in the midst of the most aggressive light-rail expansion in the country, with the 28-mile Green Line due to open in full – on time and on budget – in December. And, if the schedule holds, the Orange Line is expected to connect directly to Dallas/Fort Worth International Airport in 2013..
But the new sales-tax estimates, which were not shared with the board or the public Tuesday, could make timely completion of projects not already under way difficult.