Wednesday, September 26, 2007

“There are lots of places to put this road, but there’s only one place to put the park. So where’s your alternative for the park?”

Trinity Debate in Oak Cliff Draws Crowd


by Sam Merten
Dallas Blog
Copyright 2007

Approximately 300 supporters, citizens and city leaders packed Rosemont Primary School in Oak Cliff Tuesday night to see the first debate matching TrinityVote Yes! against Vote No! Save the Trinity. Councilmember Angela Hunt and former Councilmember Sandy Greyson represented TrinityVote Yes! and Mayor Tom Leppert and former Councilmember Veletta Forsythe Lill represented the Vote No! campaign.

Hunt was introduced first and received an ovation from the crowd prompting Victoria Loe Hicks, who was co-moderating with State Rep. Rafael Anchia, to tell the audience to hold their enthusiasm and not waste time with applause. However, Hunt supporters remained vocal during the debate, cheering on Hunt and Greyson and even laughing at questions and comments directed at Leppert and Lill.

Hunt made an early mistake in her opening statement when she claimed the NTTA is seeking a waiver from the Corps to use pre-Katrina safety standards. She also included this information in a packet handed out at the debate, which showed a copy of a PowerPoint slide from a Feb. 20 presentation to the Trinity River Committee.

As Lill later pointed out in her opening statement, a letter from the Corps to the city said the Corps is not developing new standards for the levees. I covered this letter in-depth and noted the same thing in May.

The one key fact that contradicts previous statements by Hunt is the statement that the Corps is not developing new standards for the levees as a result of Hurricane Katrina.

Surprisingly, the most explosive part of the packet wasn’t even mentioned by Hunt in the debate. An email from Rebecca Dugger, Director of the Trinity River Project, said the city is “still discussing the issues of auxiliary lanes.”

“If we don’t show them and then later determine they are necessary for safety purposes, we will be seen as misrepresenting the design,” Dugger wrote.

The rest of Hunt’s opening statements were on point. She called the toll road a “financial disaster” since it has gone from a $400 million project to $1.3 billion and talked about how the project went from a low-speed parkway with direct access to a high-speed toll road.

Hunt brought up the NTTA’s new addition to the North Dallas Tollway, which is a 9.6-mile extension from just north of S.H. 121 to U.S. 380. She asked why a road of nearly the exact same length and width of the Trinity toll road cost just $263 million, approximately one-fifth of the cost of the Trinity toll road.

“It’s simple. No one has ever built a road like this in a floodway,” Hunt said. “Why? Because it’s in a floodway.” [audience laughed, then applauded]

Hunt said moving the toll road off the levee resulted in a loss of one-third of the park acreage. She also said the road will narrow the channel in the floodway, reducing the area where the water can travel. Hunt compared it to “when you squish on a water hose and the water comes out harder and faster.”

Hunt mentioned Central Park in New York, Town Lake in Austin and the River Walk in San Antonio as places people would never dream of building a toll road. She said it’s hard for Dallasites to imagine because the park isn’t built yet.

“I guarantee you if that park were there today, if you took your kids to picnics there, if you took your sailboat out on that lake, we would never dream of putting a toll road there,” Hunt said. “And I guarantee you we wouldn’t be sitting here today having a debate about it.”

In his opening statement, Mayor Leppert said this issue is not about a road or a park, it’s about a commitment. He said a ‘yes’ vote would be saying no to $1 billion in funding for the road from the NTTA, $25 million in funding from the NTTA for the lakes and $5 million from the NTTA for access roads. Leppert challenged the lack of an alternative by the opposition, saying they haven’t provided one because there isn’t one.

“The alternative is a road to nowhere,” Leppert said. “It’s a black hole where we dump a billion dollars.”

Leppert said the only other alternative being mentioned is the Industrial alignment, which he said would add $300-500 million to the cost of the project to buy the 800 pieces of land, 200-300 businesses and pay for the litigation dealing with eminent domain. He also said this would delay the road an additional 5-10 years.

Leppert said with the fifth worst traffic congestion in the nation, Dallas needs this road. He added that roadwork won’t be able to be done on I-35 and U.S. 67 without a reliever route. Leppert said the road will be a magnet to pull people together and urged citizens to seize the funding available.

With 10 minutes allotted for opening remarks, Leppert gave some time to Lill. As I said before, she seized it to address Hunt’s statement about pre-Katrina safety standards.

Lill said the city has spent a decade looking at this issue and this is the only option. She said voting yes “will basically foreclose all of your options.”

Lill said the Industrial alignment would cut off Oak Cliff, taking away access to I-35. She also stressed the importance of the flood control element of the project.

Once the opening statements were out of the way, each side was able to ask the other side three questions, alternating each time.

Hunt and Greyson asked about project cost, the number of roads like this in other places and why the city is seeking waivers and exceptions from the Corps which could weaken the levee.

Greyson made the point that had the city originally gone with the Industrial alignment, it would have been cheaper than the price of the current plan. She also said they cannot claim Industrial is more costly than the current plan because the cost continues to rise.

Leppert called the question “wrong” and said Industrial has always cost more and the only reason for the additional cost of the current plan is inflation related to delays.

Hunt and Greyson failed to press Leppert to explain the reasons behind the delays so far. Greyson said she believes it is because of problems associated with putting the road in a floodway, but again, Leppert was never pressed to explain why there has been a nine-year delay.

