Mayor Miller and referendum opponents hold up the Balanced Vision Plan as proof that all is well with the toll road project. They argue that the toll road will not be the massive highway we anticipate, but rather a parkway appropriate to a park setting. They point out that the Balanced Vision Plan was recently honored by the American Institute of Architects.
What referendum opponents fail to admit publicly is that the plan currently under development is not the Balanced Vision Plan.
Thanks to an open records request made to the city, we now know what Mayor Miller’s experts are telling her privately. After reviewing the current plans for the toll road, urban planner and Balanced Vision Plan architect Alex Krieger cautioned Miller in a March 22, 2007, e-mail that “the road was proceeding as if it were a great big interstate highway instead of a parkway and that there was absolutely no evidence of concern for the ‘context sensitive design’ that was promised as part of the balanced vision plan.”
Transportation expert Bill Eager agreed with Krieger’s assessment: “The news from you [Gail Thomas], Laura Miller and Alex Krieger is disturbing...Alex Krieger’s assessment of what is happening is disappointing...We had a deal to make this Parkway of a design appropriate to a park setting.”
Referendum opponents are attempting to explain away concerns about the toll road by claiming that the current road designs are “preliminary” and “conceptual.” After nine years, all we have are preliminary designs? (And they think our efforts are going to slow down the project?) The mayor now claims that the current engineering plans will be revised to reflect the Balanced Vision Plan. If this is true, how long will that take and at what cost? Has the NTTA agreed to revise the plans (which they are paying for)?
Whether or not you believe the Balanced Vision Plan represents great design or is simply putting lipstick on a pig, changes required by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the needs of the NTTA make it impossible to implement.
The Balanced Vision Plan depends on narrow road width, lower speeds, fewer lanes, extensive landscaping and trees, building the road into the levees, making the road meander and providing a collector-distributor route on top of the levees.
Unfortunately, the most recent toll road plans do not (and cannot) incorporate any of these elements into the design.
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The Corps of Engineers is now prohibiting the toll road from being built into the levees (fearing it would weaken the levees). For the same reason, the Corps also will not allow a road to be built on top of the levees, so the collector-distributor route is eliminated. As for landscaping and trees, the Corps will not permit trees to be planted into the levees, fearing that root penetration would weaken flood protection. The Corps has also not approved any of the landscaping and trees shown in designs of the road since such greenery could impede water flow in the floodway. Whether such landscaping will be approved is questionable. (And don’t forget that TxDOT is pulling out its landscaping along Central Expressway, citing the high cost of maintenance, further reducing the likelihood that the forest of toll road greenery shown in drawings is realistic.)
As for the other components of the Balanced Vision Plan, the NTTA needs a large number of cars to travel on this road for it to be financially viable. That’s why this road is not being designed to be low-speed, have fewer lanes, or to meander, all of which would reduce or slow traffic, thus reducing ridership and tolls collected.
Mayor Miller’s experts who authored the Balanced Vision Plan are right to point out that the toll road is “a great big interstate highway instead of a parkway.” The reality of the needs of the NTTA, combined with the Corps’ prohibitions, prevent it from being anything else.
Let’s get these facts on the table, hold a referendum, and let the voters decide. --Angela Hunt