Saturday, June 30, 2007

Trinity River: "Park or toll road? Let the voters decide."

Trinity toll road foes say 80,000 signed petition

June 30, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Dallas voters will decide in November whether to scrap the Trinity toll road, a key component of the Trinity River project, if petitions submitted Friday by opponents of the road are certified as valid.

Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt said Friday that more than 80,000 people signed a petition to force a vote on the Trinity toll road. If at least 48,000 signatures are verified, the issue will go on the November ballot.

Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt announced at a City Hall news conference that more than 80,000 people had signed on to force a vote on the planned high-speed road. Ms. Hunt, whose district includes parts of downtown, has led the fight against the tollway.

If the city secretary certifies that at least 48,000 of those signatures belong to registered voters living in Dallas, a measure will be placed on the November ballot. Verification is expected to take weeks.

"Here you see before you a mandate from 80,000 people in Dallas who say they want a voice in the future of our Trinity River," Ms. Hunt said. Behind her stood more than 50 volunteers from TrinityVote, the group that ran the petition drive. Many of them wore T-shirts reading, "Park or toll road? Let the voters decide."

Opponents of the petition drive – including Mayor Tom Leppert, former Mayors Laura Miller and Ron Kirk, most of the City Council and many business and civic leaders – say that revisiting the question of the toll road threatens the entire Trinity project.

If passed, the November referendum would prohibit construction of any road inside the river levees that is more than two lanes in each direction, with a speed limit of more than 35 mph.

As currently planned, the nine-mile toll road would have six lanes in places and four in others (with room to expand to six), and a speed limit of 55 mph. The toll road would provide limited access to the river itself; its chief purpose would be to whisk traffic more swiftly through the downtown corridor.

Ms. Hunt and her supporters say a low-speed parkway is more compatible than a sprawling toll road with the other chief elements of the Trinity project – a downtown riverside park and flood-control improvements.

The current road was part of a comprehensive Trinity plan approved by the council in 2003. The project is expected to take years to complete and cost more than $1.2 billion.

Mr. Leppert said that if the signatures are validated, he will campaign aggressively against the November ballot proposition.

"If it passed, it would add significant time to the project, and significant cost," he said.

"The vast majority of the council – and myself – favor moving forward. The referendum isn't the right approach, and we'll have to communicate that with voters."

Council member Mitchell Rasansky, another supporter of the Trinity project as currently envisioned, called the seeming success of Ms. Hunt's signature campaign "a setback for Dallas." He added: "I'm going to fight this as hard as I can. The current plan is the best thing for the citizens of Dallas. The public has to know that this would be a very costly proposition to taxpayers to do otherwise."

Striking a populist chord, Ms. Hunt alluded to the fact that her petition drive was opposed by most of the city's civic, business and political elite.

She said volunteers worked tirelessly through the 60-day signature-gathering period, circulating petitions across the city at bookstores, supermarkets, restaurants and other retail outlets.

"There are some politicians who want to pave the Trinity," she said. "But that option is no longer in their hands. As of today, the decision is in our hands, the hands of the voters, where it rightfully belongs.

"And these politicians, they can still have a say in what happens with the toll road, because they'll get a chance to vote on this at the polls like everybody else.

"But their vote won't carry any more weight than yours."

Dallas voters in 1998 approved $246 million in bonds for the Trinity project. Ms. Hunt contends that many of those voters thought they were endorsing a low-speed parkway, not a high-speed toll road.

But supporters of the road say it was always envisioned as a major thoroughfare. More to the point now, they say, removing it from inside the levees will delay progress on the other aspects of the Trinity project. For one thing, they say, an alternative right-of-way for a toll road outside the river corridor would be difficult to assemble and prohibitively expensive.

Ms. Hunt called such objections "scare tactics."

In years to come, she said, she hopes visitors to Dallas "will go home and tell their friends and neighbors, 'You will not believe what they've done with the Trinity River in Dallas. It's the most beautiful park I've ever seen.' "

What's Next:

TrinityVote submitted more than 80,000 signatures Friday calling for a referendum on the Trinity toll road. Here's what happens next:

• The city secretary must verify that at least 48,000 of the signatures are valid – from registered voters who live in Dallas. That will take weeks.

• If the petitions are certified, the referendum goes before voters in November. The full text of the proposed ordinance can be viewed at

• If the petitions aren't certified, backers of the ballot measure could start gathering signatures again. As they did this time, they would have 60 days to submit the required number.

Staff writer Dave Levinthal contributed to this report.

© 2007 Dallas Morning News:

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