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Fresh Eyes

Sam Coats wants a referendum on the Trinity toll road.
Mark Graham

In recent weeks the call for a referendum on the Trinity River toll road has come to the center of the Dallas mayoral election. At the end of last week, The Dallas Morning News said in an editorial that Tom Leppert and Sam Coats were the two top contenders, but the News announced it was endorsing Leppert in large part because of his position on the Trinity referendum.

He's against it. Leppert believes we must move full-bore ahead and not pause to reconsider putting a six-lane limited-access expressway through our new park along the river.

Coats has not come out against the toll road. He says merely that he will bring "fresh eyes" to the issues. He thinks having a referendum is a good way to air those issues.

City council member Angela Hunt, leader of the pro-referendum movement, told me last week she has extracted from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a renewed pledge that the timetable for the road has nothing to do with the timetable for the overall project. If the road stops or pauses, the project itself goes right on as if nothing has happened. (I checked with Gene T. Rice, the Corps official in charge of the Trinity Floodway project. He confirmed what Hunt told me.)

So what's so terrible about a pause, or about fresh eyes for that matter? It's not as if there is anything clear about the issues, as I learned at a recent debate between Hunt and former council member Alan Walne.

Walne told a room of about 100 very expensive haircuts that the toll road was originally proposed because the state had informed the city it could not rebuild the over-crowded "mixmaster" and "canyon" freeway exchanges downtown without it.

He said, "The Texas Department of Transportation has told us that in order to be able to rebuild the canyon, we have to have a reliever road."

A big red fire alarm went off in my head. As soon as I got back to the office, I went digging through the electronic data pile, even made a call to former DMN reporter Victoria Loe Hicks, until I found what I was looking for:

On May 30, 2002, under the headline, "Council no closer to tollway decision," Hicks reported on a briefing in which then Councilman Walne learned from city staff that the story about the toll road being linked to rebuilding the downtown freeways had never been true.

Hicks' story five years ago said, "Mr. Walne was surprised to learn that, contrary to what the city told voters in 1998, the state highway department never guaranteed that building a 'reliever route' to ease traffic on Stemmons Freeway would assure expedited reconstruction of the downtown 'canyon' and 'mixmaster.'"

The story went on: "[Council member Sandy] Greyson, who chairs the council's transportation committee, was startled to hear that the outdated downtown freeways can be rebuilt without a reliever route in place to handle the traffic that is diverted during reconstruction."

So Walne knew five years ago that the purpose of the toll road never was to serve as a construction detour for the rebuilding of the downtown freeways.

At the same debate between Hunt and Walne, Councilman Mitchell Rasansky stood up to warn against a referendum. He said, "The main thing is the flood control and getting rid of the mixmaster, which is a very important thing for the city of Dallas."

Another alarm in my head: Rasansky was telling people the Trinity toll road will "get rid of the mixmaster." For this one I trekked out to the regional headquarters of the Texas Department of Transportation to review what they claim is their only and therefore quite precious copy of the 1998 document that lays out the purpose for the toll road. (Angela Hunt, I learned later, has her own copy.)

It's fascinating reading. This document, called a "major transportation investment study," is the underlying legal document setting forth the purpose and general design for the road. The first thing that leaps out is the radical difference between the road it describes—the one we voted on—and the six-lane, high-speed, limited-access freeway now being proposed:

"The Trinity Parkway Reliever Route would be constructed as a lower speed parkway design rather than a freeway design," the document states, "allowing left-turn exits towards the river floodway.

"The parkway design would incorporate access locations directly from the parkway lanes into the adjacent park area..."

I even managed a laugh at this part: The document warns sternly that the river road will have to "provide motor vehicle, pedestrian, bicycle and equestrian access to the park."

In other words, what we voted for was a low-speed park access road with bicycles, horses and ducks crossing it. And now they want to build a six-lane, high-speed freeway with no access to the park and scarce access to downtown.  

Why would that be? How on earth did this happen? What is the idea?

The TxDOT document shows plainly that the toll road is not about fixing the mixmaster or the canyon. But guess what else it shows. The toll road isn't even about downtown.

The document says, "An interesting observation from the traffic data is that only one out of five drivers on the canyon/mixmaster system is destined for downtown Dallas. The remaining four out of five drivers are trying to travel past downtown to other destinations."

OK, stick with me here for a second, because this gets to the heart of our dilemma. Part of what the document says is that I have been wrong—sort of—in something I have repeated often in columns. I have said many times that the toll road does not take us where any of us want to go. That part is true. It does not go where we want to go—we city people.

But it does go where they want to go. Suburban people. People who want to avoid downtown entirely.

That means two things. 1) It does have a purpose, and it would help relieve congestion. But 2) It could be built anywhere.

Why bring it right downtown and allow it to ruin the single biggest natural resource we have in this city, the riverfront?

The boosters keep saying it must go along the river, because moving it a few blocks to solid ground where there is already urban development would be too expensive. But that's a false dilemma.

