The Dallas Morning News' Rudy Bush got the scoop: a copy of memo from City Attorney Warren Ernst that says the City Council could walk away from building the Trinity River toll road despite the city's contract with the North Texas Tollway Authority to build the thing.
"There is no commitment of future Council approvals for funding, nor would any such agreement be enforceable," Ernst says in the August 5 memo to council member Scott Griggs, a toll road opponent.
The timetables set up in the original 15-year-old tollway agreement have long lapsed, Ernst says, which opens the project up to termination by the council. Walking away from the agreement could cause what Ernst obliquely referred to as "legal issues" because of the "open-ended nature" of the agreement between the NTTA and the city, but is not impossible as previous councils have been told repeatedly by staff.
That could mean one of three things A) Ernst is wrong; B) staff members who told the council the contract was ironclad were wrong about a $1.5 billion project; or C) those staff members were lying through their teeth.
"It was regularly reiterated to us that the bottom line was that we had a contract with the NTTA and we couldn't get out of it and we had to fulfill our obligations under the contract," longtime Trinity toll road opponent and former council member Angela Hunt says.
Now that they have learned otherwise, Hunt believes the current council has an opportunity to walk away.
"I think [the memo] really puts to rest any argument that there's any danger if the city of Dallas pulls back from the toll road and makes the decision to keep the park intact and abandon this idea of constructing a toll road within the park, in the floodway," she says. "I'm hopeful that council members will be persuaded -- in addition to Adam [Medrano], Philip [Kingston], Scott [Griggs] and Sandy [Greyson] -- that the toll road's not only unnecessary, but that there's no legal risk to the city if it decides to terminate its agreement with the NTTA."
Griggs expressed frustration with the information the current council has been given about the toll road.
"So much of what we've been told about the toll road has been proven untrue, this is just one more piece. So many times in the past, staff and management has relied on the NTTA agreement with the city of Dallas saying we had certain obligations to fulfill, the legal advice from [the city attorney] certainly casts doubt on that," he says. "What's important here is that the public has even more of the truth about the Trinity toll road, that this agreement going back to 1999 with the NTTA is by no means ironclad."
Ernst's memo will probably come up in the next City Council elections, Griggs says, since new council members will actually have a say in whether the city's agreement with the NTTA continues.
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At least one person who hopes to be a part of the next city council agrees with Hunt and Griggs. Sam Merten, who's running for Sheffie Kadane's District 9 seat, welcomes the chance to escape the toll road.
"We need to terminate this contract. I don't know what the current numbers are, but we've spent a good chunk of the $84 million already. Obviously, I am in favor of anything that prevents further expenditures [on the tollroad]. As someone who's seeking a seat at the council table, I think it's important to pursue termination of the agreement with the NTTA," Merten says.