Monday, October 15, 2007

"Leppert and the Vote No! campaign have been making threats about funding that doesn’t exist yet."

The Ultimate Irony: NTTA Sinks Vote No!

Oct 15, 2007

by Sam Merten
Copyright 2007

When Mayor Leppert and others began the Vote No! campaign with a press conference Sept. 18, the message was clear. Putting the road inside the levees is the cheapest option.

Let’s take a look at why Vote No! says it’s so cheap. First, they compare it with the Industrial Boulevard alternatives and say the cost will rise $300-500 million because of the land and businesses that will need to be purchased. They also say it won’t cost taxpayers anything because the $84 million of city money will be repaid and the rest of the road will be paid with federal, state and North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) money.

If you’ve seen Vote No’s mailer, this is the money they say the city will be passing on if the referendum passes in November. The mailer reads, “Don’t let Angela Hunt send more than $1 billion down the river…”

At the end of Vote No’s press conference, Leppert told me he was “comfortable” that the price of the road was $1.2 billion. He also said approximately $1 billion of the cost will be paid by bonds issued by the NTTA and repaid using toll revenue.

With $84 million from the city, approximately $200 million in federal and state funding and roughly a billion coming from the NTTA, the numbers seemed to add up. Even when Leppert added $100 million to his estimate one week later, the numbers still were in line.

However, my problem with making any kind of budget guess or attempting to make any comparisons seemed a bit silly since the road hasn’t been designed yet or approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

I asked Leppert to help explain how he could claim the floodway alignment is the most cost effective since there is no final cost. He basically said it would be the cheapest since the City of Dallas is giving away parkland to the NTTA.

When it comes to the funding, the Vote No! campaign has used scare tactics to make people believe parts of the $200 million in federal and state money could be in jeopardy. They haven’t been able to produce any evidence to support this.

The key to the argument that taxpayers will be losing more than $1 billion in funding is the money Leppert has said the NTTA is kicking in. Without a firm commitment, the argument becomes moot.

The one person involved in this whole mess I’ve been dying to talk to for a while is Chris Anderson, project manager with the NTTA. Getting a response from the NTTA was vital to backing up a lot of Vote No’s claims, especially when it came to the approximately $1 billion in funding it was going to provide.

I was finally able to get in touch with Anderson, who told me he preferred to do an email interview to make sure he understood my questions and would have a record of our conversation. Anderson and “various subject matter specialists” answered my questions and then they were checked for accuracy, according to an email.

I have to admit, I was skeptical of what I would get, especially in this format. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how up-front Anderson and the NTTA were in answering most of the questions.

First of all, I was able to get a copy of the Interlocal Agreement (ILA) between the City of Dallas and the NTTA. There seems to be a huge debate as to whether or not to call this the Trinity Parkway or the Trinity Toll Road. Judging from this document, I’m calling it the Trinity Turnpike as it’s referenced as a turnpike project numerous times in the ILA.

The ILA, dated Jan. 1, 1999, was signed by Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan along with Jerry Hiebert, former executive director for the NTTA. Charles Heald, former executive director for TxDOT, also signed it on May 11, 1999.

In order to make it feasible as a turnpike project for the NTTA, the speed limit needed to be changed from 45 mph to 55 mph and it could not provide direct access, according to the ILA. This is how the road turned from a low-speed parkway with direct access into a high-speed toll road without direct park access. Surprisingly, another condition listed was “the turnpike project would be restricted to passenger cars and light trucks only,” but I’ll get to that in a second.

Based these conditions, referred to as section 2 below, the NTTA gave an estimate of what they would contribute to the project.

“Based on the Draft Feasibility Report, and assuming the design features in section 2 above, the Authority estimates that the Trinity Parkway could generate sufficient revenues to support an issuance of $140-150 million of turnpike revenue bonds.”

So between 1999 and now, we’re supposed to believe the NTTA changed its mind from contributing $150 million to approximately $1 billion. What could have changed?

As I mentioned above, the only real change is in ’99, only cars and light trucks were supposed to be using the road and now eighteen wheelers will be truckin’ down the Trinity Turnpike. But is that enough to justify an additional $850 million commitment from the NTTA?

No matter how it’s justified, if the NTTA is going to commit a billion dollars, then a deal is a deal, right? Yet there is no deal and there is no commitment. Leppert and the Vote No! campaign have been making threats about funding that doesn’t exist yet.

“It is not possible at this time to state specifically what portion of the project's cost will be assumed by NTTA. A clearer idea of total project costs will only be determined when we substantially complete design work,” the NTTA said. “No decision on the funding of the Trinity Parkway has been made.”

The NTTA said its actual contribution will be based upon the results of its final investment grade and toll financing study, how robust its system is, if system financing is applied, whether the project will be financed as a stand-alone project and its final partnership agreements.

So the NTTA says not only does it not know what its portion of the cost will be, but it doesn’t know what the total project cost will be until the design work is completed. This has been a question on my mind for a long time. Just how far along is the design process?

“We are currently evaluating eight alternatives under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The alternative selected for construction will not occur until environmental clearance is received. Design is roughly at the 35 percent level for all alternatives, in that we are utilizing design criteria to establish horizontal, vertical and hydraulic attributes for all alternatives under assessment. Once the environmental process is completed, a full-scale design of the selected alternative will occur,” the NTTA said.

