Tuesday, August 28, 2007

Take this bridge and shove it.

Dallas: Commissioners want $6 million refund if toll road is killed

August 28, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Dallas County commissioners have a message for the city of Dallas: If a high-speed toll road doesn't make it into the Trinity River Corridor Project, they will want their $6 million back for a bridge that's included in the massive public works project.

Commissioners say in a letter to the city that they will demand the return of their contribution for a planned Calatrava bridge if voters in November kill the high-speed toll road planned for the Trinity River project.

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert said the commissioners' letter is an example of the intricacies of the Trinity River project. Interlocking financial arrangements must remain intact to ensure the success of the entire endeavor, the mayor argued.

But City Council member Angela Hunt, the leader of an effort to block a high-speed toll road from being constructed within the Trinity River Corridor's levee walls, said there are other toll road alignments that would satisfy the county commissioners.

The letter, addressed to Mr. Leppert and the City Council, reminds them of the conditions of the county's contribution to the Interstate 30 bridge project.

The commissioners are expected to sign the letter this morning.

"Should the voters decide that a reliever route will not be a part of the Trinity Corridor project, we will have no choice but to insist that our $6,000,000 contribution be returned," the letter states.

The contribution was given to the city to help pay for the increased design cost of a Calatrava bridge, which the city preferred over a conventional bridge, said Allen Clemson, the Commissioners Court administrator.

The county agreed to pay about half of the bridge's increased design costs based on the premise that the I-30 bridge and toll road would be a reliever to downtown traffic, he said.

"That letter is to express support for the road project," he said.

The toll road, a key but contentious element of the Trinity River project, is designed to ease congestion on Interstate 35E and the I-30/I-35E mixmaster. It also would provide a new route into Oak Cliff, southern Dallas and downtown.

Toll road opponents collected enough signatures to force a November vote on whether to include the highway. The Trinity River project includes a downtown river park, wetlands, improved flood control and other recreational amenities.

The I-30 bridge is one of three designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava for the project. The other two bridges would span the Trinity River at Woodall Rodgers Freeway and I-35E.

For Ms. Hunt, who led the effort to collect more than 48,000 signatures from registered voters to place the issue on the November ballot, the letter concerns her "not at all."

"We've never proposed that the road won't be a part of the Trinity River Corridor project," she said, noting that her organization is neutral on other toll road alignments such as a suggested route along what today is Industrial Boulevard.

But Mr. Leppert argued that the commissioners' letter is clear: If Ms. Hunt's effort succeeds, the county will want its money back.

"They're very specific on it. And I'm not surprised," Mr. Leppert said. "There are a number of pieces that contribute to this project, and if those pieces go away, so does the funding."

Mr. Leppert added that building a toll road along one of the identified alternate alignments – Industrial Boulevard or the Oak Cliff side of the Trinity River corridor – is rife with legal issues and likely to cause the project's overall cost to increase by hundreds of millions of dollars.

Ms. Hunt's group, TrinityVote, argues that many Dallas voters didn't realize a highway was a part of the project when they voted nine years ago for a $246 million bond issue to pay for the massive project.

She has said the highway will spoil the planned urban park.

Ms. Hunt's group plans to send the Commissioners Court a written response today, signed by top backers of the TrinityVote effort, including state Rep. Terri Hodge and former City Council members John Loza, Sandy Greyson and Donna Blumer.

The letter in part states: "In November, voters will not be deciding that 'a reliever route will not be part of the Trinity Corridor project.' Rather, they will have the opportunity to prohibit the proposed high-speed toll road from being constructed within the levees, where the Downtown Trinity Park is planned. The proposition does not prohibit a reliever route from being constructed in another location."

Supporters of the toll road, which include a majority of council members, say the road is needed to alleviate downtown traffic congestion. Eliminating the road would further delay other aspects of the Trinity project, they argue.

Commissioners committed the money to the bridge project in 2002 and again in 2005.

"Before we agreed to the final transfer of funds, it was after we were again assured by the city that you were planning to build the reliever road that lived up to our earlier agreements," the letter states.

Commissioner John Wiley Price said that the toll road was designed to be a traffic reliever and that it was the deal on the table.

"All we're doing is reminding them that this was the condition at the time," he said. "We're putting them all on notice."

kkrause@dallasnews.com; dlevinthal@dallasnews.com

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co www.dallasnews.com

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