Tuesday, September 18, 2007

"This is just one more example of gross misrepresentations by the proponents of this project."

Fight over Trinity toll road starts at the drawing board

Backers' road lined by trees; foes call images misleading

September 18, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

In the opening round of what is likely to be a bitter campaign, supporters of the Trinity toll road had barely kicked off their public relations campaign Tuesday when their opponents attacked the effort as dishonest and deceptive.

The row involves a series of videos and color drawings aimed at persuading Dallas voters to reject a Nov. 6 referendum that would kill the toll road. The images are intended to show that the road would occupy only a tiny portion of the river corridor and wouldn't disturb nearby park and recreation amenities.

"Vote No! Save the Trinity!" leaders, including Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, depicted the toll road as a tree-lined boulevard whose traffic lanes are separated by a wide, landscaped median.

But District 14 Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, the toll road's leading opponent and architect of the toll road proposition before voters in November, argued that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers won't allow trees to be planted in the sides of the river levees as depicted in the anti-proposition campaign's toll road renderings.

A verdant median also disappears if the toll road is expanded from an initial four lanes to six, Ms. Hunt argued.

Members of the Dallas city staff acknowledged as much Tuesday during a meeting of the City Council's Trinity River Corridor Committee. Officials at the Army Corps of Engineers district office in Fort Worth did not return telephone calls Tuesday afternoon.

"This is just one more example of gross misrepresentations by the proponents of this project," Ms. Hunt said. "Their pretty drawings show a forest of trees on the levees, and all this plush landscaping – trees and bushes and flowers. It looks lovely. But the median won't look so lovely when it's two more lanes of asphalt. And the only trees we're going to get are a few potted crape myrtles."

Visual campaign

Are the renderings accurate?

"We feel very comfortable" they are, Mr. Leppert said during Tuesday's news conference in the Nana restaurant atop the Hilton Anatole, its floor-to-ceiling windows affording spectacular views of the Trinity River Corridor.

"I am committed ... to making sure that the end product meets the sort of thing you're seeing," Mr. Leppert added.

Proposition opponents have said for weeks that they would regularly rely on visual aids in hope of convincing voters the planned toll road occupies only a tiny portion of the Trinity River Corridor.

It's a strategy they reaffirmed Tuesday, complete with two computer-generated conceptual videos of a futuristic Trinity River Corridor, replete with recreational lakes and green space that dwarf the ribbon of road running just inside the corridor's northern levee.

"We believe it's so very important to show the graphic, the picture of what it is," Mr. Leppert said Tuesday, adding that the North Texas Tollway Authority, which generated the drawings, would spend $1 million per mile to landscape the planned tollway.

"This roadway is compatible with a park because you've already seen the dimensions," said Lee Jackson, chancellor of the University of North Texas and a former Dallas County judge.

Dallasites should expect to see the first wave of Vote No-sponsored handbills in their mailboxes as early as Monday, campaign consultant Becky Mayad said.

Too many trees?

This is hardly the first instance Trinity activists have verbally brawled over conceptual drawings.

In 1998, Dallas voters narrowly approved the issuance of $246 million in bonds for the Trinity River Corridor Project, a network of improvements including the Trinity toll road, a downtown lake and park, improved flood controls and other amenities.

Supporters of that bond issue, led by then-Mayor Ron Kirk, were roundly criticized for what some called a misleading ad campaign. Campaign mailers featured watercolor drawings of sailboats and lakes and families at play. But the drawings failed to show that the project also included a highway.

"This is the sailboats all over again," Ms. Hunt said Tuesday. "Once again the voters of Dallas are being shown pictures that are misleading. It's dishonest. I am deeply disturbed."

Craig Holcomb, spokesman for Vote No! Save the Trinity, said that top officials of the Corps of Engineers had reviewed the promotional drawings and videos and "they did not say yes or no" to the depictions of a heavily landscaped freeway.

Mr. Holcomb, a former City Council member, acknowledged, though, that "as a general rule" the corps won't allow trees to be planted in levees because the trees' root systems could undermine the integrity of those levees.

He added, however, that "under certain circumstances" there could be exceptions to that policy. "And the corps has said they are willing to work with us," he said.

Mr. Hunt's proposition before voters, listed on the November ballot as Proposition 1, in part calls for no road to be built between the Trinity levee walls that's more than four total lanes and features a speed limit higher than 35 mph. Ms. Hunt's TrinityVote campaign says the planned toll road would irreparably damage the $1.2 billion-plus Trinity project's park and recreation elements.

With less than seven weeks remaining until the Nov. 6 referendum, Mr. Leppert says the Vote No! campaign's pitch to Dallasites will also revolve around three primary assertions: The passage of Proposition 1 would lead to increased taxes, Trinity project delays and a weaker economic base.

The mayor also noted that the Vote No! effort has a broader base of support among elected officials past and present – U.S. Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, state Sen. Royce West, former Dallas mayors Ron Kirk and Laura Miller, 14 of 15 sitting Dallas City Council members – than the pro-proposition TrinityVote organization does.

"I can't think of any issue before the voters of Dallas that has had such broad support," Mr. Leppert said. "This is our opportunity to step forward and change the face of Dallas."

Ms. Hunt notes that her organization collected more than 52,000 valid voter signatures earlier this year to prompt a November referendum and that any Dallasite's ballot is as good as that of some high-profile politician.

The Vote No! campaign will, however, almost certainly enjoy a significant cash advantage through Election Day, as an impressive roster of business organizations, from the Dallas Citizens Council to most area chambers of commerce, have pledged their support.

Miles to go

At Tuesday's news conference, at which Mr. West, Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price and political activist Adelfa Callejo were among the attendees, the panel also faced pointed questions about the Trinity project's timing and cost.

When asked when Dallasites should expect to experience the scenes depicted in the conceptual drawings, Mr. Leppert said, "It'll literally be over the next seven, eight years." He noted that some project components would become operational sooner than others.

Meanwhile, Dallasites are unlikely to know how much they'll have to pay to drive a toll road built between the Trinity River Corridor's levees, Vote No! campaign supporters acknowledged Tuesday.

But Mr. Leppert said fees would "fit within the guidelines" of the NTTA's current toll outlook and "would have to be competitive."

A document presented to the City Council last year indicated the NTTA's target toll road rate in 2015 would be 13 cents per mile driven. The Bush Turnpike and Dallas North Tollway feature 10-cent-per-mile rates, while NTTA's working rate for a planned toll road along State Highway 121 north of Dallas is 14.5 cents per mile in 2010.

As conceived, the Trinity toll road is about 10 miles long.

dlevinthal@dallasnews.com , btomaso@dallasnews.com

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