Idiot's Highway

That toll road they want for the Trinity is a loser

Just try this one little fact on for size: The expressway they want to build on top of the Trinity River will make the traffic worse on Central Expressway.

Not better. Worse. And it will make traffic worse on parts of Interstate 30, too.

The amount of improvement it will deliver to the "mixmaster," our horrible highway interchange at the foot of downtown, is much less than you've been imagining--marginal, at best.

So you figured--because we all figured--that at least building an expressway on top of the river would take some of the heat out of the mixmaster and make the downtown expressways viable at rush hour. That's why they said we had to build it: to relieve the traffic downtown.

What I'm telling you, based on engineering studies done for the city and for the North Texas Tollway Authority, is that it's not at all clear the new expressway will do any of what its promoters want us to believe. It may even make things worse. For us.

Next month the Dallas City Council will make a major decision on whether to commit to this road--an irrevocable life-or-death verdict for the river as a natural space at the heart of our city. And I don't get the sense that any of them is really tuned in to the stakes.

Let me digress to offer a little metaphor: There's a wonderful short story by Robert Traver, a Michigan lawyer and judge who wrote in the 1960s about trout fishing. In it he tells how his father--a well-off bar-owner in Michigan's Upper Peninsula at the turn of the century, who was sort of a blow-hard small-town drunk and semi-lousy parent--got angry because the pond he owned had no trout in it and a neighboring body of water did. Traver's father hired a gang of workmen with picks and dynamite to dig a canal through solid granite from the neighboring pond to his, so that the trout would swim over where he could catch them. But his father didn't think about elevations.

With the whole town out in the middle of the woods watching--band playing, free whiskey--Traver's father ordered the last plug of granite blown from the canal. The blast! A moment of silence. Then a huge scary sucking noise like the devil's toilet as all the water in Traver's father's pond rushed out down the canal and into the neighboring pond, leaving him with an empty hole and a very red face.

You have to do all the measurements before you push the plunger. All the measurements.

Let me give you a few other clues in the toll-road mystery: Dallas taxpayers voted in 1998 to approve $79 million in bond money for a new road along the river downtown. The toll-road alternatives the city council is looking at now will cost somewhere in the neighborhood of $530 million to $660 million. The toll-road agency will be able to kick in between $90 million and $150 million.

Depending on the configuration, that leaves red ink to the tune of $370 million to $430 million for this road.

So far, no one is talking about the city having to chip in any of that amount. But the toll-road builders are limited in what they can contribute: Whatever they put in they have to be able to cash back out in tolls at some point. They don't just hand out their money for free.

So we need several hundreds of millions from somebody to do this road. The big cash cow everybody keeps looking to is the Texas Department of Transportation. And, in fact, there's a chance they might kick in.

But the state is not exactly allowed to give money away for free, either, sadly enough, or we could all just put in for the cash. The state, whose money is pooled with federal funds, has to get a certain bang for its buck.

This brings us to a very key figure in all of this Trinity River road talk: Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Morris is a great champion of this road, as was former Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson. Morris was instrumental last March in getting an important planning delegation from our area to go to Austin and tell TxDOT this road needs to be high on the agency's list of must-do's.

So what does Morris like about this road? He talks in terms of what he calls "radial improvements."

"If you don't provide additional capacity downtown," he told me, "we cannot make radial improvements."

What are radial improvements? Well, it's all about taking traffic that's way out on the periphery of the city and helping it get through the city. That's the only reason the state would consider contributing hundreds of millions still needed for this road--because the state sees the road helping people move from one far-flung portion of the metro area to another, not around downtown.

Last week I spent some time poring over a study commissioned by the North Texas Tollway Authority in 2000 to predict the effect that a new toll road along the river would have on surrounding traffic patterns. It was here I noticed traffic getting worse on Central, I-30 and Woodall Rodgers Freeway if the new toll road is built, according to this study. But what's even more striking are the very modest amounts of improvement the study predicts for the mixmaster and for all of the freeways downtown with the new road.

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