Monday, July 30, 2007

Hunt: "This, to me, has just become a bloated project, a dangerous project."

Trinity road going to voters

Barring legal challenges, voters will decide in November whether to keep highway in Trinity corridor project plans

July 30, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Opponents of a toll road inside the Trinity River levees collected enough signatures to force a November vote on the project, the Dallas city secretary said Sunday night.

That means that barring a legal challenge (which is unlikely), Dallas voters will decide whether to kill the highway, a key component of the Trinity River Corridor Project.

The Trinity project, a massive public-works undertaking, also includes a downtown river park, wetlands, improved flood control and other recreational amenities.

"It's a new day in Dallas," City Council member Angela Hunt, who led the effort to get the toll-road question on the ballot, said late Sunday night.

"We will now begin educating voters about the importance of removing this toll road from our park."

Craig Holcomb, a former Dallas City Council member who heads Save the Trinity, a group that opposed Ms. Hunt's petition drive, said he, too, will turn his attention to educating voters.

"I look forward to going all over Dallas talking about what a good project this is and how hundreds of people have worked for over a decade to make all of the disparate parts fit together," he said.

"We will convince the public that this project will make a difference for Dallas, in terms of flood control, recreation, transportation and economic development."

Mayor Tom Leppert opposes the referendum. In the past, a majority of City Council members said they did, too.

The mayor said Sunday night that he had spoken "with all the council over the last day, and there was a hope to not go through with this.

"But I can also tell you people are really excited to go out and tell the story of the Trinity River project."

Ms. Hunt's group, TrinityVote, contends that many Dallas voters didn't realize that a highway was part of the deal when a $246 million city bond issue was approved for the Trinity project nine years ago. She said the highway will spoil what could be a world-class urban park.

What's next?

Now that the petitions for a vote on the Trinity toll road have been certified, the Dallas City Council has 20 days to act.

It must either A) pass the provisions of the ballot language as a city ordinance, killing the toll road outright; or B) call a Nov. 6 election for Dallas residents to vote.

The former is exceedingly unlikely, as a majority of the council and Mayor Tom Leppert support the road.

The City Council will vote on Aug. 8 or Aug. 15.

If passed in November, the measure would prohibit any road from being built within the Trinity River levees that has more than four lanes and a speed limit of more than 35 mph, and that doesn’t provide direct access to the river park.

The Web site for the toll road opponents, TrinityVote, is

The Web site for the road’s backers, Save the Trinity, is

Supporters of the toll road say it's needed to alleviate downtown traffic congestion. They say it's been approved already not just by those 1998 bond voters, but also by the City Council in 2003. And they say that scrapping the road would further delay other aspects of the Trinity project.

Ms. Hunt's group had 60 days to collect about 48,000 valid signatures from registered voters who live in Dallas. TrinityVote turned in more than 80,000 signatures on June 29. By law, City Secretary Deborah Watkins had until Sunday to certify whether a sufficient number of those were valid.

Mr. Holcomb said his group "will take a little bit of time to look the petitions over," but suggested that a legal challenge to Ms. Watkins' certification was unlikely. "Our focus will be on November," he said.

If approved by voters, the referendum would ban construction inside the levees of any road that's more than two lanes in each direction and has a speed limit of more than 35 mph.

The practical effect would be to kill the currently conceived Trinity toll road, which is envisioned as a high-speed, multi-lane highway. The road would run about nine miles, from U.S. Highway 175 south of downtown to the confluence of Interstate 35E and State Highway 183 to the north.

Seeking a new alignment for such a highway outside the levees would be prohibitively expensive, and acquiring the land to build it would take years, according to Mr. Holcomb and several downtown business groups.

A roadway inside the levees has been a part of the Trinity River project from Day One. But the size, configuration, cost and purpose of that road have long been matters of deep dispute.

In the Trinity plan first approved by the City Council shortly after the 1998 bond vote, the highway would have been divided with four southbound lanes on the Oak Cliff side of the river and four northbound lanes on the downtown side.

In 2003, at the urging of then-Mayor Laura Miller, the City Council revised the plan, coming up with a new version that council members said was much more environmentally friendly: All lanes were moved to the downtown side, providing unrestricted access to the downtown park from the Oak Cliff side. The road was reduced from eight lanes overall to six north of Continental Avenue and four south of there (with room to expand to six later.)

But the kinder, gentler version would still provide limited access to the riverside park; its chief function would be to whisk cars past downtown, alleviating congestion on Stemmons Freeway and other existing roads.

Ms. Hunt was elected to the City Council in 2005 from District 14, which includes parts of downtown, Uptown, East Dallas and Oak Lawn. She was appointed by Ms. Miller to the council's Trinity River committee and eventually came to question the cost of the road, which has escalated considerably, to almost $1 billion.

She said she reached her breaking point on the subject of the toll road early this year, when city staff informed the Trinity River committee that the road would have to be moved closer to the river — farther in from the levees — because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in the post-Katrina era, was concerned about protecting the integrity of those levees.

This would mean less park. It would also mean that those enjoying the park by the river's edge would be closer to the traffic noise from the tollway.

"This, to me, has just become a bloated project, a dangerous project," she said at the time. "Costs keep going up. Green space shrinks."

She announced plans to launch the petition drive shortly thereafter.

In talking with constituents, she said, she learned that many of them didn't know that when they voted for the bonds, they were voting for a toll road in their downtown park. The 1998 ballot measure, in describing the road, mentioned only "the Trinity Parkway and related street improvements."

However, news stories around the time of the 1998 bond vote clearly described the proposed road as a toll road. An advertisement taken out by environmental groups and others in The Dallas Morning News in April 1998 urged people to vote against the bonds, in part because the project included a "proposed eight-lane tollway inside the levee."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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