Wednesday, November 07, 2007

U.S. Army Corps of Engineers on Trinity Toll Road: "We haven't approved anything."

Trinity toll road completion faces long, winding road

November 7, 2007

The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2007

The battle over whether the Trinity Parkway belongs inside the Trinity River park may be over, but construction of the toll road is still years away.

Plus, there are still obstacles to the high-speed highway's ultimate approval. Two levels of federal approval are needed; transportation officials expect no difficulty obtaining either, but neither is expected until at least 2009 and maybe later. They must also decide whether the road is financially realistic.

And while city leaders pledge to move quickly on development of the park itself, residents who have been waiting nearly a decade since first approving the massive project won't see any dramatic changes right away in the downtown area.

Despite the continued waiting, however, Dallas officials said Tuesday's vote in favor of the toll road's placement inside the park was a huge win. "Now is the time to get it done," Mayor Tom Leppert told supporters after the election.

But Gene Rice, the engineer leading the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers' flood control project within the Trinity River Corridor, said his agency has yet to issue any final OK for the road, which is designed to relieve traffic by connecting U.S. Highway 175 southeast of downtown Dallas to roads south of Texas Stadium. "We haven't approved anything," he said.

The North Texas Tollway Authority, which has ultimate responsibility for developing the road, expects the Corps to issue the required permits sometime in 2009, about the time that NTTA is expected to submit its final environmental impact analysis to the Federal Highway Administration. NTTA spokeswoman Kimberly Jackson said that agency's approval could take another six months to a year.

"We're committed to working with our partners and shepherding this project through the federal environmental process," Ms. Jackson said Tuesday.
But even then, the waiting won't be over. Once the federal approvals are in hand, the NTTA will begin a detailed analysis of the potential to draw tolls from drivers using the road, which is expected to carry 110,000 cars a day and relieve congestion on Interstates 35E and 30. Based on that, the agency will decide whether it can afford to build the road.

Viability required

NTTA Chairman Paul Wageman said last month that the agency would build the road only if it is viable – meaning it produces enough in tolls to pay for construction. He said if the costs continue to rise above the current estimate of $1.29 billion, the agency may ask its partners – including the city and the Regional Transportation Council, which sets priorities for the entire North Texas area, to increase their investments in the road.
But Ms. Jackson stressed Tuesday that any decision about cost-sharing will have to wait on the revenue study, likely to be completed in 2009 or 2010.

Timothy Nesbitt, the Trinity Parkway project manager for the state Department of Transportation, said the parkway is the key to nearly $5 billion in other badly needed highway improvements in downtown Dallas. "Without the Trinity, the other projects go away," he said.

Meanwhile, work on the larger Trinity River project will continue unfazed by Tuesday's vote.

On Monday, the Dallas City Council is expected to approve a number of items related to the park's development, including a planned transfer of right of way to the state for the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and a rainwater collection system for the planned Trinity River Audubon Center.

Most of the park's elements were fixed and unaffected by Tuesday's vote, said Rebecca Dugger, the city's Trinity River project manager. The Corps' levees project, she said, will continue on schedule and also was unaffected.
Funding concerns

As Election Day drew to a close, Mr. Leppert said he worried that a vote against the toll road would have had dire consequences for the Trinity River park. Private fundraising, he said, had all but stopped in the past few months as the debate over the road raged.

"There is about $100 million in outside funding that is required to do everything we want to do in the park," Mr. Leppert said. "That's all but dried up."

He said the NTTA's involvement inside the levees had other benefits as well – including providing millions of dollars worth of excavation work, landscaping and access to the park.

Staff writer Dave Levinthal contributed to this report.


The North Texas Tollway Authority says construction of the Trinity Parkway is still years away. Here's an estimated timetable:

Early 2008: NTTA will hold a final public hearing to gather input as it completes its environmental impact analysis of the toll road.

Early 2009: NTTA completes its environmental impact statement of the project, identifying the locally preferred route, which will likely be the inside-the-levee route endorsed by voters Tuesday.

Late 2009/early 2010: The Federal Highway Administration is expected to approve the report.

Once federal approval is in hand: The NTTA will analyze the toll road's revenue potential and decide whether it will be viable.

If the NTTA proceeds: Contracts for design and construction could be issued in late 2009 or early 2010.

© 2007 The Dallas Morning News Co

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