This explains why the argument made by Vote No! that the floodway alignment is the cheapest is flawed. If the designs for all alternatives are only at 35 percent, there is no way to accurately project the total cost of any of the alternatives, making it difficult if not impossible to make a comparison between any of them.

One of my concerns with the NTTA supposedly committing so much money was the potential impact on toll prices on the rest of the system. Voters in North Dallas who don’t spend time downtown may have a new reason to vote if they drive on the Bush Turnpike and Dallas North Tollway. I asked if the NTTA is expecting to raise tolls on the remaining NTTA structure to help pay for this road.

“That is unknown at this time,” the NTTA said.

How about the claim that the $84 million of City of Dallas money will be reimbursed by the NTTA, essentially making this road free for taxpayers? This is taken from the ILA.

“The Authority is receptive to the City’s request [for reimbursement] and will agree to reimburse the City in an amount based upon the portion of the $84 million the City shall expend on the Trinity Parkway that is not attributable to the cost of right-of-way acquisition, said reimbursement being dependent and conditioned upon a finding that the Trinity Parkway is financially feasible as a turnpike project and being in an amount which, in the reasonable judgment of the City and the Authority, the Authority may reimburse without violating existing repayment obligations or impairing the Authority’s long-term ability to study or undertake other projects. The actual amount of the reimbursement to the City shall be determined in a subsequent agreement between the City, the Authority and, if appropriate, one or more other parties.”

With the amount of reimbursement to be determined in a subsequent agreement, is it accurate to be telling people they’ll be getting their $84 million back? Clearly any reimbursement is up in the air.

In the end, the undoing of Vote No’s strategy regarding funding was done by NTTA, the ones building this road. You gotta love the irony. But wait, there’s more. Let’s talk about the safety of this project.

Sunday’s Dallas Morning News editorial urging voters to vote no addressed the issue of safety, acting as though anyone siding with Angela Hunt and Vote Yes! had lost their mind. In the Vote No! mailer mentioned at the beginning, this was included about flooding.

“Your ‘No’ vote means families will get the critical flood protection they need to protect their homes and neighborhoods -- on schedule without unnecessary delays. The historic rains that fell on our region this spring should serve as a reminder that until this project is completed, parts of our city are at great risk.”

I asked the NTTA to explain the engineering difficulties associated with building a road in a floodway since this has never been done before.

The NTTA said the challenges include maintaining the long-term integrity of the levee system, maintaining the ability of the floodway to convey design floods, maintaining levee integrity and floodway conveyance at all times during construction of the road and maintaining the city and Corps' ability to perform their operations, maintenance and repairs on the levees as well as flood-fighting activities and surveillance.

I also asked if the NTTA received any concerns from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about putting piers from the road into the levee.

“Yes, and we are currently working with the Corps to address those concerns,” the NTTA said.

So while The DMN and Vote No! want you to believe everything is peachy regarding the safety of this road, there are undeniable risks with putting a road inside Dallas’ floodway. The DMN story cites the Corps as saying “building within a floodplain is not unusual.” However, this road is going in a floodway and no one has been able to name another road like this in a floodway anywhere in the country.

“We are not aware of a similar project being constructed,” the NTTA said.

I also asked the NTTA about potential pier work that would be done to existing bridges. I wanted to know if the removal or reconstruction of the existing piers is included in the $1.3 billion cost estimate.

“Assuming the current piers are structurally sound, we do not anticipate that the Trinity Parkway crossing beneath them will require their removal or reconstruction,” the NTTA said.

In response to the bridge collapse in Minnesota, The DMN took a look at bridges in the D-FW area. They even came up with this nice map of area bridges with a sufficiency score of 50 or less. The Minnesota bridge score was 50. On that map, you’ll see three red dots on the Sylvan Bridge, which the Trinity Turnpike will pass under. The bridge has ratings of 39.6, 6 and only 4 near the point where the road will be.

I’m no expert, but with such a poor score, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s not accurate to assume the piers are structurally sound.

Finally, I wanted to get an explanation on the cost difference between the recent addition to the Dallas North Tollway and the proposed floodway alignment.

“It is inaccurate to describe the proposed Trinity Parkway and the newly opened extension of the Dallas North Tollway as ‘nearly the exact same road’ simply because they have a similar length. They are two very different projects,” the NTTA said. “Urban highways typically have higher costs than rural projects, but the traffic demands help justify this.”

This answer, along with many other aspects of the ILA and answers to other questions left me with several follow-ups, which is a flaw of having to communicate via email. However, I’ve forwarded more questions to Chris Anderson and hope even more information will be provided by the NTTA.

At the end of its answer to my extension comparison question, the NTTA once again proved how cost estimates for this project are unclear at this time.

“No final estimate of construction costs has been completed for any of the Trinity Parkway alternatives under review,” the NTTA said.

At the Vote No! press conference, Mayor Leppert said something I’ll never forget.

“One of the challenges is to make sure the people of Dallas understand the issues that are at stake and be able to communicate the basic facts,” Leppert said. “The converse of that is we want to make sure some of the inaccuracies out there, some of the falsehoods, are corrected so that you [the media] and the citizens of Dallas have a good, solid understanding of what this project is and the key elements of that.”

This information from the NTTA, along with everything else that has been uncovered along the way, proves Leppert and the Vote No! campaign have been unable to communicate the facts because they are the ones using inaccuracies and falsehoods in their message. It’s up to the voters to find the facts and if enough of them take the time, Angela Hunt and Vote Yes! won’t have anything to worry about on Nov. 6.

© 2007

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE