Digging for Toll Road Facts

Schutze sifts through a mountain of dirt to find the truth

Wait a minute. Think about this. The main argument for keeping the toll road inside the park downtown is that it can't go anywhere else because of the cost.

I just looked at files in the offices of the people who would build the road. It's flat-out untrue.

This is all central to the decision we must make November 6 when we will cast votes for or against Proposition 1.

A vote FOR is for forcing the proposed Trinity River toll road out of the park downtown and onto some other alignment, probably along Industrial Boulevard, which parallels the river but is outside the flood control levees. A vote AGAINST is for keeping the toll road inside the park and inside the levees along the river.

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert has been insisting that putting the road on Industrial will cost half a billion dollars more than putting it on free city land in the park because of right-of-way acquisitions. But last week when I went through boxes of files at the North Texas Tollway Authority, I found estimates for putting the toll road on Industrial Boulevard that were less—$1.606 billion—than putting it inside the park—$1.613 billion.

Leppert keeps blaming the soaring cost of the road on delays and litigation. But the files reveal a much bigger reason—problems with trying to build a highway inside a floodway, where highways don't belong.

Originally the NTTA was going to build the proposed Trinity toll road on a bench out from the side of the levees (the big earthen berms along the river that hold in the flood water). That was Laura Miller's "Balanced Vision Plan."

That all went by the wayside six months ago when the Army Corps of Engineers told the NTTA the road could not be built on or near the levees. Instead the NTTA must now go out into the floodway and build the road up on its own earthen bench.

Documents I saw in NTTA files compared the construction cost of the Balanced Vision Plan to the cost of the no-road-on-levees plan. The new version, off the levees, costs $352 million more than the one on the levees. That's a one-third increase in six months, and it has nothing to do with inflation or delays.

Let's talk about inflation. In all of its estimates the NTTA's biggest cost is construction itself. The next biggest is what it calls "agency cost"—what it charges itself as the general contractor. The smallest cost by far is "right-of-way" or land acquisition.

In its estimate for putting the toll road on Industrial Boulevard, the NTTA documents show "agency cost" going up 18.49 percent between 2003 and 2007. Understandable.

Ah, but some kind of magic happens when we get to the road inside the levees. There, agency cost inflates by 13 percent from 2003 until January 2007. Then just as the November 6 referendum campaigns get well under way, the agency cost for the inside-the-levees version plummets. Between January and June of 2007, the agency cost for that version drops by 19.34 percent.

Isn't that special?

Oh, and don't let me forget to tell you what any and all of these estimates are worth to begin with. Several documents in the boxes describe these as "Level E" estimates, accurate to within margins of plus 50 percent and minus 30 percent.

That's an 80 percent spread. Look at it this way: You ask the car salesman, "How much for the Mitsubunda Sportoski?" He says, "It's somewhere between $14,000 and $30,000. Just give me a signed check, and I'll fill in the amount when I know."

Run for the door, right? But that's the kind of number we're supposedly basing this whole decision on.

There is more. It looks as if one way they may have been holding down the cost estimates for the inside-the-park plan is by shaving off most of the access ramps. Leppert has been touting a price of $1.3 billion for the road inside the park on land the city would give the tollway authority for free.

The only estimate I found in NTTA files that corresponded with that number—$1.327 billion—was for the "all floodway ramp reduction" plan, as the NTTA document called it.

That document was quite a stunner. An accompanying graphic shows ramps up and down the toll road crossed out with little Xs, except for ramps at the Woodall Rodgers Expressway and at Interstate 45.

Eliminated from the design are access ramps at Lamar, MLK Boulevard, Corinth, Interstate 35E, Jefferson, Houston, Wycliff, Sylvan and Commonwealth.

So now, tell me again: We build this monolithic expressway all up and down the river without access ramps, and then how are we going to get into the park we voted for in 1998?

Before I leave this point, please let me share something with you. This document about the ramp reductions wasn't exactly handed to me by the NTTA. Both Jorge C. Figueredo, NTTA executive director, and Rick Herrington, the deputy, declined to take my calls when I tried to ask questions about their design for the toll road in the first place, so I filed a Public Information Act demand for related documents.

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