Sunday, March 07, 2010

"The levees aren't the only concerns affecting the [Trinity Toll] road. No one has figured out a way to pay for it."

Trinity toll road faces levee work delays, 'cloudy' funding outlook

Trinity Toll Road by mojoskillet.

The prospects for the Trinity Parkway are dimmer now than they have been in years


The Dallas Morning News
Copyright 2010

A sign near Dallas' east levee inside the Trinity River floodplain basin warns of bridge support construction ahead. Construction on the Trinity toll road that will run through this area is scheduled to start in mid-2012, but a city official said work on the flawed levees will push the road back.

A top city official said last week that the toll road again will be delayed by problems with the Trinity River levees. Work to shore up flood protection will push the road's schedule beyond the mid-2012 start date that Mayor Tom Leppert set last year when worries first surfaced about the integrity of the 80-year-old levees downtown.

Further delay would be the latest in a long list of financial, engineering and political snags, coming as the scarcity of transportation funding has left even some of the parkway's most ardent champions worried.

Leppert conceded last week that the funding outlook is "cloudy and challenged," by far the most pessimistic assessment of the toll project since he led nearly the whole of Dallas' government and business establishment to defeat a 2007 referendum aimed at killing it.

"The transportation picture is a difficult one statewide," he said in an interview. Other than recent stimulus aid, federal support for roads is waning, and "all of the projects have gotten cloudy," he said.

His comments follow recent statements by North Texas Tollway Authority leaders who stressed again that they won't be able to build the Trinity Parkway for at least five years – unless backers can secure up to $1 billion to help pay for it.

Meanwhile, Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, said funding for the Trinity Parkway has grown "more difficult." And last week, Dallas County commissioners John Wiley Price and Mike Cantrell said they'd be surprised if the road were built within five years.

The road has been bedeviled by controversy since its inception, especially after planners decided it should be built between the levees that for decades have protected downtown Dallas from floods.

Since Leppert and his allies repelled the anti-road vote, problems with the levees have forced the city to push back its construction date.

After the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced last year that the levees were flawed, the city halted work on the road and other parts of what's known as the Trinity River Corridor Project, a grand parks and lakes recreation project.

Dallas City Council member David Neumann said an assessment of the levees since then has revealed that repairs will cost too much for the city to pay for out of existing funds. And, he said for the first time, fixing the levees will require a special bond election.

Kevin Craig, the corps' Trinity River project manager, said the city is right to say that the levee problems identified so far haven't ruled out the toll road.

But Neumann, chairman of the City Council's Trinity River project committee, said Dallas needs to target the levees.

"Our primary focus has been and will continue to be flood protection," he said. "I haven't relented one bit on any aspect of the Trinity River project, including the toll road, and neither has the professional staff, the City Council nor the mayor."

Still, "there will be some delay," he said, declining to estimate how long it might be.

Leppert said the city will have to spend money to repair the levees and focus on the sump system that moves groundwater into the levees during a flood.

"There are issues associated with the levees that are going to have to be addressed, and there is going to be a price tag," he said. "But the thing to remember is that we haven't spent any real money on these levees since 1950."

Empty buckets

The levees aren't the only concerns affecting the road. No one has figured out a way to pay for it.

For years, and throughout the 2007 campaign, city officials touted an understanding with the NTTA that limits Dallas' share of the road's cost to $84 million. But since then, the price has continued to grow, and NTTA has said its ability to pay the difference has disappeared "for the foreseeable future."

If the road costs $1.8 billion – and that number could easily increase with a delay – the city's share will amount to just a tiny fraction. NTTA said it will chip in every penny it can borrow against the road's future tolls, but that won't be nearly enough.

"Our role in this is a very small one," said NTTA executive director Allen Clemson, still in his first year on the job. "I have tried to be careful to manage expectations. The only thing we are bringing to the table is the funds supported by the tolls."

No exact figures on how much those tolls will generate are available. A year ago, NTTA's chief financial officer said the gap between what it can spend and the road's price tag could reach $1 billion.

At the time, Leppert said he was confident the road would be funded anyway.

"There are a lot of buckets to dip into," he said in February 2009. "We're absolutely committed to seeing this project through."

But those buckets are emptying quickly as other projects race ahead of the Trinity Parkway.

The federal government has sent about all the road dollars this way that it can spare, one of the Trinity Parkway's strongest backers said this past week.

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, said she'll fight to get federal dollars for the road. But given the size of the funding gap for the Trinity Parkway and the city's levee needs, expecting a big share from Washington probably is expecting too much, she said.

"Anything I would say that is positive, I couldn't stand behind," she said. "We are scraping the bottom here. I'd love to feel that we could do it. But right now it's just hard."

Several leaders stressed that funding could materialize unexpectedly.

Some state lawmakers again will fight for a bill next year so local leaders could ask voters to pay more for transportation, which could provide new funding for roads like the Trinity Parkway.

And Leppert said that despite the questions, the Trinity toll road enjoys strong support.

"So, in one sense the Trinity is cloudy and challenged, but it still remains a high, high priority," he said. "We're looking at a million people coming here every five to seven years, and if we want to keep growing, we have got to address surface transportation."

Bridging the gap

Besides, Clemson said NTTA has experience working with local, state and federal governments to try to find money for expensive projects.

"The NTTA faced a billion-dollar funding gap for the Southwest Parkway/Chisholm Trail toll project in Tarrant County only six months ago," he said. "Now that gap is $30 million. So it's just going to take a partnership."

But that road is not yet built, either – and it won't be until key commitments from state and federal agencies are finalized. And just to get it this far has required NTTA to call in most of its chits.

NTTA also expects to plow about $150 million of its resources into the Southwest Parkway, something it can't afford to do for the Trinity Parkway.

Leppert said he remains optimistic.

"The other pieces will have to be filled in like any other project," he said. "Of course, we hoped it would be under construction by now, and now we're in a position where we still won't be in construction for the next year, either."

For now, as the city begins reviewing the early feedback from the levee assessment from its engineering contractor, Leppert said he doesn't expect anything to derail the road entirely.

"There is nothing there [in the levees study] that is going to be a structural impediment to going forward with the project," he said. "All of the flood-control issues will have to be addressed first. That is the way it has always been, and the way it is now. What we are trying to do is simply push it forward as far as we can."

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