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Gary Thomas on DART’s $7.4 Billion Impact—and New Projects Ahead

photo[3]In 2002, Tim Rogers wrote a profile of DART chief Gary Thomas for D Magazine called “The Most Powerful Man in Dallas.” Thomas had recently been named president and executive director of Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and says he was a bit mortified by all the attention the story generated. At the time, he was overseeing capital expenditures of about $300 million to $400 million a year. “And wherever Thomas steps,” Rogers wrote, “money pours in like water filling a footprint.” 

That certainly has proven to be the case.

Between fiscal years 2003 and 2013, DART spent nearly $5.3 billion on stations and rail lines. This, in turn, generated more than $7.4 billion in regional economic activity. What’s more, real estate development within a quarter-mile of rail stations through 2013 totaled more than $1.5 billion—and upcoming projects are valued at $3.8 billion.

The numbers come from a just-released report prepared for DART by a team from the University of North Texas, led by Terry L. Clower, director of the school’s Center for Economic Development and Research. Thomas talked with D Business Daily about the study—and what lies ahead for DART.

 

D Business Daily: So … “The Most Powerful Man in Dallas?”

Gary Thomas: I had been in the job about six to eight months when the article came out, and was so embarrassed. Lee Jackson told me, “Gary, seize the moment and enjoy it. There’s going to be a day not too far off when it will be a whole different story.” Back in 2002, we were just on the verge of opening to Garland, Richardson, and Plano. We were talking about the impact the project was going to have on those cities and the long-term impact it was going to have on the region. Here we are today, almost 12 years later, and we’ve nearly doubled the line. It’s amazing how quickly it has been built. It’s certainly due, in large part, to a few things: a strong economy for most of those years, good processes, and good people, including a strong board of directors that has kept us on point and kept the vision going. Another thing that’s exciting is the region’s wiliness to seek out—to demand—transportation choices.

 

D: How have attitudes toward public transportation and DART evolved during your tenure?

Thomas: I’ve been working on DART projects going back to 1987 or 1988. Back then, the public meetings were all about what it might mean for someone’s neighborhood. Then in 2002, Mockingbird Station opened, and it was very DART-focused. It led other people to see the value of the infrastructure. I remember discussions about building a bridge between the upper-level platform. Looking back at it now, I wonder what would have happened if we had missed that opportunity. Today, transit-oriented development is a big part of what we’re all about. City leaders want to know how they can get TOD projects quicker and how they can get more transportation options for residents.

 

D: Transit-oriented development seems to have really picked up in the region.

Thomas: One of the things the UNT study highlights is the acceleration of these types of projects. From 1996 through 2013, new developments within a quarter-mile of DART stations totaled $1.5 billion. Those are projects that are on the tax rolls. And now we’ve got more than twice as much, $3.8 billion, in projects that are under construction or in planning. We have seen a lot of multifamily development—Farmers Branch, Carrollton, Victory Station, downtown Garland. And then there’s Plano, which I call the “sleeper station.” Instead of one big project, like Mockingbird Station, there are all these smaller projects, and now it’s one of the best examples in our system. It just snuck up on us. And development is accelerating. We’re just really starting to see some sectors recover from the economic downturn. [Note: One of the largest new TODs is CityLine in Richardson; a $600 million, 2.3 million-square-foot first phase of the project, which includes a 1.5 million-square-foot office campus for State Farm, is slated for completion in early 2015.]

 

D: How do you plan that far out?

Thomas: You plan based on what you think you know, where you think the destinations are, and where people are going to get on. But once you build it, the system starts to define that growth and densities around the system. The hard part is, unlike areas like Boston or New York or other great transit cities, we don’t have any oceans or mountains to constrain growth. At some point, though, there’s a limit to how far out you can and should go. … We put long-term plans in place and try to anticipate growth as best we can, and consider what we can build and operate, and that’s what has allowed us to have the longest light-rail system in the United States.

 

D: What are some big things to look forward to?

Thomas: We’re opening up to DFW Airport later this year and have a streetcar system planned for early 2015. Then there’s an expansion to UNT in South Dallas that’s under way that I think will be game-changer for South Dallas. And we just introduced the new D-Link, our free downtown bus circulator, which people are just starting to become aware of. It all speaks to the demand, and it’s fun, because we’re a relatively young transit agency. Other transit agencies from all over the country come to Dallas to look at what’s going on here and how they can emulate things in their communities. It’s not always easy to do that; we’ve got a great business community here. We have pioneers like developers Ken Hughes and Jack Matthews and Robert Shaw and others who have embraced TOD opportunities.

 

D: What kind of impact do you think the DFW Airport extension will have?

Thomas: I just had lunch with the new CEO of the airport [Sean Donohue], and he said it best: “Every world-class city has a great transit system that has a connection to the airport.” This will catapult us into a different category, a different stratosphere. There will be a lot of travelers who will ride the train to and from the airport. You’ll be able to get off the train and check your luggage and go through security and go to whatever gate you want to go, all for $2.50. I don’t know if you’ve taken a taxi to the airport lately.

 

D: How does the vision you had for DART when you took this post in 2001 compare with reality?

Thomas: When you look at the economic impact—$7.4 billion being pumped into the local economy between 2003 and 2013, and 54,000 jobs that provided $3.3 billion in salaries. That’s really cool, especially because some of it came at a time when the economy was struggling. [Note: The 54,000 figure represents person years of employment, or the equivalent of one worker working for one year.] Some folks will talk about ridership, but it’s actually doing fine. It’s where we projected and it’s growing. A new generation of riders is coming up and people are moving here who are comfortable with it and used to riding transit, and that’s exciting to see. We didn’t build this system for the next five years; we built it for the next 50 years. But, going back to the D Magazine article, I never anticipated the scope and magnitude of the role that DART would have in our community. As I look back, that’s what strikes me the most. And, as I look to the future, I think it’s just the tip of the iceberg. People are just starting to embrace it now, and developers and cities are just starting to realize how they can take advantage of it.