Thursday, September 06, 2007

"The parkway could end up as a high-speed toll road that would worsen air pollution."

Dallas revisits Trinity road debate


Fort Worth Star-Telegram
Copyright 2007

Months after electing a new mayor who promised a fresh start, Dallas voters have been pushed back into an old debate.

Last month, the City Council approved holding a citywide referendum on the Trinity River toll road, a project that, depending on whom you ask, is either a mistake of historic proportions or the key to the city's survival. The proposition, if it passes on Nov. 6, will limit all roads built within the Trinity River Corridor to four total lanes and a 35-mph speed limit.

Groups on both sides are bracing for a contentious campaign this fall, centered on the fuzzy history of this controversial plan and its uncertain future.

"This is about ensuring we do not make one of the biggest mistakes in our city that would last us for generations," said Dallas City Councilwoman Angela Hunt, leader of the effort to ditch the high-speed toll road from the project.

Dallas voters narrowly approved the Trinity Corridor plan on May 2, 1998. The $246 million bond proposition was touted as Dallas' version of Central Park. The plan included flood-control levees, wetlands and lakes, and, crucially, a road project called the Trinity Parkway.

The ambitious plan quickly attracted controversy. Opponents decried the environmental impact, with many warning that the parkway could end up as a high-speed toll road that would worsen air pollution.

On election day, 10 propositions on the ballot passed with 72 percent support or more. The Trinity River Corridor Project squeaked by with 52 percent.

The 41-word ballot initiative made no mention of a toll road, instead referring to creating "the Trinity Parkway and related street improvements."

Since then, details of the parkway have firmed up. It is slated to be a high-speed, multilane highway with tolls. Critics say the parkway will ruin the world-class park that is supposed to be a key benefit of the massive project.

What did voters think?

The question now dominating both sides is a tricky one: What did voters think they were approving nine years ago?

Critics say the city misled the public with a reference to building "the Trinity Parkway" in the ballot initiative.

Proponents of the plan, who want voters to vote against the referendum, say voters were well-informed that a toll road on the banks of the Trinity would be part of the project. They point to news media reports referring to a toll road as part of the deal. When the Star-Telegram reported on the narrow win on May 3, 1998, the complex proposition was described as being for "flood-control levees, a toll road, lakes and parks."

Craig Holcomb, a former Dallas City Council member, supported the bond issue and now leads the group opposing Hunt's referendum. He says ballot initiatives often use general language to describe complex proposals.

"If you put on the ballot language 'toll road,' and then some other, better means of financing it comes about, you can't do it because you put on there 'toll road,'" said Holcomb, executive director of Trinity Commons Foundation.

Critics of the road, who are encouraging "yes" votes, dismiss any suggestions that media reports referring to a toll road were enough to ensure that voters knew what they were voting on.

"That's a bait and switch, pure and simple," Hunt said.

10-year setback

Proponents of the Trinity River Corridor plan, toll road and all, include former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, Mayor Tom Leppert, and 13 of the Dallas City Council's 14 members.

The one holdout on the council is Hunt, who has emerged as the face of the opposition. In June, she spearheaded an effort to collect 48,000 signatures asking for a recall of the toll road.

Backers of the current plan say the referendum will destroy the Trinity River plan if it passes. Many people involved in it think the referendum will set the plan back 10 years and "do absolutely nothing to relieve traffic and air quality," said Carol Reed, campaign director with the "Vote No! Save The Trinity" Campaign Committee. TrinityVote, the group that led the petition drive, is using grassroots supporters and volunteers to spread its message, Hunt said.

Opponents of the proposition expect to have an army of speakers address more than 200 civic groups. Holcomb said they plan to emphasize the need to relieve traffic while pointing out that the toll road is only part of the overall project.

"Generally speaking, the park is at least four football fields wide. The toll road is basically at the 40-yard line of one of those football fields to the goal line," Holcomb said.

Hunt said that's misleading. The entire Trinity Corridor will be that large, but the park area will actually be less than 200 acres, she said. The toll road, meanwhile, will be comparable to the Dallas North Tollway, she said.

"I'm delighted they're going to take that tack, because it's a fallacy that Dallas voters will see right through," she said.

Trinity toll road

The arguments both for and against the Trinity Parkway toll road are outlined on two Web sites.

For the toll road:


Aman Batheja, 817-390-7695

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