DCTA

People head to the rides at the Downtown Denton Transit Center. 

This story has been updated to correct the amount of the agency's cash reserves.

LEWISVILLE — The DCTA staff is calling 2019 its year of change, but preliminary budget documents unveiled Monday showed little changing for fiscal year 2020.

New board members for the Denton County Transportation Authority buckled in for the long ride Monday in a workshop that lasted most of the day. DCTA President Raymond Suarez said the staff understood that some new board members are accustomed to zero-based budgeting and other financial tools, and they would deliver on providing those details.

Board members saw everything from a chart of accounts to a long-range forecast projected to 2035.

They also met behind closed doors to discuss the development of the rail corridor and other transit-oriented development. Corinth has renewed talks with DCTA for a possible rail station there.

Public hearings for next year’s budget are still a month away and the agency won’t formally adopt the spending plan until September, but key themes emerged during the public portion of the preliminary talks.

Here are five takeaways from Monday’s discussion:

1. A new board means a fresh look at the numbers.

New executive board members include Carrollton resident Randall Chrisman, a former board chairman for Dallas Area Rapid Transit, and three elected officials: Denton Mayor Chris Watts, Corinth Mayor Pro Tem Sam Burke and Lewisville City Council member TJ Gilmore.

At an executive committee meeting last week, the members urged the staff to keep the budget flat for the coming year. The proposed $49 million spending package Monday included only slight increases in fare revenue and 2% growth in sales tax revenue.

On the expense side, the agency projected only inflation-type increases and two new hires, one full-time and one part-time.

2. DCTA’s local fare promotion reduced its losses from the sale of regional passes.

An agreement between the region’s transit agencies is that each gets to keep the money from whatever regional passes they sell. DCTA broke ranks by lowering local fares, and riders soon figured out that if they bought a local pass in Dallas (or Fort Worth) and again in Denton County, they would save money over buying a regional pass. DCTA lost some money by selling fewer regional passes, but ended up on the plus side because most riders using regional passes had been buying them in Dallas and Fort Worth rather than in Denton. Previously, DCTA was collecting about $1.16 in fares per A-train ride. Now, the agency is earning about $1.50 per ride.

In addition, minimum bus fare increased to $1.50 per ride.

3. DCTA has about $20 million for various contingencies in the bank.

By its own policy, DCTA must keep three months’ of operating expenses in reserves, or about $8.5 million at today’s spending rate. But most of DCTA’s revenue comes in the form of sales tax collected in Denton, Highland Village and Lewisville, which can be variable. So, the agency also keeps 3% of its annual sales tax collection — not quite $1 million — on hand for stabilization. A similar fund hedges against swings in fuel costs.

In addition, DCTA keeps a capital maintenance fund to maintain service in case of loss. The finance staff said the agency has not yet touched that fund. Losses from catastrophic flooding in 2015 were paid by the Federal Emergency Management Administration.

4. DCTA will know more soon about how much its services really cost.

Board members weren’t satisfied in knowing that the bus service is expected to cost $13.4 million next year and A-train service $14.1 million, for two main reasons.

First, DCTA’s three member cities pony up the lion’s share of the agency’s budget through sales tax collection in Denton, Lewisville and Highland Village. That means taxpayers in those cities are looking for a better accounting of what’s getting spent and delivered in their communities, DCTA’s regional focus notwithstanding.

Second, DCTA delivers transit services via contracts, too. A better accounting can ensure that Frisco, McKinney, the University of North Texas and North Central Texas College are paying their fair share for the cost of services.

The Texas A&M Transportation Institute is developing the cost model for DCTA, which is expected to be delivered soon, staff said.

5. The budget includes modest ridership increases.

Bus ridership has increased in parts of DCTA’s system as much as 15% in the past year. But those increases haven’t been throughout the system and there are still a few quiet summer months to go before officials know whether the overall ridership is really on the upswing and can continue next year.

A-train ridership has dropped every year since 2014, so a 1% increase in 2020 could signal a turnabout in the system.

PEGGY HEINKEL-WOLFE can be reached at 940-566-6881 and via Twitter at @phwolfeDRC.

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