Bait and switch

The Trinity Project hits some expensive setbacks, but leave it to the News to look on the bright side

According to The Dallas Morning News and its City Hall reporting staff, the news on the Trinity River project over the last three months has been quite exciting. The city, according to the News, has decided to build an even bigger and better lake downtown than previously anticipated. The toll road project along the river has been expanded. Best of all, Dallas may have an opportunity soon to build all new bridges over the river downtown.

What the News never quite says in these reports--a form of coded signals to the cognoscenti--is that 1) the dream of a lavish recreational facility downtown may already be dead, and, simultaneously, 2) the project's overall cost to the city may be escalating by the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Environmentalists and critics of the program say the Morning News' reporting on the project is an attempt to spin the following realities:

The huge $1.2 billion project to rebuild the Trinity River flood plain through downtown and southern Dallas is basically pulling apart at the seams--a disintegration that begins deep in the "design" of this enormous project. The problem, they say, is that the vision of a flood-control project with parks and amenities downtown directly conflicts with the thing the downtown power-brokers really want--a new highway to skirt downtown.

The promised 33-acre lake downtown--a centerpiece of the public-relations campaign leading up to last May's bond vote--was scrapped last month amid pronouncements that a tiny lake just wouldn't be good enough for Dallas. Mayor Ron Kirk said he thought it was worth waiting and spending more money--$70 million instead of the $12 million voters approved last May--in order to give Dallas a really first-class lake.

But the critics say the lake was scrapped because the city is beginning to realize there is no room at all for a true "lake" in the scheme. No lake at all.

The reason for that, they say, is that the toll road project is going to make flooding much worse along the river corridor. The only way the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be able to correct that problem will be to turn the river bottom into a big, broad, straight-running tree-less ditch.

"When they talk about building a bigger and better lake or lakes," said Ned Fritz of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, "they're really talking about building what I have called 'conveyance basins.'"

English translation: "Conveyance basins" would be broad ditches designed to lower the water level, to make up for the amount the water will be raised when they build a new freeway standing in the river channel.

And what would be wrong with "conveyance basins" for lakes? Couldn't you swim and fish in a conveyance basin?

"They will have to keep them very shallow, in order to move floodwater through them," Fritz said.

To show what shallow conveyance basins will wind up looking like, Joanne Hill, a well-known recycling authority and member of Friends of the Trinity River, points to the area near the Corinth Street bridge, which she calls "Big Silt Island."

"They just cleared that part of the channel a year ago, and it's already got this huge island of silt in it with trees already growing in the silt, all of which will have to be cleared out at some point at enormous cost."

Another huge change in the picture--presented a month ago by the Morning News as if it were a minor wrinkle--is in the amount of money Dallas taxpayers will have to come up with to pay for the new toll road around downtown Dallas. When voters approved the $246 million Trinity bond program last May, they had been told that $84 million of the bond money would pay for the city's share of the toll road.

But a recent report by the North Texas Tollway Authority revealed that the city might have to come up with an additional $250 million--more than the entire Trinity River bond package, which was the largest bond package of its type in the history of the city.

The city might have to come up with that kind of money because the aesthetically pleasing causeway/boulevard sold to voters before the May election is a financial loser. No one would use it because it would be too slow and wouldn't go where people want to go. Basically, the tollway authority was telling the city someone would have to pay up front to compensate for the money the authority won't make in tolls.

If the tollway is going to cost someone an additional $250 million because no one wants to use it, that will represent an increase of more than 60 percent in the cost of the entire road project, originally slated at $394 million.

Another solution, of course, would be to allow the Tollway Authority to build a different kind of road--a great big, roaring, multi-lane, limited-access, traditional freeway right down both sides of the river with cars and trucks and everything else. That way, the authority's study said, the city might only have to come up with an additional $160 million.

The Dallas City Council--public-policy academy that it is--has responded so far by saying it hopes the state Department of Transportation will pick up the extra cost of the toll road. Then the council said it wanted to have a very serious debate on what kinds of billboards that would be allowed along the new freeway.

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