If it's a regional suburban bypass anyway, why not move it west to much cheaper land along Hampton or Westmoreland roads or better yet put it way west on Loop 12 out by Mountain Creek Lake where there's already tons of undeveloped right-of-way in public ownership? I measure 660 feet of right-of-way along Loop 12/Walton Walker—twice what they say they need for this toll road.

Mary Vogelson of the League of Women Voters and Save Open Space has been trying for years to get me to understand there are serious costs to the city in bringing this suburban bypass right in snug with the heart of downtown. I finally did see in the TxDOT document that building the toll road along the river will increase, not decrease, the amount of car traffic coming through downtown in the year 2020.

Think about it. We make it easier for drivers to slick through from the southeast corner of the region to the northwest by using this fancy new toll road. More people do it. The increase in traffic will greatly slow or stagnate our efforts to reduce vehicular pollution downtown.

I can see why TxDOT and regional planners would like to put the road downtown. The current plan assumes that we city people will donate at no cost the land for the Trinity River toll road. That much free land hugely reduces the road's costs—to as little as $220 million for right-of-way, according to the 1998 projections, versus as much as $700 million if the road-builders have to pay for the land.

The suburbanites get a cheap bypass through the middle of what was supposed to be our wonderful downtown park. We get their smoke.

Who would want this? In fact, there is a guy. There is a guy who makes the case for just this outcome, and I have heard him do it fairly persuasively. I am paraphrasing a bit, but his argument is that people live regionally, and Dallas is part of this region, and the toll road is the sacrifice Dallas must make to remain connected to the region.

His name is Michael Morris. He is "director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments," or COG as it is known in the jargon. I am going to take the unusual step here of providing you with his office phone number, which is 817-695-9241, because I want to see if you have any better luck than I have had over the years trying to get him or his assistant or anybody near him to call me back.

I call him "The Son of COG." I believe I know why it's always so extremely difficult for me to track down the Son of COG. I did catch him once by crashing some kind of highway builder convention at a hotel in Plano. So he knows exactly what I want to get him to say on the record:

1) Is the primary purpose of the Trinity toll road to carry Dallas drivers or suburban drivers?  

2) Will it not draw additional traffic into the downtown area?

3) Will that not make our pollution, especially our nitrogen oxide emissions, more difficult to cure?

4) Why can't it be farther out from downtown where it will carry just as much traffic but cost less and do less damage?

5) This is not a Dallas road, is it? This is a COG road. This accomplishes the Son of COG's objectives, right? Not ours.

Every big seminal victory won by the people of Dallas in the last 30 years, from defeating a "thoroughfare plan" to build highways through East Dallas, to creating DART, to putting Central Expressway below grade, has involved the people of the city rising up to defend themselves from pro-suburban, pro-automobile interests. All of our big successes in terms of neighborhood revitalization have happened because we successfully defended ourselves from the suburban car people, otherwise known as the children of the Son of COG.

The Dallas Citizens Council, which created Tom Leppert's Manchurian candidacy out of thin air, has always been the COG's fifth column in the city. These are people who make their money in the suburbs, often by selling the city down the river. In this case literally.

It's not exactly a conspiracy. A conspiracy would be so much simpler. This is a clash of cultures. It's the New Dallas, which is urban and sophisticated, versus the old-money Park Cities Dallas, which is rich-hick, makes its money in the 'burbs and spends it in shopping centers.

The New Dallas gets urban living. It understands living with as few cars as possible cheek-by-jowl with nature, even when it's hot outdoors. Rich-hick Dallas understands only jewels, BMWs and fur coats, even when it's hot outdoors.

After a full month of effort I was able recently to view a microfiche record of the campaign contributions in support of the 1998 bond program that gave us the Trinity River project in the first place. Hundreds of thousands of dollars came from banks and law firms—cutouts for the real donors—and engineering companies.

I also have been looking at ownership of the land along the proposed outline for the park and road downtown. Major blocks of it are in the hands of banks, law firms and development companies.

This brings us to the sordid case of council member Ed Oakley, chairman of the council's Trinity River Committee. I have reported ("What a Woonerful World," April 19) that Oakley has been dabbling in complicated real estate deals square in the impact area for the project.

This is where culture clash begins to bleed over into something a bit nastier. I don't think it's wrong for all those cutouts behind the banks and the law firms to be putting money into the Trinity project, its politics, the elections or the land itself. Hey, that's the American way.

But if the Oakley example shows us nothing else, it shows us that the rah-rah never-look-back push for this thing does not provide at all for guarding our interests—the public interest. And we do need that.

I went to another mayoral forum at Paul Quinn College last week just to double-check myself on Coats. He's a very serious guy who is mature and knows himself. Given a chance to pander, he doesn't pander.

I don't think Leppert does, either. Leppert is probably a good guy with lots to offer. But his position on this referendum is just so...Manchurian.

The Dallas Observer doesn't endorse candidates, and even if it did I wouldn't be the one to do it. Me worker bee. Me no endorse. But I don't mind telling you for whom I'm going to vote. The one with fresh eyes. Definitely.

Not that there's anything wrong with being Manchurian.


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