Thursday, March 15, 2007

"We don't have to have a toll road to make the parks and lakes happen. That's a fallacy."

Trinity toll road plans challenged

Dallas: Council member wants vote on moving it outside levee walls

March 15, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt said Wednesday that she will lead a fight to secure a citywide referendum that seeks to move a planned toll road outside the Trinity River's levee walls.

As conceived, the six-lane, nine-mile toll road would irrevocably harm the $1.2 billion-plus Trinity River Corridor Project's park and recreation components, said Ms. Hunt, who represents council District 14, which includes much of downtown.

"We simply do not believe the park is the best place to put the toll road. We're not trying to kill the road, we just don't want it running through an urban oasis," Ms. Hunt said. "I trust the Dallas voters to make that decision."

Negative reaction to Ms. Hunt's idea came swiftly.

Mayor Laura Miller and former Mayor Ron Kirk said Wednesday afternoon that they'll oppose Ms. Hunt's initiative, adding that they'd soon release a joint statement on the issue. Such unity between them is rare.

"This is not anything either of us will support," Ms. Miller said, describing Ms. Hunt's effort as "odd" given that "she never asked the city attorney's office for any opinion or asked about what authority under which this could be done."

Mr. Kirk was mayor in 1998 when Dallas voters approved a $246 million bond package to provide initial funding for the corridor project.

"You can't build anything by looking back all the time," he said. "This has been studied ad nauseam. It's the most appropriate, sensitive plan we could come up with."

Ms. Hunt has formed a political action committee, TrinityVote, to raise money ahead of efforts to collect the roughly 50,000 registered voter signatures needed to place such a referendum on a Dallas ballot in November.

She announced her intentions as she and about 75 supporters stood within the Trinity corridor near Sylvan Avenue.

Volunteers will collect signatures between April 30 and June 28, Ms. Hunt said. City Hall allows 60 days to complete a formal referendum signature drive.

Question of legality

But since the Trinity toll road is part of a complex project that involves local, state and federal governments, several city officials – including Ms. Miller and Ed Oakley, chairman of the City Council's Trinity River Corridor Project Committee – questioned whether Dallas voters have the jurisdiction to alter one element of it.

City Attorney Tom Perkins said that until he has reviewed the language of Ms. Hunt's proposition – which she says is not yet complete – he will decline to comment on whether it could go before voters.

Trinity River Commons Executive Director Craig Holcomb said he supports the current toll road alignment, and the Greater Dallas Chamber also released a statement Wednesday saying "taxpayers of Dallas voted for this project and their voices were heard – we must continue to move forward with this project."

The Dallas Citizens Council also released a statement Wednesday describing the current corridor plan as "extraordinary ... well-planned and thoroughly scrutinized at all levels."

But political consultant Mike Davis, who supports Ms. Hunt's effort, said: "Heavy hitters and big names have never deterred me from anything. I'm really, really energized, and we're betting that citizens will want a referendum on this, too."

Said Ms. Hunt: "Unfortunately, there's not the political will among the leaders of this city to get this project done right."

It's uncertain how strongly the issue resonates with Dallas residents. A Dallas Morning News telephone poll this month indicated that only 4 percent of respondents ranked the Trinity River Corridor project as the single most important issue facing the city.

Changes in proposal

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers in November mandated, as a condition for its support of the corridor plan, that the project's toll road be realigned to run up to several hundred feet within the corridor's eastern levee.

Corps engineers say a toll road built into the Trinity's earthen levees, as originally proposed, could compromise their integrity, making surrounding areas more susceptible to flooding.

Ms. Hunt says she's particularly upset at city estimates that indicate between 40 and 45 of the 136 acres of parkland slated for creation in the downtown portion of the Trinity River Corridor Project would disappear because of the toll road realignment.

Meanwhile, an island that engineers plan for the middle of an urban lake would expand by 25 or 26 acres, city staff estimates.

"This project has fundamentally changed from what voters approved in 1998," Ms. Hunt said. "We don't have to have a toll road to make the parks and lakes happen. That's a fallacy."

Ms. Hunt says her organization will not offer a specific proposal on where the toll road should be built, as long as it's not within the Trinity Corridor's levees.

"If you're going to do something like this, you ought to at least have an idea where it goes and how you pay for it," Mr. Oakley said.

Of the various toll road alignments that city and state officials have previously considered, several versions proposed building the road outside the corridor's eastern levee along Industrial Boulevard. Critics say such an alignment would be prohibitively expensive and displace dozens of businesses.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co.

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