With the Trinity River Corridor, It's Always the Tail Wagging the Dog

With the Trinity River Corridor, It's Always the Tail Wagging the Dog

At this late date, exactly where the idea for the Trinity toll road sprang from, and how it metastasized from a pleasant country lane into a beauty-killing concrete monstrosity, is a moot point. The project long ago developed its own queer logic and momentum and became, in a way, untethered from facts and history.

But understanding the history is important, as it illustrates how policies can be shaped by powerful interests and insider deals. In his piece on the toll road this morning, The Dallas Morning News' Brandon Formby lays out the broad strokes of the Trinity Parkway's history. The common thread is that engineering firm Halff Associates kept pushing the project and kept making money. To wit:

Two years later, the city put together a coalition of 400 residents and government officials to create a master plan for a complete overhaul of the Trinity River corridor. One of the members was Jose Novoa, a civil engineer for Dallas engineering consulting firm Halff Associates, Inc...

The Texas Department of Transportation then used Halff as a consultant on the mid-1990s study used to demonstrate to federal authorities that daily traffic congestion warrants the road's construction.

City Hall's project manager for the Trinity River corridor project in the mid-1990s was a former Halff Associates engineer. The city tapped the company to produce a $1.5 million master plan for the project. Halff contributed $2,000 to the civic group supporting the 1998 bond package that first put the road on a Dallas ballot.

The North Texas Tollway Authority between 1999 and 2005 awarded Halff more than $5 million in Trinity-related work, including the contract for a supplemental environmental impact statement for the project.

In 2000, Novoa, by then chairman of Halff, said that the road would not ruin the park amenities.

"There are plenty of recreational facilities next to LBJ Freeway where people enjoy themselves -- and the parkway is in no way like LBJ," he told The News.

Novoa could not be reached for comment Thursday. A spokeswoman for Halff did not return phone calls seeking comment.

In 2007, Halff president Martin Malloy warned NTTA officials that former City Council member Angela Hunt was about to start a petition drive against the large-scale version of the project. Malloy said the best strategy would be a "strong warning against cherry-picking" pieces of the overall Trinity River project and that the "NTTA PR machine" would need to respond.

The acting executive director of NTTA at the time sent a letter to the mayor at the time, Laura Miller, saying he was "troubled" that there were attempts to remove "the transportation element" from the plan. Jerry Hiebert was temporarily leading NTTA after stepping away from his role with HNTB Corp., another key contractor on the Trinity project.

NTTA also hired Halff to design the large-scale version of the road that was approved earlier this month -- the one that AIA Dallas and others now want off the table.

It's not just the toll road. It's the entire Trinity River Corridor Project. Consider the parallels with the history of the Texas Horse Park, which I chronicled a few months ago. It, too, was born from the 400-person Trinity committee. It, too, morphed from something relatively small and unobtrusive into something glittering and massive. It, too, was aggressively pushed by a contractor with close ties to City Hall who then made lots of money drafting and revising increasingly elaborate plans. Just replace Halff with BRW Architects:

See also: The Cruel and Unusual Building of the Texas Horse Park

That seed sprouted in August 2002, when the City Council voted to pay a firm called BRW Architects $500,000 to develop a plan for an equestrian center and what would become the Trinity River Audubon Center. In BRW's initial vision, the equestrian center would be a no-frills boarding facility in Pleasant Grove: a single barn with a few dozen stalls, a couple of small warm-up and exercise arenas and a generous supply of pastureland. Total cost: $3.3 million.

The problem, says architect Craig Reynolds, the "R" in BRW, was that the firm "very quickly determined it needed to grow into quite a bit larger facility to break even." They considered bumping it to $11.4 million, but apparently that wouldn't do either. BRW submitted a feasibility study to City Council in 2004 predicting that a facility of this modesty would lose $36,560 per year.

Reynolds began reaching out to his contacts in the local horse community. Diane Pitts, his Lakewood neighbor and current president of the U.S. Eventing Association, was one of the first people he approached. She doesn't remember exactly when she first spoke to him about the horse park, but soon after she and a brain trust of local horse enthusiasts were meeting in Reynolds' office, debating how to improve Dallas' horse park...

And so, what had begun as a nice horse barn and some riding areas had mushroomed into a $100 million equestrian theme park, complete with stalls for several hundred horses, a 100-acre cross-country course, a half-mile racetrack and a sea of parking and RV hookups, to accommodate the trailers and campers that would descend weekly on Pleasant Grove...Meanwhile, BRW Architects cashed in: Spread over almost a dozen contract amendments approved by the city over a decade, the firm's contract grew to similarly unrecognizable proportions, ballooning from the initial $500,000 in 2002 to $4.4 million in 2012.

Send your story tips to the author, Eric Nicholson.

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