Digging for Toll Road Facts

Wait a minute. Think about this. The main argument for keeping the toll road inside the park downtown is that it can't go anywhere else because of the cost.

I just looked at files in the offices of the people who would build the road. It's flat-out untrue.

This is all central to the decision we must make November 6 when we will cast votes for or against Proposition 1.


Trinity River project

A vote FOR is for forcing the proposed Trinity River toll road out of the park downtown and onto some other alignment, probably along Industrial Boulevard, which parallels the river but is outside the flood control levees. A vote AGAINST is for keeping the toll road inside the park and inside the levees along the river.

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert has been insisting that putting the road on Industrial will cost half a billion dollars more than putting it on free city land in the park because of right-of-way acquisitions. But last week when I went through boxes of files at the North Texas Tollway Authority, I found estimates for putting the toll road on Industrial Boulevard that were less—$1.606 billion—than putting it inside the park—$1.613 billion.

Leppert keeps blaming the soaring cost of the road on delays and litigation. But the files reveal a much bigger reason—problems with trying to build a highway inside a floodway, where highways don't belong.

Originally the NTTA was going to build the proposed Trinity toll road on a bench out from the side of the levees (the big earthen berms along the river that hold in the flood water). That was Laura Miller's "Balanced Vision Plan."

That all went by the wayside six months ago when the Army Corps of Engineers told the NTTA the road could not be built on or near the levees. Instead the NTTA must now go out into the floodway and build the road up on its own earthen bench.

Documents I saw in NTTA files compared the construction cost of the Balanced Vision Plan to the cost of the no-road-on-levees plan. The new version, off the levees, costs $352 million more than the one on the levees. That's a one-third increase in six months, and it has nothing to do with inflation or delays.

Let's talk about inflation. In all of its estimates the NTTA's biggest cost is construction itself. The next biggest is what it calls "agency cost"—what it charges itself as the general contractor. The smallest cost by far is "right-of-way" or land acquisition.

In its estimate for putting the toll road on Industrial Boulevard, the NTTA documents show "agency cost" going up 18.49 percent between 2003 and 2007. Understandable.

Ah, but some kind of magic happens when we get to the road inside the levees. There, agency cost inflates by 13 percent from 2003 until January 2007. Then just as the November 6 referendum campaigns get well under way, the agency cost for the inside-the-levees version plummets. Between January and June of 2007, the agency cost for that version drops by 19.34 percent.

Isn't that special?

Oh, and don't let me forget to tell you what any and all of these estimates are worth to begin with. Several documents in the boxes describe these as "Level E" estimates, accurate to within margins of plus 50 percent and minus 30 percent.

That's an 80 percent spread. Look at it this way: You ask the car salesman, "How much for the Mitsubunda Sportoski?" He says, "It's somewhere between $14,000 and $30,000. Just give me a signed check, and I'll fill in the amount when I know."

Run for the door, right? But that's the kind of number we're supposedly basing this whole decision on.

There is more. It looks as if one way they may have been holding down the cost estimates for the inside-the-park plan is by shaving off most of the access ramps. Leppert has been touting a price of $1.3 billion for the road inside the park on land the city would give the tollway authority for free.

The only estimate I found in NTTA files that corresponded with that number—$1.327 billion—was for the "all floodway ramp reduction" plan, as the NTTA document called it.

That document was quite a stunner. An accompanying graphic shows ramps up and down the toll road crossed out with little Xs, except for ramps at the Woodall Rodgers Expressway and at Interstate 45.

Eliminated from the design are access ramps at Lamar, MLK Boulevard, Corinth, Interstate 35E, Jefferson, Houston, Wycliff, Sylvan and Commonwealth.

So now, tell me again: We build this monolithic expressway all up and down the river without access ramps, and then how are we going to get into the park we voted for in 1998?

Before I leave this point, please let me share something with you. This document about the ramp reductions wasn't exactly handed to me by the NTTA. Both Jorge C. Figueredo, NTTA executive director, and Rick Herrington, the deputy, declined to take my calls when I tried to ask questions about their design for the toll road in the first place, so I filed a Public Information Act demand for related documents.

Eventually the NTTA agreed to produce some of what I asked for, but they said the Dallas Observer would have to pay $1,400 for copying. I said I didn't need no stinking copies: I would examine the originals at their offices. They said they would charge $130 to put the documents in a conference room for me to look at. They said I could occupy the room for three and a half hours. I said great.

For $130 I was tempted to throw a party in it, but then, you know, I had work to do. When I arrived, they had done what I fully expected—piled up file boxes of irrelevant computer runs, with the stuff I was looking for slipped in here and there.

How did they know I love nothing better than a good truffle hunt?

My best finds, I believed, were the ramp reduction documents. I put them in a stack with other things I wanted copies of. A lady from legal took my stack of stuff to copy.

When she brought back my stack, guess what was missing? The ramp reduction documents. I complained sternly. I warned that I had taken notes on the documents. Later that day they called and said they had found the "misplaced" documents.

Look: On all of this stuff, I wrote and made calls to the NTTA immediately for comment and clarification. They called me back at the end of the week and said they would not be able to answer any of my questions. So let me ask you: Does this sound like people who are proud of their work?

I had questions about a lot more than just the ramp reductions. Mayor Leppert insists in public appearances that the toll road is a good deal because the North Texas Tollway Authority is going to "dig our lakes for us." Seems simple enough. They need dirt in order to build a big bench to put the road on so it won't flood.

But I found notes from a meeting of the NTTA, the Corps of Engineers and Halff Associates, an engineering firm, in which the Corps reiterated a warning it apparently had made months before: the dig-it-out-and-pile-it-up scheme may not work.

Digging dirt out of one place in order to pile it up somewhere else is called borrowing in the lingo of dirt work. According to the notes, the Corps has been telling the NTTA for months that, "using the Floodway as a borrow site does not comply with Fort Worth District [Corps] policy which prohibits excavation within the floodway."

I have wondered for the last year why there was no written agreement between the NTTA and the city of Dallas for these lakes to be dug. Whenever anybody asks Leppert, he goes into his thing about "I am comfortable" that the work will be done.

Yeah, but why not have a contract? Well now I know. It's because the NTTA is not at all sure the Corps will even let them—or anybody else—dig the lakes.

In the files the Corps also tells the NTTA that it is not going to be able to dig all the dirt it needs for the road out of the floodway. So it will have to bring dirt in from somewhere else—possibly millions of cubic yards of dirt. But the Corps also effectively tells the NTTA it must comply with regulations that prohibit it from adding to the total amount of dirt in the floodway.

So, uh...how do they build the road? Can't dig the dirt out of the floodway. Have to bring the dirt in. But they can't add to the amount of dirt in the floodway. I asked both the Corps and the NTTA...wassup?

The Corps gave me the usual holding up of the index fingers in the sign of the cross go-away-vampire response: "As the project has not been submitted for a final review it would be premature to speculate how the construction of the proposed Parkway will meet the criteria," the Corps said in an e-mail.

And then, as I already told you, the NTTA said it was sorry but it just wouldn't be able to answer my questions at all.

Bottom line from my truffle hunt? They can build that road on Industrial—they can build it a lot of places—for the same money or way less than what it would cost to build it in the park. Just thought I'd mention it.

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