Wednesday, July 04, 2007

In 1998, voters thought they were endorsing a low-speed parkway, not the faster toll road, that the council approved as part of the plan in 2003.

Trinity plan up for debate again

July 4, 2007

Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The music at a local jazz dive stopped for a moment. Then a guy wearing a blue and white TrinityVote T-shirt grabbed the microphone and read the proposed ballot language for the referendum that would ditch the project's planned toll road.

As he read, a woman at the bar whispered, "What is he talking about?" Others looked to the bandleader for help.

"Come on, man," someone said. "Let him play."

If you want to spoil a party, just start talking about the complexities of the Trinity River project and the efforts of Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt and Co. to scrap the toll road, a key component of the project.

Ms. Hunt announced Friday that 80,000 people had signed petitions to force a vote on the planned high-speed road.

If the city secretary certifies that at least 48,000 of those signatures belong to registered voters living in Dallas, the measure will go before voters in November.

So like it or not, we'll get a much-needed update on how far along the project is, its latest cost, what all this business about the toll road is about and, more important, when we can expect to see that part of the city transformed into the promised urban oasis.

"The public voted on the Trinity a long time ago, and there is a sense that not much has been done," said Southern Methodist University political scientist Matthew Wilson. "No matter which side you're on, the campaign will tell us what the plan is and what the hurdles have been."

In 1998, Dallas voters approved $246 million in bonds for the Trinity River project.

The sticking point with Ms. Hunt and some former council members is the proposed $1.2 billion road that the council approved as part of the plan in 2003.

As currently configured, 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.

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.

Supporters of the referendum say Dallas voters thought they were endorsing a low-speed parkway, not the faster toll road.

Defenders of the existing plan say the toll road was always envisioned as part of the overall plan, particularly since it would relieve traffic congestion.

Both sides are already bickering over the prospect of project delays.

Ms. Hunt's detractors say a road outside the river corridor would be difficult to assemble and much more expensive. They say it would also delay the project, much as changing directions in building a home would put off its completion.

But referendum supporters say the project and its funding would not be affected.

These details should be sorted out during the campaign.

Mayor Tom Leppert and Ms. Hunt are putting together campaign teams.

The mayor could resurrect his successful election coalition of consultants, which includes Carol Reed and Mari Woodlief, president of Allyn and Co.

Mr. Leppert says an environmental impact study being done by the North Texas Tollway Authority would answer questions about the toll road.

He said he's against the referendum because it would drive up costs and expand the project's timeline. He agrees that the campaign would be a good way to educate voters.

"We have an obligation to communicate the importance of the project and how the different elements are put together," he said.

Those pushing the referendum are expected to be scrappy but outspent.

"We're going to have a debate on what the project is about and reach consensus on where to put the road," said Brooks Love, campaign manager for the group pushing the referendum. "There will be transparency on this project."

More important to voters, however, is a thoughtful prediction of when they can expect to enjoy the lakes, parks and development promised when the plan was approved.

Former Dallas Mayor Ron Kirk, who led the successful campaign in 1998, said there has been progress with the project.

He said he's spoken to Mr. Leppert about the potential referendum and likens it to the haggling over the Dallas Area Rapid Transit rail lines and the expansion of North Central Expressway.

"We now have the opportunity to get the city focused on how much progress has been made on the entire project," Mr. Kirk said. "Our challenge is to educate people. At the end of the day, Dallas will hopefully stay the course and move forward."

© 2007, The Dallas Morning News:

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