Wednesday, November 07, 2007

"Never before in the history of this city have we seen a grassroots effort like this."

Dallas voters endorse Trinity toll road

November 7, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

Dallas voters on Tuesday rejected a plan to kill the highway, a key element of the city's ambitious effort to transform the Trinity River corridor.

The vote means the city's massive Trinity River project can proceed as planned. In addition to the highway, which is intended to help relieve downtown traffic congestion, the project calls for enhanced flood controls; a downtown riverside park with lakes, trails, promenades and green spaces; preservation of the Great Trinity Forest south of downtown; an equestrian center; and other recreational amenities.

"There's one winner, and it's Dallas," an exuberant Mayor Tom Leppert, flanked by other members of the Dallas City Council, told supporters Tuesday night. "We have the opportunity to realize our dream. … Now it's time to get to work and make it happen."

The vote was a victory for Mr. Leppert, who — almost from the day he took office in late June — campaigned energetically to defeat Proposition 1, the referendum that would have halted the planned toll road.

And it was a blow to the political fortunes of Angela Hunt, the second-term Dallas City Council member who — alone among the city's elected officials — crusaded to remove the $1.3 billion highway from the river channel.

It was Ms. Hunt, a 35-year-old lawyer from the M Streets, who organized the petition drive to place Proposition 1 on the ballot. And it was Ms. Hunt who emerged as the leading voice for the proposition, which she characterized as the citizenry's last best hope to build a world-class downtown park along the banks of the Trinity.

"Never before in the history of this city have we seen a grassroots effort like this," she said Tuesday, in conceding that the effort had fallen short.

Even in defeat, she maintained that the highway project — and, with it, the whole Trinity River redevelopment effort — had gotten "off track." And she said her supporters would now hold the city's political and business elite to their promises that the toll road would bring thousands of new jobs and allow construction of a world-class park with no new taxes.

The election turnout in Dallas was 15.3 percent, higher than what Dallas County Elections Administrator Bruce Sherbet had forecast.

Proposition 1 would have forbidden construction of any road inside the river levees unless that road were four or fewer lanes, had a speed limit of 35 mph or less, and provided direct access to the riverside park.

The language was written expressly to kill plans by the city and the North Texas Tollway Authority to build the toll road — officially known, much to the chagrin of its opponents, as the Trinity Parkway.

The highway is to run from U.S. 175 southeast of downtown Dallas to where State Highway 183 branches off from the Stemmons Freeway south of Texas Stadium.

It's envisioned as a reliever route to help ease congestion along Stemmons Freeway and in the freeways that meet in the Canyon and Mixmaster along the southern edge of downtown. State highway planners have said construction of a reliever route is necessary if work is to proceed on a $1 billion project to untangle the Canyon and Mixmaster.

Ms. Hunt and her allies said repeatedly that they were not against building a toll road; they just didn't want it next to the Trinity park.

She framed the fight over the road in us-versus-them, David-versus-Goliath terms. The slogan on the yard signs of TrinityVote, the group she organized to fight the highway, was: "Keep their toll road out of our park."

Supporters of the highway agreed that putting it next to a park wasn't ideal. But they argued that there were no good alternative routes.

The best of a bad lot, they said, would have been to run the highway along Industrial Boulevard and Irving Boulevard. That would have required the displacement of more than 230 existing businesses. The NTTA estimated that such an alignment would cost at least $300 million more than building the highway inside the levees, where the city already owns unobstructed right-of-way.

Supporters of the road also said that trying to move it now would unnecessarily cause further delays in a project that, to many, already seems to be moving too slowly. It's been almost 10 years since Dallas voters approved $246 million in bonds for the Trinity project.

"For us to lose this would have been a devastating blow to the long-term economic and social well-being of our city," said Ron Kirk, who was mayor when that bond vote took place.

"It's evident of our maturation as a city that we know how to make decisions … and not tolerate delays. It's a very positive step."

The pragmatic arguments against Proposition 1 — we need to fight traffic, there's nowhere else to put the road, we've already done all this planning — were not persuasive to those who simply thought it foolish to build a toll road next to a park.

Ms. Hunt often joked in debates that she didn't know of anyone who wanted to have a picnic next to the Dallas North Tollway.

Until a year ago, the Trinity toll road hadn't figured in a public conversation, and certainly not a heated one, in a long time. After voters approved the 1998 bond issue, the Trinity plan withstood several lawsuits by environmentalists. In 2003, the City Council unanimously adopted what became the working design for the toll road — four lanes through the central city, six lanes elsewhere, all of them on the downtown side of the river corridor.

Planning along those lines was proceeding.

Then along came Ms. Hunt, a practiced trial attorney with a knack for asking questions and little patience for equivocal answers.

After her election in 2005, Ms. Hunt was appointed by Mayor Laura Miller to the City Council's Trinity River Project Committee. As Ms. Hunt tells it, as she continued to attend committee meetings, she grew increasingly frustrated at the lack of precise information from the city staff on the costs and timetable for completion of the Trinity project.

In particular, she said, she grew concerned that the cost of the toll road was spiraling out of control, while the downtown park remained woefully underfinanced.

The final straw, for her, came last November. That was when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informed the city that the toll road would have to be moved farther into the park. In the wake of the Katrina disaster, the Corps' engineers had grown leery of the city's plans to build the road into the side of the levee — they wanted it moved so it didn't touch the levee at all.

That realignment would reduce the size of the downtown park by more than 40 acres.

Ms. Hunt said enough.

In March, she announced that she would lead a campaign to let voters decide whether to scrap the toll road. In June, she and volunteers from TrinityVote turned in referendum petitions bearing more than 52,000 valid signatures. On Aug. 15, the City Council reluctantly approved placing Proposition 1 on the ballot.

The election pitted Ms. Hunt against the mayor, the rest of the City Council and the downtown business establishment. All 14 of her fellow council members opposed her referendum. So did the entire county Commissioners Court, the North Texas congressional delegation and every chamber of commerce in the city.

Her opponents raised far more money than her group, they spent more and they nailed down far more big contributions. The Dallas Citizens Council, representing the leaders of the city's most prominent businesses, gave $200,000 to the Vote No campaign, by far the largest single donation to either side.

When making his first council committee appointments as the new mayor, Mr. Leppert made a point to exclude Ms. Hunt from the committee with oversight over what had become her most passionate cause — the Trinity River committee. , or

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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