Sunday, October 07, 2007

How much of the park would the Trinity toll road take? It depends on what your definition of 'park' is.

Foes, fans filling in Trinity plan details

Tentative design gives toll road debaters lots of room to disagree

October 7, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The Trinity toll road is:

A) A vital transportation cog, an integral element of the city's "Balanced Vision Plan" for the Trinity River Corridor.

Or it's:

B) About the dumbest idea that anyone ever came up with, an asphalt gash that will forever scar what could otherwise be a spectacular downtown river park.

The polar-opposite views starkly define the debate over Proposition 1, the Nov. 6 referendum that, if passed, would prohibit construction of the high-speed highway inside the Trinity levees.

At present, the toll road is a key piece of the city's ambitious plan to transform the Trinity River floodway. Other aspects of the plan, first approved by Dallas voters in 1998, are a riverside park with hiking trails and lakes; improved flood protection; wetlands; and other amenities.

From the beginning, though, the road has been the most contentious element.

Supporters of the toll road are led by Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, who is campaigning to defeat Proposition 1. He is joined in that effort by most downtown civic and business groups and nearly every elected official from the area – from Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison and U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson to 14 of the 15 City Council members.

On the other side is that 15th council member, Angela Hunt, backed by 90,000 or so Dallas residents who signed petitions earlier this year to force the November vote.

In debates and on the air, in campaign materials and on dueling Web sites, the two sides disagree about nearly everything – even what the roadside landscaping would look like.

As in any campaign, both sides choose their words carefully to emphasize the message they want to convey.

Ms. Hunt's supporters, for example, sometimes talk about the insanity of putting a toll road "in the middle of a park," even though no one has ever proposed doing that. The road would run close to the east river levee, the one that separates the Trinity floodway from downtown. It would be hundreds of feet from "the middle of the park."

Mr. Leppert's supporters, on the other hand, suggest that park visitors will barely even notice the toll road, which they prefer to refer to by its official name, the Trinity Parkway.

Dallas City Council member Mitchell Rasansky, one of the project's most ardent backers, likes to extend his arms straight out from his sides, then point his thumb back towards his head. His arms, Mr. Rasansky says, represent the span of the floodway from levee to levee. His thumb represents the toll road. But while his proportions may be about right, the council member's thumb doesn't hold four noisy freeway lanes carrying up to 100,000 cars a day.

For voters, the debate can be confusing – what will the Trinity Parkway look like? How noticeable will it be? Will it ruin the experience of visiting the downtown park? Or provide motorists who might not otherwise visit the park with an impressive view of what they're missing?

The questions can't be answered precisely or completely, mostly because no final design for the road has been produced. The North Texas Tollway Authority, which would build and operate the Trinity Parkway, is months, maybe a year, away from those final plans (assuming voters on Nov. 6 don't render the question moot). After that, it could be another year before the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which has authority over any project in the floodway, weighs in on the NTTA's plans.

In the meantime, though, there is a lot of information out there, from the NTTA, the city, the Texas Department of Transportation, the Corps of Engineers, and the two sides in the Nov. 6 campaign. Ms. Hunt's group, favoring Proposition 1 and opposing the toll road, is called TrinityVote; the opposition, which is working to defeat the proposition and keep the toll road, is Vote No! Save the Trinity.

The following are a few key questions – among many – that keep surfacing in public discussions about the toll road and what's at stake on Nov. 6.

How much park land would the toll road take up?

To paraphrase Bill Clinton, it depends on what your definition of park is.

According to Rebecca Dugger, the engineer who heads the city's Trinity River Corridor Project office, the toll road would consume about 154 acres inside the levees. That's about 40 acres more than earlier estimates, because last fall, the Corps of Engineers expressed reservations about the NTTA's idea to build the road into the side of the levee. The corps feared that such a design could weaken the levee and, in the words of Col. Christopher Martin, head of the Corps' Fort Worth District office, "that isn't going to happen."

Ms. Hunt has said, on KRLD-AM (1080) radio and elsewhere, that the toll road would gobble up "one-third of the downtown Trinity Park."

But the keyword there is "downtown." She's talking just about part of the park that includes the downtown lakes – admittedly, for many park lovers, the heart of the Trinity project. According to city figures, under the toll road configuration favored by the Corps of Engineers, that part of the park would go from about 136 acres to as little as 91.

