Tensions flared between members of the Dallas City Council and the president of Dallas Area Rapid Transit (DART) on Tuesday over disagreements related to funding, planning, and ongoing costly delays.
During a joint meeting of Dallas’ Transportation and Infrastructure Committee and DART’s Board of Directors, the president of DART, Nadine Lee, provided an update on various projects.
Lee, who has been with DART for a year and a half, suggested, “During my tenure here, I’ve been focused almost exclusively on how we are going to increase the safety and rideability for our riders.”
She added that strategies to address homelessness and mental health issues were being implemented, noting that DART employs “people who are formerly unhoused” to help clean trains.
DART has also begun a pilot program to “help deter people from living in our elevators,” according to Lee.
“We are trying to help them find some other place to go,” she explained.
Lee also discussed the upcoming efforts to renew the DART fleet of trains and buses, noting that some DART vehicles are 27 years old. She explained that updating equipment would also require some infrastructure updates as well.
“In August, DART will turn 40 years old,” Lee noted, suggesting that the organization would want to partner with committee members to celebrate.
Once questions from the committee began, however, the tension between the City Council members and Lee began to emerge.
Council Member Tennell Atkins (District 8) raised concerns regarding delays in the Silver Line project that, according to Lee, cost the City $150,000 a day.
“What is the hold-up?” Atkins asked.
“A lot of it is trying to get the resolution on what our design is going to be … we’ve had some trouble getting through our design reviews and getting them to approvals, and also getting our construction permits,” Lee suggested.
Changes proposed by DART to a potential agreement between DART and Dallas marked another point of contention. This agreement initially would have seen the City receiving $111 million from excess tax collections. However, due to delays costing $50 million and a new $33 million slate of “betterments,” members of the committee expressed irritation with DART.
“It costs us $150,000 a day! … We [are looking] at $50 million!” Atkins exclaimed. “We need to get this resolved. … Get in a room. Clean it up.”
At this point, Lee claimed that Dallas’ review and permitting process had held up the process.
“We have been trying to work with the City staff to get all of our plans reviewed and approved. … That has not happened,” Lee said. “We had some plans that took 290 days to get a response.”
“We are still waiting on construction permits. … In some cases, we are going to the permit office to get the permit multiple days in a row and being turned away even though we have our plans approved,” she continued.
Council Members Gay Donnell Willis (District 13) and Jaynie Schultz (District 11) raised the option of arranging outside arbitration to resolve the tensions in the relationship between DART and the Dallas City Council.
“I don’t feel like we are moving forward in a productive way, or even moving forward,” Willis said.
Schultz demanded more transparency and communication.
“I am completely blindsided by this,” Schultz said, holding up a copy of the list of betterments.
Council Member Adam Bazaldua (District 7) raised concerns over increasing costs and claimed that DART was not being upfront regarding negotiations.
“Overall, this really puts a bad taste in my mouth,” Bazaldua said. “We’re supposed to be partners, and this isn’t the way that I see partnerships.”
“I do have an issue with this ultimatum type of approach, because … you come to us with these stringent stipulations that seem to continue to change,” he claimed.
Defending the list of betterments, Lee asserted, “We had numerous conversations with staff that these items were not required, and oftentimes, we were told that if we wanted our permit, we were going to have to do them.”
“We were under the gun. We had to move our project forward as quickly as possible,” Lee continued. “Our understanding was that accepting some of these things would help us move our project forward, which it did not do.”
“Shame on us for thinking that,” she retorted.
City Manager T.C. Broadnax staunchly denied the accusation that the City had made ultimatums.
“At no time do I recall or do I understand us to have said certain things that may or may not have been required, a permit would not be issued,” Broadnax said. “Those are not the types of statements or the approach that I’ve ever taken.”
Bazaldua dismissed Lee’s claims, saying, “This is not only disingenuous; this is a really piss-poor way to move forward this project.”
Other members of the City Council, however, were more open to DART’s claims.
Council Member Chad West (District 1), who is not a member of the transportation committee but was allowed to participate, concurred that he would not be surprised if the necessary permits had been held up in order to elicit additional benefits, as Lee claimed.
“The discussion we’ve had about staff holding up permits based on getting these betterments in here,” West began. “I mean, it happens all the time up here.”
“It happens all the time because council members or City staff want things to be in their project. It would not surprise me if it happened here,” West continued, suggesting an investigation should be made.
“I don’t buy it that this project has not been held up and that permits have not been held up because no one has made a request,” he continued. “I know that’s happened. It happens all the time up here.”
Chair Narvaez later raised the idea of getting the inspector general involved to identify whether or not any improper actions were taken by City staff during the permitting process.
“I just want to get this done. This is millions of taxpayer dollars,” Narvaez emphasized, while also indicating his support for external mediation.
At the end of the discussion, Narvaez formed a working group to pursue solutions and continue the discussion. Council Members Schultz, Atkins, West, and Jesse Moreno (District 2) were selected.
Cara Mendelsohn (District 12) objected to not being selected for the working group, claiming that “most of the issues are in my district,” and requested that someone else be removed to make room for her. Narvaez denied the request.