Killing the Trinity Toll Road Could Be the Best Bargain in Big D

Several of you have asked me to explain a point in my column in this week's newspaper about the Trinity River toll road and why it may be unstoppable.

Sorry. Should have done it in the column. And as it turns out, I had this wrong on two scores, one more important than the other.

I say in the paper this week that it would cost half a million bucks to get enough signatures on petitions to force a new referendum on this bad, bad Leroy Brown of a road. That's not right. The mistake is my fault, based on my own misinterpretation of what I was being told last week.

People involved in the 2007 Trinity River referendum tell me now it would cost more like $150,000 to pay a commercial signature-gathering firm to get enough John Hancocks on petitions to force an election. The rest of the $500,000 figure, they say -- about $350,000 -- would pay for the kind of TV advertising and direct mail needed to get out the vote.

I am calling them "they" and not naming them because right now none of them is committed to an effort like this, and they don't want me to make them look like they are.

But this is much better news. It means somebody capable of writing a six-figure check could put this thing back on the ballot and change the nature of the city forever.

My argument in the column is that if this dog ever goes back to the voters it will die, because this time around it would be up against a clearly superior alternative. If, instead of building a brand-new freeway right on top of the city's only major natural geographic feature, we fix the freeways we already have, we will spend way less money and get much more congestion relief as a result, according to the state highway department's own numbers.

The toll road can't compete with Project Pegasus, the former plan to fix Stemmons Freeway and its interchanges.

If we're finally able to drive a stake in this bad road's heart, Dallas will be converted from a shut-door, air-conditioned, hot-house flower of a city into a place with a vast and wonderful urban forest park at its very core. That's a destiny-changer.

Those of you who have asked me about costs all tend all to be of the hate-the-road camp. But you want to know why it has to cost so much to get the signatures.

A reader put it this way: "Can't you just sit outside every polling station in Dallas and collect signatures on election day? I would assume it'd be easier now than it was before. Especially since tools like Twitter and Facebook have overthrown dictators in multiple countries ... a toll road seems easy. Enlighten me please."

First of all, that could be right. Maybe social media have changed the rules of the road on stuff like this. Who knows?

Because Dallas is a "home-rule" city, the Texas Constitution gives it broad powers to set its own rules for initiative and referendum. Go to page 72 of the City Charter for the details.

Basically, a committee of five citizens files its petition with the city secretary and then has only 60 days from the date of filing to gather signatures equal to 10 percent of "qualified" voters in Dallas, a number based on turn-out in previous elections.

The other side, the road boosters, will do as they did last time and hire professionals to go out and harass people out of signing. This stuff gets tough. That's why I say in the column it's not a children's crusade.

The term, qualified voter, has always been taken to mean registered voter, with a floating population of about 100,000 registered voters in the city, more or less. It costs anywhere from $2 to $20 per signature to pay someone to gather signatures. Two bucks is for the easy ones. Twenty bucks is for squeezing out the remaining hard-to-get ones. A total cost of $150,000, then, is a loose estimate.

I said I was wrong on two scores. I was wrong on the money. But the bigger, better way in which I was wrong -- one I'm actually happy about -- was my own pessimism about the chances for a new election. I just thought half a million bucks was way more than anybody could raise for signatures alone.

But half a million bucks for the signatures and the campaign together seems more doable. Let's say some angel or angels kick in $150,000 to get the petitions done. At that point, raising the other $350,000 would be much easier.

I say doable. That's if nobody looks to me for the $150,000. I think at one time or another such a sum must have passed through my hands, but, sadly, those funds are no longer with us.

But if somebody else has got that kind of money, here's your chance to create an entire new city. How many times does an opportunity like that come along?