However, the other side points out that the overall Trinity Project, stretching from Royal Lane on the north to Interstate 45 on the south, is more than 10,000 acres – and the part where the toll road would run inside the levees, from about Hampton Road on the north to about Lamar Avenue on the south, is about 2,000 acres. Using either of those as a basis of comparison, they say, the toll road is barely a blip.

Would the toll road provide access to the park?

Not directly.

To Ms. Hunt, that's one of the gravest faults of the current plan. In 1998, she says, Dallas voters thought they were getting a low-speed boulevard that would get them to their park. Instead, they're getting a high-speed toll road that "provides no access to the park." (At times, she qualifies this in public and says no "direct" access to the park.)

Proposition 1 addresses this head-on. It would prohibit the construction of any road inside the levees that is more than four lanes; has a speed limit of more that 35 mph; and does not provide direct park access.

The toll road as currently conceived would only provide park access indirectly. There would be exit ramps off the toll road and onto major cross streets, such as Sylvan Avenue. And from those cross streets, one could take a curved ramp down into the park, where there would be visitor parking lots.

Ms. Hunt, however, is quick to point out that there are "zero dollars in the budget" to complete those ramps and build those parking lots. The NTTA would finance half of the ramps, but unless the city comes up with money to complete them, "we'd better all bring our parachutes when we go to the park, because that's going to be the only way to get in there."

Mr. Leppert says the city will find the money to complete the access ramps when the time comes – and that killing the toll road hardly addresses that problem, since the city would then lose the money that NTTA has already agreed to put up to fund part of the access ramps.

Could the toll road flood?

It's possible, but unlikely.

The road is being designed to withstand a 100-year flood – a flood so severe that it's only expected to happen once a century. This would be accomplished by building it on an elevated bed, and, where it dips down to pass under existing bridges and so forth, by shielding it from the river with floodwalls.

There has not been a 100-year flood in downtown Dallas since the levees were built in the 1930s.

Ms. Dugger, the head of the city's Trinity River project office, said the worst flooding in recent memory was in 1990, when South Lamar Avenue and the Cadillac Heights neighborhood in southern Dallas were inundated. That was a 35-year flood.

Early this summer, repeated heavy rains caused the river to spill well beyond its banks, and the water eventually spread to the base of the levees. From the air, or from overpass bridges, it looked bad. But that flooding, Ms. Dugger said, was a five-year flood; it never got more than about 8 feet up the sides of the levees, which are roughly 30 feet tall.

Supporters of Proposition 1 say it's unsafe to build a highway inside a floodway. More than once, they have publicly stated, incorrectly, that this summer's rains would have put the toll road under water.

John Loza, a former Dallas City Council member, made that assertion at a City Hall news conference on June 29, when TrinityVote submitted its signed petitions calling for the referendum. When asked about his statement afterward, he acknowledged that he was basing it solely on what the river looked like when he drove over it. At a Sept. 25 debate at Rosemont Primary School in Oak Cliff, former City Council member Sandy Greyson, another TrinityVote supporter, echoed Mr. Loza, saying the toll road would be flood-prone, and that this summer's storms were proof. They weren't.

How will the road be landscaped?

This is a bone of contention between the two sides, in part because Ms. Hunt claims that back in 1998, supporters of the Trinity bond issue deliberately sent out misleading campaign materials. The mailings showed watercolors of lakes and sailboats and fountains and families at play, but no toll road.

Three weeks ago, when Mr. Leppert and others from Vote No! released new illustrations of the parkway, Ms. Hunt said the "bait and switch" was being repeated. The new drawings showed a tree-lined highway with a richly landscaped median.

But the Corps of Engineers has strict guidelines on the planting of trees in a levee. The practice isn't prohibited, said Col. Martin, the Fort Worth commander, but the city and the NTTA would have to convince Army engineers that the trees could be planted in a way that wouldn't affect the levee's integrity.

For example, the trees could be planted in containers. But Ms. Hunt said there's no way anyone is going to pay for the number of containerized trees shown in the new drawings. "The only trees we're going to get are a few potted crape myrtles," she said.

And the landscaped median? That goes away if the NTTA decides eventually to expand the toll road from its initial four lanes to six. Under its agreements with the city, the NTTA could do that "as traffic warrants," said spokesman Sam Lopez. He added that no such decision would be made without consulting city officials.

Still, Ms. Hunt said, "the median won't look so lovely when it's two more lanes of asphalt."

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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