By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
At the edge of the Commerce Street bridge, a sign at the city's Trinity Outlook encourages passersby to "watch our progress." But on this 77-degree day in early January, any signs of progress in the more than 10 years since voters approved $246 million for the Trinity River Corridor Project are nowhere to be found.
Bulky towers holding power lines, a gravel road, dead grass and scattered trees lie inside the floodway along with the Trinity River, which remains murky, brown and littered with plastic bags and Styrofoam cups.
The outlook, which opened December 3, consists of a shade canopy, flooring made from recycled glass, observation binoculars and a detailed rendering of the project.
Next to the depiction, a man explains various aspects of the project to a family attempting to make sense of the elaborate drawings, which he helped create. He introduces himself as Don Raines, a landscape designer for Wallace Roberts & Todd.
What most visitors don't know is many of the project components in the rendering aren't funded. The West Dallas Amphitheater is among several amenities that are merely concepts at this point. "Rising at the edge of the West Dallas Lake, this grassy slope will welcome up to 25,000 spectators for special events and performances, hot-air ballooning and expansive, awe-inspiring views of downtown Dallas," it reads underneath an image of hot-air balloons rising above the lake.
Raines points out two buildings included in the depiction of a 60-acre lake with floating wetlands, which he personally designed. "I think those are from Philly," he says, noting that he took photos of buildings in Philadelphia and added them to the background. In another picture, a solar-powered water taxi is shown, which Raines says is a concept taken from England.
The use of fictional images has drawn heavy criticism throughout the years, such as the infamous sailboats campaign material used in 1998 to sell the project to voters. Raines claims sailboats can be used on the lakes, but they are likely to hit the bridges. The project instead is being designed for kayaks and canoes.
Raines maintains it's his job to make the depictions look as pleasing as possible, and including the unfunded aspects of the project is necessary to inspire private donors to kick in for such amenities. Potential donors have no way of knowing the funding status of those parts of the project since the rendering does not disclose that information.
The outlook and rendering represent a growing frustration regarding the lack of progress over the past decade. And despite Mayor Tom Leppert's claim that he would expedite the project, it continues to face delays. Leppert also has strongly supported the most controversial aspect, the toll road, which has a new price tag of $1.8 billion after it was projected in 1998 to cost $394 million.
The $1.8 billion estimate represents the cost for the preferred location for the road, which is inside the levees of the floodway. This amount includes inflation for expected completion of the road in 2013. The estimate is a 40 percent increase from the previous estimate of $1.29 billion released in 2007 by the North Texas Tollway Authority, which is expected to build the road.
As the cost continues to rise, it is unknown whether the NTTA will ultimately build the road. The city entered into an agreement in 1999 with the NTTA, pledging $84 million of the 1998 Trinity River Corridor Project bonds for the road, and the Regional Transportation Council is expected to allocate approximately $200 million.
Leppert assured voters during the 2007 debate on the vote on whether to remove the toll road from the floodway that the NTTA would make up the funding gap, which was approximately $1 billion at the time. But the NTTA has not made a public commitment regarding funding, and it estimated a contribution of only $140 million to $150 million in the 1999 contract.
The inside-the-levees option is one of eight alternatives under consideration, yet only its final design is moving forward. If the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the most critical of the entities needed to approve the road, doesn't green-light the construction of the first highway in the country built inside a major flood-control levee system, then valuable time, funds and resources will have been wasted. But Rebecca Dugger, director of the Trinity River Corridor Project for the city, remains optimistic that the road will be approved.
"The Corps has been looking over our shoulder every step of the way, and if there was a humongous, fatal flaw in this, they would have said something by now, and they haven't," she says.
Aside from the concerns regarding the toll road, the project has faced numerous delays, including nine since the council's Trinity River Corridor Project Committee was briefed on the project timelines in April 2008.
"Everybody wants to make sure we hit these deadlines, and we try," Dugger says. "It's not like we're sitting here twiddling our thumbs, but things come up. Contractors don't get us their insurance or it rains so they can't get out there and work, so a lot of things can happen."
Dallas voters approved more than $420 million for the Trinity River Corridor Project, including $246 million in the 1998 bond program, $3 million in the 2003 bond program and more than $171 million in the 2006 bond program. As of July 31, 2008, the city had spent more than $136 million of those funds.