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Transit Trouble?

Bus rapid transit debate raises questions about DART’s future


At the outset, it’s fair to note that the Greater Des Moines bus service, currently known as DART, has faced periodic questions about its financial viability since local cities decided to form the system decades ago. 

But the current debate over the proposed bus rapid transit loop between downtown and Ingersoll and University avenues has led to a higher-octane discussion over the return on investment in DART. Suburban officials are especially revved up about that question.

First, an application for a key federal grant for the service — highly sought especially by young professionals and by economic development officials — was shelved at the last minute after officials from some suburbs questioned whether DART could afford the plan and whether it would be worth the money.

A good example came when Ankeny Mayor Gary Lorenz told the DART commission the fight over the train-like bus service had broader implications. He said Ankeny would be less cooperative in other DART work if the commission pursued the $25 million specially branded loop.

“I would be supportive of some other type of bus rapid transit if it came from the west side and removed traffic from the freeway,” Lorenz said at a May commission meeting. “I see this route as beneficial to no one. We are mainly checking a box in someone’s library that says Des Moines has (bus rapid transit). If this goes through, it stresses Ankeny’s support for DART in general,” Lorenz added.

Bridges vs. buses

Des Moines officials declined to support the application, fearing it would stall the city’s attempt to get a grant from the same program to replace downtown street bridges. Those key spans not only have deteriorated over the decades, but also need to be raised due to frequent flooding,  city officials have said.

Altoona’s Skip Conkling opposed the application, too, suggesting DART’s finances are strained even without the expansion. 

Last week, the battle over the new line — called BRT for short — emerged again, this time at Capital Crossroads.

David Caris, a spokesman for MidAmerican Energy Co. who serves on Capital Crossroads, told the community leaders around the table that a new task force’s initial discussions on the issue mediated by the Greater Des Moines Partnership prompted suburban officials to question whether DART can afford the system it already has — let alone add to it.

“The issue is the federal funding they were going after is in the same bucket as the downtown Des Moines bridge projects,” Caris told Capital Crossroads. “That has gone over the top of the bus rapid transit. It is not likely the bus rapid transit project is going to get federal funding anytime soon.”

“There was a meeting to identify other options,” Caris said. “Unfortunately, there were none identified.”

DART in trouble?

Though others disagree, Caris didn’t hold out a lot of hope for BRT, and wondered if DART was in trouble in general.

“I will be candid,” Caris told Capital Crossroads. “I think there are concerns about the existing DART services and how sustainable those are. Federal funding is starting to dry up, and I think there are also a lot of concerns from the suburbs that they are not receiving the value that they are paying for. A lot of the jurisdictions are about at their levy limits, as far as DART funding. So there probably is a bigger and more important issue — how we sustain existing DART services.”

Jay Byers, CEO of the Greater Des Moines Partnership, was more upbeat about the future of bus rapid transit in Des Moines. He said the task force of 30 to 35 people is looking at a possible grant application in the spring. “Our ultimate goal is to still come back with a proposal,” Byers said. “We’re carefully watching when that next round might be.” 

He said all local leaders interested in the issue were invited to the meetings, which continue.

“The goal of this group is to really open up that whole proposal and to listen to those concerns” while fashioning a possibly revamped proposal, Byers said. “Is it the same route? Is it the same bells and whistles?”

As far as money, Byers said there is work on several options, which he declined to identify. But there has been talk of sponsorships and private grants from businesses that would benefit from the BRT service.

Asked to respond to questions over whether DART could support the services it already has, Byers said: “The rest of the system is part of a bigger discussion in terms of the overall funding mechanisms and the routes and that sort of thing. That is all currently under discussion as well.

“Our goal is to put all the facts on the table and come up with a proposal everyone is comfortable with,” Byers said. “To continue to move from a bus system to a transit system is really a great thing for Central Iowa, as far as being competitive.”

In addition to the Partnership’s efforts, Des Moines City Manager Scott Sanders has been meeting with local city officials to discuss issues around the proposed bus line.

At a glance

The issue: The Des Moines Area Regional Transit Authority (DART) has proposed adding a $25 million bus rapid transit loop from downtown to Ingersoll and University avenues. Some see the proposal as critical to reach out to young professionals who have called for the speedier, train-like bus service. 

Support: The idea was previously supported by DART commissioners as part of long-term transit plans, and by the Greater Des Moines Partnership. The Partnership lobbied for a $20 million grant for the project during its Washington, D.C., trip this year, but DART chose not to apply while local leaders sort out disagreements over the proposal.

Opposition: Some local leaders, especially suburban officials, have questioned whether the expansion is worth the money. Some have suggested DART scrap the whole idea. Others wonder if a different route would help take traffic off Interstate 235, which already has more rush-hour congestion on the west side of the metro than engineers had projected for 2020. 

Operating costs: $900,000 a year.

Life expectancy: No one has declared the project dead. The Partnership is trying to save it. DART’s general manager is negotiating the controversy with hopes that local leaders will support at least some version of the proposal. Des Moines City Councilwoman Christine Hensley, who has been very active in the talks, has said local leaders hit the “pause button” but the project isn’t dead.

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