As Jim pointed out earlier, transportation writer Michael Lindenberger came up short yet again in today's Dallas Morning News regarding the Trinity Turnpike. Lindenberger's biggest blunder was exposed shortly after the November 2007 vote, and he made another when he reported the price tag of the road at $1.8 billion without explaining that the cost was a 40 percent increase from the previous number released by the North Texas Tollway Authority.
But his biggest omission in today's story was not mentioning the promises made by Mayor Tom Leppert regarding the funding of the road.
Throughout the toll road debates, Leppert made it crystal clear that the NTTA would be picking up a billion dollars of the cost of the road. This was, to put it nicely, extremely misleading, as I wrote in an October 2007 story that proved the NTTA made no financial commitment to the project. But Leppert and the Vote No'ers kept with their story, even using it in a mailer claiming, "Don't let Angela Hunt send more than $1 billion down the river..."
In an op-ed in The News before the vote, I wrote: "The opposition will tell you the cost is not important because only $84 million in taxpayer money is going into this project and the North Texas Tollway Authority will pay for the majority of the road. However, the NTTA hasn't made a commitment on funding."
So despite Lindenberger reporting a gap in the financing of the $1.8 billion road of nearly a billion dollars and knowing Leppert was telling anyone who would listen more than a year ago that the NTTA would be kicking in a billion dollars, Leppert's name was only mentioned in his article to get a reaction on the funding gap. And when Leppert told him there are a lot of buckets of funding to dip into, apparently Lindenberger didn't bother asking where these buckets are or how much cash is in them.
After the jump, we go back in time and provide you with audio and a transcript from October 2007 when Leppert assured me that the NTTA would indeed be kicking in a billion bucks for this sucker.
Update: I asked Mayor Leppert for a comment regarding his previous statements and what the buckets of funding are that he mentioned in the DMN story, along with the amount of funding in each "bucket." When pressed for answers, the mayor's chief of staff, Chris Heinbaugh, replied, "We won't have any comment."
Shortly after finding out that NTTA had no firm financial commitment to the project, I asked Leppert about it after a October 22, 2007, Vote No! gathering at Holy Trinity Greek Orthodox Church. The audio is below followed by a transcript.
Me: Can you explain how the $1.3 billion breaks down? Who's paying for what because you say 90 percent...In a July 2008 op-ed in The News, I wrote: "Topping Mr. Leppert's list of so-called accomplishments is his leadership to defeat a referendum that would have removed a toll road from Trinity Park. But at several debates, Mr. Leppert bent and twisted the truth as he saw fit, claiming that the North Texas Tollway Authority would be picking up the majority of the bill for the $1.4 billion road. However, the NTTA refused to make any public claims about its financial commitment."
Mayor Leppert: "Sure. The $1.3 billion has roughly about $300 million worth of contingencies in it. The city pays the $84 million number that Ron [Natinsky] played with. Then you've got miscellaneous monies that I haven't added up that are probably, when it all gets totaled, probably about $30 or $40 million. The rest of it is financed through the Tollway Authority. The Tollway Authority goes out, raises bonds, the bonds are what pays for it, and then the revenues from the tolls are what pay for it. There's nothing different to that. That's what's being done all over the world today. It's a very straightforward, straightforward proposition."
Me: So roughly a billion you're saying from the NTTA?
Mayor Leppert: "Yeah. Yeah. And the other thing, go, if you want to, and I know there's a lot of things I've asked folks to do that they haven't done, but if you want to go look at the roads, the road projects, that TxDOT or that you see in this region are doing, eight out of 10 of them are over a billion dollars. That's what it costs for doing roads."
Me: Here's what I want to get at as far as you're saying the NTTA is going to commit a billion, now what I have done is I talked to the NTTA and they said they're not on the line for anything. They're not committing to anything.
Mayor Leppert: "Well...would you commit if you had this referendum sitting in front of you?"
Me: But don't you think to say...
Mayor Leppert: "I feel comfortable. They have told me and I've asked them the question. Where we're going, if we can go forward, is this viable? Can you finance the bonds? Yes. And the answer is yes."
Me:They've told you...
Mayor Leppert: "Yes."
Me:They can finance...
Mayor Leppert: "Yes."
Me: A billion dollars worth of bonds? Mayor Leppert: "Yes. That they can make this thing work. That's what it is. Yes."
Despite allowing me to tie Leppert's claim to the NTTA's inability to fund the road twice (my only two bylines in The News, by the way), somehow, in more than a year since the election, the paper itself continues to fail to do so.