Dallas Mayor Laura Miller has conceded to me that the toll road under design for the Trinity River project is a bad road.
"The city manager and I have complained to the North Texas Tollway Authority and told them to fix it," she said in an exchange of e-mails. "We fully expect they will. Otherwise they won't have a road project on city-owned land."
But the same Laura Miller remains so dead set against allowing taxpayers to vote on the road that she and her supporters are using paid "blockers" at the polling places to keep people from signing petitions for a referendum.
This is about a plan to put a high-speed six-lane toll road through the brand-new park we're trying to build along the Trinity River downtown. Angela Hunt, a city council member, says the road is out of control. Hunt is gathering signatures on petitions for a vote next November.
We would vote yes or no: Do we want to pass a law saying the road through the park has to be what we voted for in 1998 when we approved the whole project—a four-lane low-speed access road to the park?
Miller says an election would be a big mistake. But she admits the road now being designed is a mistake.
Well, this week she admits it. Last week, not so much. Since Hunt announced her referendum campaign, Miller has insisted in speeches and a radio debate that the current design is perfect, created and endorsed by experts "from Harvard" and from Seattle, whom she hired under a private, undisclosed contract to design the biggest public amenity in the city's history.
Miller's mantra has been that the voters must not meddle with the "Balanced Vision Plan" designed by Alex Krieger of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and William Eager of Seattle, Washington.
But last week Hunt came up with an e-mail from Krieger to Miller telling Miller the toll road in the park is not what he designed. Krieger tells Miller he sees "absolutely no evidence of concern for the 'context sensitive design' that was promised as part of the balanced plan."
"What concerned me most," Krieger writes, "was that the engineering of the road was proceeding as if it were a great big interstate highway instead of a parkway."
Eager, the transportation expert, suggests a breach of faith. "We had a deal to make this parkway of a design appropriate to a park setting," he tells Miller in an e-mail. He warns her that the toll road along the river, on which trucks are supposed to be banned, is being designed to accommodate trucks:
"The only reason for 12-foot lanes would be if there is not really a commitment to 'no trucks,'" Eager warns.
I tried to reach these gentlemen for this story, as I always do, and as always they did not respond.
Last week when our blog, Unfair Park, broke this story ("Angela Hunt Proves It: the Mayor's Been Lying About the Trinity River Toll Road," May 1), Miller replied ("Mayor to Schutze, You Are Wrong," May 1) by blaming the engineering company, Halff & Associates, designing the toll road for the North Texas Tollway Authority.
"But with Halff still working for the NTTA, some of that big-road-itis continues to exist," she said.
In fact the size and design of the road have nothing to do with mental illness at Halff & Associates. More like money.
Several years ago somebody—we have never been told who or why or when or how—decided he or she didn't want the road we voted for in 1998, the soft meandering little park road.
Somebody—our own municipal Boo Radley—asked the NTTA if they couldn't build a bigger, fatter road and do it faster with toll money. The NTTA said maybe. They hired a company called Wilbur Smith & Associates in Connecticut. Wilbur Smith came back with harsh news.
Wilbur Smith found that if the city kept the toll road at what the public had voted for—45 miles an hour with generous access to the park—the toll money from the road would produce only $70 million toward cost of construction.
But if the city lopped off all the access to the park, limited the access to downtown, provided no access at all to southern Dallas and jacked the speed limit up to 55 miles per hour, it could raise $150 million for the project. The Wilbur Smith study also suggested strongly that the city would need to allow trucks.
Why? Faster road, more customers. More cars, more trucks, more revenue. Just what you want in a park, eh? But that's exactly what this is about.
Miller insists the road will be only four lanes through the park and no trucks will be allowed. Last Sunday Angela Hunt showed me the official renderings of the road supplied to her in response to an open records demand: The renderings show six lanes right through the park.
Supposedly there won't be trucks. But Eager points out in his e-mail that they are designing it for trucks.
I think my e-mail exchange with Mayor Miller about all this is pretty extraordinary for what it reveals. I don't want to be accused of stacking the deck. So here it is, complete and unvarnished. (The reference to "blockers" at the end is to the hired guns being sent to polling places to talk people out of signing the petitions for a referendum on the road.)
Read it and draw your own conclusions. I know what I want. I want an election just so we can finally get Boo Radley to come out and play:
Schutze: I am writing a column saying the explanation you offered for the Krieger and Eager e-mails doesn't wash. They told you the road they had designed had morphed into an expressway. In claiming the road under design was still the road they had signed off on, you misled the public. They never approved or signed off on the road that is now under design. Their e-mails prove that.
Miller: I've never misled the public. When exactly do you think I misled them?
Schutze: Do you feel you have ever publicly given the impression the toll road in the current plan has the blessing of Krieger and Eager?
Miller: It is THEIR road design so of course they bless the one in the Balanced Vision Plan. Which is why I asked them to alert us if they ever see any designs from NTTA that even look slightly different than what they designed and the City Council voted to build. They alerted me in the e-mails you have in hand. Because of their concerns about what they saw in preliminary designs, the city manager and I have complained to NTTA and told them to fix it. We fully expect that they will. Otherwise they won't have a road project on city-owned land since ALL parties agreed on the road just as Krieger and Eager designed it—NTTA, COG, City of Dallas, TxDOT, Dallas County.
Schutze: So the road design that is now in place is now in question. You and the city manager agree, I take it, that it must be changed. It's not a good design. Tell me again why the taxpayers should not be allowed to vote on it.
Miller: The so-called design is a preliminary drawing of it—not a final design, or a near-final design. The reason we ask to see preliminary designs is to make sure we get what we asked for. In this case, the road doesn't have curves in it—we want curves. It had break-down lanes—we don't want break-down lanes that could be turned into six lanes, which is two too many. What we want is the road that's in the Balanced Vision Plan—Eager and Krieger's road.
What Angela is asking the voters to do is DELETE the road in the Balanced Vision Plan. And there's no alternative road route given—she says they can figure that out later.
But we know from Eager and Krieger that there is no better place to put this four-lane, 55-mile-an-hour parkway. So a vote with no solution is not a good idea.
Schutze: Her proposed ordinance does have a road in it. A four-lane road. What's wrong with that?
Miller: The ordinance precludes the road as designed by Eager and Krieger, which we believe is a good road.
Schutze: But you can offer not one word of guarantee it will be built. Why not let the voters get a guarantee of their own if they want one?
Miller: If the referendum was to build the road as proposed by Eager and Krieger in the Balanced Vision Plan—or not do it at all—I would support it. Because I want the road built as they designed it—and I'd LOVE a guarantee on that. Which is why I've always asked Eager and Krieger to tell me if the road didn't look exactly right. Because [former city council member] Sandy [Greyson] and I were the strongest proponents—and she's gone now.
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Schutze: So who's paying the blockers?
Miller: Donors for the campaign are Citizens Council, Harlan Crow, and I don't know who else has given. I suggested we use people involved in the project, like members and Trinity Trust/Commons to man the polls and ask people not to sign the petition for all the reasons I gave above. Apparently, with all the great number of polling places, we need more manpower. They are not supposed to "block" people. Just give them the reasons we don't want a vote—primarily because what we have now works and there is no parkway solution available other than the BVP.
Schutze: Thank you.
Miller: You can't say I skirt the questions, or that I'm not forthcoming. I care a lot about this issue. I truly believe in the BVP. As designed.