Monday, October 08, 2007

"Do you know anyone who would want to have a picnic next to the Dallas North Tollway?"

In N. Dallas, mayor and others debate Trinity

Dallas: At debate, mayor warns of taxes, councilwoman of ruined park

October 8, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Parks are nice. Parks are fun. Parks are where you go on sunny afternoons to Rollerblade, or sit on a bench and write poems, or toss a Frisbee with your devoted, drooly black Lab.

Roads are ugly. Roads are noisy and smelly. Roads are where you go when you have to drive somewhere. On a good day, they work, and that makes them tolerable. On a bad day – and there are lots of those for North Texas commuters – they give us a giant headache.

In election terms, parks are JFK. Roads are Richard Nixon.

For that reason, the opponents of Proposition 1, the Nov. 6 ballot measure to eliminate the Trinity toll road, acknowledge that they have their work cut out for them.

"When you boil it down to a sound bite – road vs. park – it's hard to refute that," said Robert Meckfessel, a supporter of the toll road.

Mr. Meckfessel, an architect, is a past president of the local chapter of the American Institute of Architects and of the local chapter of the Sierra Club. On Sunday, he joined Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert to discuss the pros of the toll road at Temple Emanu-El in North Dallas.

Arguing against the road – and for Proposition 1 – were Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt and former mayoral candidate Sam Coats.

About 300 people attended.

The Trinity toll road would run from U.S. Highway 175 southeast of downtown Dallas to State Highway 183 on the north. Along nearly all of its nine-mile length, it would be built inside the Trinity River levees.

The highway is a key part of the Trinity River Corridor Project, an ambitious plan to transform the barren river bottoms. Many people, including the mayor, believe that if Dallas voters reject the road next month, the entire Trinity plan – the lakes and trails and promenades and scenic downtown riverside park – will be cast into chaos.

"What's at stake is what Dallas will look like in the next 20 years," the mayor said at Sunday's forum.

He repeated the arguments he has made often at these events: The toll road is needed to alleviate horrible traffic congestion in the central city. If the plan is scrapped, the city will lose $1 billion or more in transportation and other funding. There are no good alternative routes for the highway. Inside the park, it will hardly take up any room at all. Elected officials across the political spectrum, the downtown business establishment and civic groups of all stripes are on the mayor's side.

Ms. Hunt drew laughs when she asked, "Do you know anyone who would want to have a picnic next to the Dallas North Tollway?"

Since she started gathering signatures for the referendum last spring, Ms. Hunt and her group, TrinityVote, have sought to keep their message simple: We don't need no stinkin' toll road.

At Sunday's forum, TrinityVote was passing out yard signs to anyone who wanted one. The signs bear a simple message in black block letters on a white background: KEEP THEIR TOLL ROAD OUT OF OUR PARK.

"This is a populist issue. The people want a park. They don't want a honking toll way," said Mr. Coats, a former airline executive who finished sixth among 11 candidates in this spring's mayoral election.

Ms. Hunt said that since 1998, when Dallas voters approved $246 million in bonds for the Trinity project, it "has veered off course. It has moved away from this incredible park that we can leave as a legacy to our children, and it has become a road project."

And, she added, a lousy road project at that, one whose cost has skyrocketed from $394 million in 1998 to $1.3 billion today. "This toll road," she said, "is a financial disaster."

The disaster, Mr. Leppert countered, will be what happens if Ms. Hunt's side prevails. The vast majority of the money to build the toll road is being put up by the state and the North Texas Tollway Authority. If the project falters, the mayor said, that funding is jeopardized – and city taxpayers will be on the hook if and when the City Council figures out how to address traffic problems without the toll road.

"The result will be a big tax increase," he said.

The mayor tried to make it clear that the decision voters face next month isn't an either-or – that Dallas can have a gem of a park and a needed highway.

"I want a great park," he said. "I want a park that we all can enjoy." And that, he added, can be achieved under the current Trinity plan.

But after the event, he acknowledged that Ms. Hunt's side makes an appealing argument when it casts the debate in exactly those either-or terms.

"If you just say, 'Do you want a road or do you want a park?', well, that's easy to answer," the mayor said. "But this issue isn't nearly that simple. It involves a lot more than that."

He agreed with an observation that framing the question as highway-or-park is a bit like asking a 14-year-old if he'd rather have broccoli or a Dr Pepper.

"But then, you have to ask what the consequences are if you say Dr Pepper," he said. "What are the costs? You can't just live on Dr Pepper."

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