Hunt’s second question asked Leppert to name five roads like this in the nation to illustrate that this will be the first of its kind. With only three questions to ask, I wasn’t so sure one needed to be burned on this one, but it got a noteworthy response from Leppert.

“It’s interesting because they actually said the same thing about the Panama Canal and the Suez Canal. They said that’s never been built there, so why should we ever do it? They said it about the Eiffel Tower and they also said it about DFW Airport,” Leppert said. “If we take the premise that it’s never been done before, then all of the sudden, think of the opportunities that would be missed.”

As for seeking waivers and exceptions from the Corps which could weaken the levee, Leppert said it would not weaken the levee, according to the Corps.

Lill’s questions focused the problems with the Industrial alignment and the lack of an alternative.

Lill spoke of a 10-lane toll road along Industrial that would restrict Oak Cliff access to I-35 and make economic development difficult. Greyson said it was interesting that their toll road is a 4-6 lane road and Industrial road is described as having 10 lanes. She also said economic development can be compatible with a potential Industrial toll road.

Lill kept pressing for Hunt to give an alternative and that move backfired, providing the most crowd-pleasing moment of the night.

“There are lots of places to put this road, but there’s only one place to put the park,” Hunt said. “So where’s your alternative for the park?”

Each side was given three minutes to close before questions from the moderators and the audience. Leppert said too much is riding on this project and many people have worked too hard on it. He also listed the broad support behind the Vote No! campaign.

Greyson addressed the broad support in her closing remarks.

“We feel somewhat like this is a David and Goliath battle and you have that whole roster of organizations and people that our mayor just talked about,” Greyson said. “But what we have is petitions from 52,000 people.”

Moderators State Rep. Rafael Anchia and Victoria Loe Hicks each had one question for each side and both of their questions for the Vote No! side put them on their heels.

Anchia asked if building a road to alleviate traffic congestion and improving air quality were important parts of the project, then why did they include sailboats on a lake showing no road instead of saying, “Let’s fund a toll road.” Lill danced around the issue and talked about how the project is also about flood control and the park.

Hicks asked why Dallas would be want to give away its parkland for a regional transportation problem. Leppert said the key is that it secures funding for other amenities to make the project go forward.

The night was capped off by questions from the audience. Here are the highlights:

*The best audience question was, “Given the Army Corps of Engineers spectacular record with levees across the U.S., why should we trust anything the Corps tells us?” Leppert smiled, the audience laughed and he assured everyone that the Corps are experts and are very conservative.

* Hunt attacked the $5 million in funding for access roads by the NTTA, saying the roads are not fully funded and are only “half ramps.” She said citizens will be “jumping off the end of the ramp with parachutes” because the roads that touch the ground are unfunded and are the responsibility of the City of Dallas.

* Leppert said private funding for the project has “dried up” since the referendum was put on the ballot.

* Lill said $150 million in private funding for amenities in the park is needed and the city lost $60 million in potential gifts to this project once the referendum was put on the ballot.

* Hunt said she doesn’t believe the private funding will go away. “I’m sorry,” Hunt said. “I do not buy the idea that someone who loves lakes, who loves nature, is going to say ‘I’m going to take my money back because my beautiful lake isn’t going to be next to this wonderful tollway.’”

* Greyson said the first thing Alex Krieger, who helped design the Balanced Vision Plan, said when he came to speak with city officials was, “You’re surely not going to be putting a toll road between these levees in this park.” She said he was then told, “You’re here to show us how we can put a toll road between the levees in the best way possible.”

* Leppert said you have to go back to 1908 to find a flood that would have touched the proposed road.

* Hunt said the current alignment was studied closely because the city is giving away “$500 million of land for free with a bow on top.”

* Lill said the Trinity Parkway has been a general concept since 1974.

* Greyson said the only language the city is legally bound to is the language on the ballot. Leppert disagreed. “I’ve become an expert on this because there was an old lawsuit that had to do with a referendum having to do with police pay,” Leppert said. “I can assure you that every court in the state of Texas looks back and says, 'What is all of the information and what is the intent?' because it gets to legislative intent and all of the information and everything that is printed becomes a part of it.”

* Hunt said, “If the words ‘toll road’ would have been on the ballot, the bond proposal wouldn’t have passed.”

* Greyson mentioned how U.S. 75 was going to be double-decked and how LBJ was going to be 24 lanes in 1991, but because of concerns by citizens, those projects were redone and better solutions were found even though they took longer and were more expensive options.

* Leppert said environmental issues are more significant along Industrial as opposed to within the levees because of “the nature of the businesses there.”

* Hunt said Hurricane Katrina showed how political pressure affects decisions by the Corps.

* Greyson read from a story written by Hicks when she was with the DMN, which quotes a consultant looking into the economic impact of the project as saying Dallas would be better off sticking with the original low-speed plan. “We never heard from that consultant again,” Greyson said.

* Hunt asked why a road is being built in the most congested part of the city and said it could be built around the city instead.

* Greyson said, “You can’t pave your way out of congestion.”

* Responding to a question about why she’s the only one who is against the keeping the road in the park, Hunt called on former council members Donna Blumer and John Loza to stand up and show that she has their support in her effort.

* Trinity River Project Committee Chair Dave Neumann was in attendance as was former DART board member Joyce Foreman, who asked one of the audience questions.


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