"The Corps is not there to support this toll road [and get it ] built as quickly as possible. They are there to protect the citizens of Dallas..."
By RUDOLPH BUSH
The Dallas Morning News
For a third time since December, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has rejected a plan to test soil in the Trinity River levees – a critical step in designing the long-planned toll road inside the floodway.
The setback stands to further delay the project if it isn't resolved in a hastily scheduled meeting today of engineers from the Corps, the North Texas Tollway Authority and the city of Dallas.
Gene Rice, project manager for the Corps of Engineers in Fort Worth, said he believes that problems with the third plan submitted by the NTTA can be overcome quickly and that drilling can begin soon.
NTTA officials, who are eager to bore hundreds of sample holes into the levees, are "cautiously optimistic" their fourth plan will be accepted, a spokeswoman said.
Meanwhile, the latest denial from the Corps has brought to the surface long-simmering frustrations from toll road backers who want to see the project completed by 2014 – an aggressive, and increasingly difficult, schedule laid out by Mayor Tom Leppert.
Craig Holcomb, executive director of the Trinity Commons Foundation, gave voice Monday to things that have recently been said only in private at City Hall.
"I think, at the top, the Corps is in favor of the whole project. I do not think it is being communicated effectively to the people actually doing the work, and I think their response to any problem is to simply ask for more studies. More studies mean more time and more money. Eventually, we will run out of both," he said.
In December, Holcomb wrote a pointed letter to top Corps leaders in Dallas and Fort Worth in which he voiced concern that "a pattern of noncooperation is emerging."
Rice declined to comment on the letter Monday but said the Corps is doing its best to cooperate with local officials on the project's schedule.
He added, however, that the Corps' priority is to the levees and flood control in Dallas.
"While we are not an advocate of the project, we are not an opponent of it," he said.
If the Corps does approve the levee testing plan that is expected to be proposed today, drilling could begin quickly and the toll road project would not be thrown off schedule, said Rebecca Dugger, director of Dallas' Trinity River Corridor project.
Last week, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan said the delay would surely put the project off schedule. But Dugger said Monday that a few days' delay could be made up later.
Still, the 2014 schedule has come under increasing scrutiny recently.
Last week, a top NTTA engineer twice told city officials that the agency is "hanging on by our fingernails" to remain on pace to complete 30 percent of the road's design by May.
That date is crucial because only when 30 percent of the design is complete can a federal environmental impact study begin. That study will largely determine whether the Corps permits the road to be built as designed inside the floodway.
Council member Dave Neumann, who is heading up the council's Trinity committee, said he intends to continue to pressure all parties, including the Corps, to keep the project on schedule.
"I'm not going to relent. I'm not the type of guy to give up," he said.
But council member Angela Hunt, who has long opposed construction of the toll road inside the floodway, questioned whether the 2014 schedule has ever been realistic.
And she added that she's troubled the Corps is facing pressure from local officials to hasten safety reviews of work on the levees.
"I really am concerned with the way that City Hall may be looking at the Corps' position in this process. The Corps is not there to support this toll road. They're not there to get this toll road built as quickly as possible. They are there to protect the citizens of Dallas from a catastrophic levee breach," she said.
© 2009 The Dallas Morning News: www.dallasnews.com
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