Trinity Toll Road May Cost More Than Promised

Sorry. One more column about The Dallas Morning News and the recent Trinity River toll road referendum, then I promise to do a twelve-steps thing.

I think there is a larger theme–the difference between the Dallas that believes in telling the truth and the Dallas that doesn't get it or doesn't care. You can say I'm obsessed. I won't argue.

But on the morning after the Trinity toll road election, The Dallas Morning News published a story on the left side of Page One under the byline of Michael A. Lindenberger, quoting the chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority to the effect that Dallas taxpayers may be asked to pay more for the toll road than the $84 million already pledged.

That flies straight in the face of repeated promises throughout the campaign. Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert insisted repeatedly that he had secured a personal handshake deal with the tollway authority by which they agreed never to seek more money from Dallas taxpayers. It was the thing Leppert kept saying he was "comfortable" about: no more money from Dallas taxpayers for the toll road. Ever.

Council member Mitchell Rasansky made the same promises to his North Dallas constituents, who subsequently voted heavily in favor of keeping the planned toll road inside the planned river park downtown. Rasansky's one-note mantra was that Dallas taxpayers will never be asked to put another dime in the toll road beyond the $84 million already pledged from the 1998 Trinity project bond issue.

We're talking about a lot of money. Estimates I saw in the tollway authority's own files a couple weeks ago ranged from $1.3 billion to nearly $2 billion. So far, the amount of money available from the tollway authority, added to our $84 million, looks like it will be less than $300 million. So that's an unfunded liability of at least a billion dollars.

Leppert threatened over and over that voting against the toll road would cost Dallas taxpayers a billion dollars in lost transportation money, but now it looks as if Dallas taxpayers could get stuck for some or all of that amount to get the thing built.

If you don't save a billion by voting yes, and you do have to pay a billion, what are you down? Two billion?

Lindenberger reported that NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman "said last month" the road will be built only if its toll revenue pays for construction. Lindenberger's story reported: "[Wageman] said if the costs continue to rise above the current estimate of $1.29 billion, the agency may ask its partners–including the city and the Regional Transportation Council, which sets priorities for the entire North Texas area–to increase their investments in the road."

So last month when Tom Leppert was looking the tollway authority people in the eye and receiving their absolute assurance that the city will never be asked to pay more for the road, the chairman of the authority was looking a Morning News reporter in the eye and telling him the city may be asked to pay for more of the road.

That would have been very big news, had the News published it.

I have searched the Morning News archives every way I know how–with their Web page search engine, with Nexis-Lexis, by Googling–to find a single instance in which the Morning News ever hinted of this statement by Wageman before the election. I have called Lindenberger, the NTTA and Wageman to ask for help in finding any such mention. The NTTA did call me back, but nobody at the News returned my calls. I even blogged a public appeal on Unfair Park to Lindenberger to prove me wrong.

Therefore I am forced to conclude that Lindenberger brought this very important story home to the newsroom at some point in the month preceding the election. And the story did not get into the paper.

For some period of time then, perhaps weeks, Lindenberger and his editors at the News watched while Tom Leppert and Mitchell Rasansky told the public something that they knew was not true. They remained silent until after the election.

I don't care about Leppert's ethics. I think we know that story from the campaign.

Certainly Wageman is not the bad guy here: A reporter asked him a question, and he gave an honest answer. As the NTTA pointed out to me, neither he nor they had any control over when the News published his remarks.

I sort of hate to beat up on Lindenberger, who wrote some very solid coverage during the campaign and does a great job covering transportation generally. He got a better interview than I did, asked a better question and went back to the newsroom with a very big story. I also know from 200 years in the newspaper business that a reporter has damn little to say about where and when his own very big story appears in the paper.

Somebody at the News sat on this. Someone with a lot more power than Michael Lindenberger. Then, even when the News did publish the story, the story itself was upside down and convoluted so that the real news–Wageman's startling revelation–was dropped in halfway down the story as a kind of unimportant aside.

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