Thursday, August 16, 2007

"Do you want a high-speed toll road in the middle of your park?"

Referendum may open road to voter awareness of project

Referendum may put us on the road to renewed clarity with project

August 15, 2007

James Ragland
The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

It is quite possible that Angela Hunt is doing us all a favor.

Because she's forcing a key part of the Trinity River Corridor Project back on the ballot, Dallas voters will know without question this time that they are endorsing a toll road inside the levees.

Face it. There's something oh so democratic about government carrying out the clear will of its people.

Like it or not, Ms. Hunt stirred up way more than enough registered voters to force the issue back on the ballot. She tapped into something.

Anyone can understand why supporters of the project didn't want Ms. Hunt to succeed with her petition drive. The stakes are extremely high: Voters could join hands with the District 14 council member and strangle a road that backers say is designed to ease traffic woes downtown and along the Stemmons Corridor.

If the toll road is killed, I'm not sure how enthusiastically the establishment will pursue the rest of the project. I firmly suspect we'll be in for several more years of hand-wringing, chest-thumping, finger-pointing good times.

But at least we'll have a clear conscience.

And Ms. Hunt, who was in law school when voters endorsed the 1998 bond issue for Trinity River improvements, could instantly become a leading candidate for mayor the next time the job is up for grabs. (People certainly have been asking her about her political ambitions, she concedes.)

OK, let's not get ahead of ourselves.

You might be surprised to learn that even some diehard supporters of the Trinity River toll road are beginning to embrace my theory that a referendum might actually breathe new life into the project.

I know, I know. They don't have much choice now.

But this isn't about grasping for straws or seeing the bloody, muddy river as half full. It's about dealing with changing circumstances and facing reality as it is now, not as we recalled it to be nine years ago.

An election will bring political clarity, if not closure.

"Actually, within our group, there's strong sentiment by a lot of people" that the referendum could serve a good purpose, said former Dallas council member Craig Holcomb, head of the group that opposed Ms. Hunt's petition drive.

"This may get their [voters'] attention, so that's an opportunity to really let them know what has been happening," said Mr. Holcomb, executive director of the Trinity River Commons Foundation.

"Certainly we need to do private funding anyway and get money from other governmental agencies, so a reaffirmation vote will help achieve both of these goals."

That's the key term for me – reaffirmation vote.

I was here in 1998 and witnessed the tension that the proposed road caused in some quarters. Astute voters should have been aware of the toll road possibility. Old newspaper clips, city documents and campaign literature support that argument. So to suggest otherwise is intellectually dishonest.

But let's also be honest about this: The proposed road indeed has taken many twists over the years. We have a much clearer sense of its design and its potential impact today than we did in 1998, for whatever that's worth.

I happen to like the project, and I hope that doesn't make me evil to those who oppose it.

Yet I also relish the prospect of being able to clear the air once and for all on the decade-long toll road debate, and I hope that doesn't irk those who think voters already did that.

Ms. Hunt's camp is of the mind that city officials duped voters the last go-round with a "bait and switch" marketing program. They say the city promised a more idyllic "parkway" in campaign literature while planning to deliver something akin to the Dallas North Tollway.

"There's a big difference," Ms. Hunt said. "There's a chasm between these two."

Ms. Hunt also pointed out to me that the fancy watercolor drawings of bountiful trees and pretty lakes that the project's backers are fond of showing people stand in stark contrast to the engineer drawings of a project with a toll road as its centerpiece.

"All of this to me is deception," she said. "And it's been deception since the '98 bond vote."

It's somewhat ironic to me that Ms. Hunt, who wasn't in Dallas when the initial vote was taken, has emerged as the dynamic opposition leader she has become. She was one of four freshman council members whom Mayor Laura Miller appointed to a council committee monitoring the Trinity River project.

Let's just say that she turned a cameo appearance into a starring role.

And for her, no matter how many enemies she's made along the way, it's simple.

"The underlying question is not a complex one," she said, sounding very much like the lawyer she is. "Do you want a high-speed toll road in the middle of your park?"

So much is riding on how voters answer that question.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE