Fresh Eyes

In recent weeks the call for a referendum on the Trinity River toll road has come to the center of the Dallas mayoral election. At the end of last week, The Dallas Morning News said in an editorial that Tom Leppert and Sam Coats were the two top contenders, but the News announced it was endorsing Leppert in large part because of his position on the Trinity referendum.

He's against it. Leppert believes we must move full-bore ahead and not pause to reconsider putting a six-lane limited-access expressway through our new park along the river.

Coats has not come out against the toll road. He says merely that he will bring "fresh eyes" to the issues. He thinks having a referendum is a good way to air those issues.

City council member Angela Hunt, leader of the pro-referendum movement, told me last week she has extracted from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers a renewed pledge that the timetable for the road has nothing to do with the timetable for the overall project. If the road stops or pauses, the project itself goes right on as if nothing has happened. (I checked with Gene T. Rice, the Corps official in charge of the Trinity Floodway project. He confirmed what Hunt told me.)

So what's so terrible about a pause, or about fresh eyes for that matter? It's not as if there is anything clear about the issues, as I learned at a recent debate between Hunt and former council member Alan Walne.

Walne told a room of about 100 very expensive haircuts that the toll road was originally proposed because the state had informed the city it could not rebuild the over-crowded "mixmaster" and "canyon" freeway exchanges downtown without it.

He said, "The Texas Department of Transportation has told us that in order to be able to rebuild the canyon, we have to have a reliever road."

A big red fire alarm went off in my head. As soon as I got back to the office, I went digging through the electronic data pile, even made a call to former DMN reporter Victoria Loe Hicks, until I found what I was looking for:

On May 30, 2002, under the headline, "Council no closer to tollway decision," Hicks reported on a briefing in which then Councilman Walne learned from city staff that the story about the toll road being linked to rebuilding the downtown freeways had never been true.

Hicks' story five years ago said, "Mr. Walne was surprised to learn that, contrary to what the city told voters in 1998, the state highway department never guaranteed that building a 'reliever route' to ease traffic on Stemmons Freeway would assure expedited reconstruction of the downtown 'canyon' and 'mixmaster.'"

The story went on: "[Council member Sandy] Greyson, who chairs the council's transportation committee, was startled to hear that the outdated downtown freeways can be rebuilt without a reliever route in place to handle the traffic that is diverted during reconstruction."

So Walne knew five years ago that the purpose of the toll road never was to serve as a construction detour for the rebuilding of the downtown freeways.

At the same debate between Hunt and Walne, Councilman Mitchell Rasansky stood up to warn against a referendum. He said, "The main thing is the flood control and getting rid of the mixmaster, which is a very important thing for the city of Dallas."

Another alarm in my head: Rasansky was telling people the Trinity toll road will "get rid of the mixmaster." For this one I trekked out to the regional headquarters of the Texas Department of Transportation to review what they claim is their only and therefore quite precious copy of the 1998 document that lays out the purpose for the toll road. (Angela Hunt, I learned later, has her own copy.)

It's fascinating reading. This document, called a "major transportation investment study," is the underlying legal document setting forth the purpose and general design for the road. The first thing that leaps out is the radical difference between the road it describes—the one we voted on—and the six-lane, high-speed, limited-access freeway now being proposed:

"The Trinity Parkway Reliever Route would be constructed as a lower speed parkway design rather than a freeway design," the document states, "allowing left-turn exits towards the river floodway.

"The parkway design would incorporate access locations directly from the parkway lanes into the adjacent park area..."

I even managed a laugh at this part: The document warns sternly that the river road will have to "provide motor vehicle, pedestrian, bicycle and equestrian access to the park."

In other words, what we voted for was a low-speed park access road with bicycles, horses and ducks crossing it. And now they want to build a six-lane, high-speed freeway with no access to the park and scarce access to downtown.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze