Monday, February 16, 2009

"Opponents of the toll road have argued for years that the parks project could, and should, proceed without the toll road."

Attention to detail delays Army Corps of Engineers, frustrates Trinity Parkway supporters


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2009

Trinity Parkway supporters frustrated at the slow pace of the review by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers can take solace in this: They have plenty of company across America.

From Sacramento to St. Louis, and in scores of other communities, the corps has been taking a much harder – and often much slower – look at the integrity of its levees since Hurricane Katrina struck in 2005.

One result: Some large urban-area developments have been left twisting in the wind as the engineers study the plans in excruciating detail.

"I think what you are seeing happen in Dallas is the natural tension between economic development and flood safety that is happening all around the country," said Eric Halpin, the top expert on levee safety at the corps' headquarters in Washington. "This is the dialogue that goes on between making public safety the top priority while also allowing development in front of and behind the levees."

That tension may be natural, but in Dallas some of the strongest supporters of the Trinity River park plan – and the controversial toll road that has become so closely entwined with it – are beginning to worry.

"I am very concerned that this project will die," said Craig Holcomb, the former Dallas City Council member who leads the Trinity Commons Foundation. "The election was in 1998, and after all this, more than 10 years of working on it, if we can't get it really moving soon, people will start losing interest. And we will have lost a tremendous opportunity."

As a reflection of that concern, Mayor Tom Leppert made a quick trip to Washington, D.C., last week to meet with corps officials and congressional leaders to press for faster action.

The corps responded by naming a high-level liaison to work directly with local officials, although it is unclear what, if any, impact that will have on the speed of deliberations.

When Katrina nearly drowned New Orleans in 2005, it didn't take long for people to question why the levees hadn't been built taller or stronger. The corps began re-evaluating levee safety and has since then been reviewing thousands of flood-control projects across the country.

Halpin, vice chairman of a government-wide task force charged with reviewing federal levee safety, said the corps wants to work with local governments and others to speed the reviews when possible. But he said safety remains the agency's primary focus.

A year ago, a showdown in Sacramento showed just how serious the corps can be about insisting on levee safety, even if it hurts.

Acting on a corps evaluation of levee safety along the Sacramento River, the Federal Emergency Management Agency ordered a halt to development in the city's fastest-growing district, home to roughly half of Sacramento's planned development.

The move outraged local leaders, who threatened to seek an act of Congress to lift the moratorium. But a year later, the moratorium stands, and $618 million in flood-control improvements have been delayed as the corps and other agencies continue to review the details.

Similar stories abound in cities across the country. In St. Louis, a review of levee safety prompted FEMA to judge existing levees seriously inadequate, jacking up insurance rates for homeowners and stalling development.

Back in Dallas, the Trinity River park plan – a massive project first approved by voters in 1998 – has been supported by the corps as a way to help improve the Trinity levees near downtown, a step corps officials say is necessary to safeguard the city from severe flooding.

Gene Rice, Trinity River project manager for the corps' Fort Worth district office, said much has changed about the area's topography since the levees were designed decades ago. Upstream, he said, nearly all of the ground is paved, meaning more water runs into the river during a heavy rain.

"The same rain will leave the water at a higher level than 50 years ago," Rice said. "And downstream, with more trees and vegetation, the water takes longer to flow through, creating a back up."

But one part of the parks project would stretch the Trinity Parkway toll road 10 miles straight through the flood-control efforts. Rice said the corps does not oppose that idea in principle, but it's also something corps engineers won't approve without fully understanding its impact on the city's safety.

"We are not operating in a blind box," Rice said. "But our overriding concern is the safety and integrity of the levee. While we are aware of the pressure to get their work done on time, we are really keyed into the technical review."

What folks like Holcomb want, though, is for the corps to give more evidence that it's taking deadlines created by Leppert as seriously as City Hall and the North Texas Tollway Authority is taking them. Leppert wants construction complete by the end of 2013.

"They are taking too long," said Holcomb, whose foundation raises private money to see, as he put it, that the original vision of the Trinity Parks project is realized. That includes three new lakes, white-water rapids and other amenities – as well as the toll road.

"I understand how complex the issue is. And I understand the pressure they are under. But I also understand that we need partners who can work together to make all these pieces fit, not partners who say, 'Gee, we can't show up at your meeting.' Or, 'We are not suggesting how these pieces fit together, but we can tell you that you need to spend this much time and this much money on more studies.' "

The city, Holcomb said, has already helped lure $80 million in federal funds for flood-control aspects of the Trinity River project. But so far, the corps has done little to help advance the toll road, he said.

"Our fear is that they will take so long in approving it that everyone will lose interest," Holcomb said. "That in the end, we will have the flood-control project, but we will get nothing else."

Opponents of the toll road have argued for years that the parks project could, and should, proceed without the toll road.

Holcomb conceded that for much of the public, the toll road is less important than the lakes that have been promised as part of the Trinity Parks project. But he said for now his agency has switched its focus almost entirely to urging the corps to speed its review of the toll road project.

"Because the forest, the horse park, the white-water, the lakes, the bridges, all those are important," he said. "But if we can't get this roadblock fixed [on the toll road], then everything comes to a halt. So for now our job is to figure out how to encourage the corps without making them enemies."

© 2009 The Dallas Morning News:

To search TTC News Archives click HERE

To view the Trans-Texas Corridor Blog click HERE