Jeez, Merten, Did You Not Read Rodrigue?

Shortly before the 2007 referendum on the Trinity Turnpike, I discussed a Dallas Morning News editorial written by Colleen McCain Nelson, in which she had a hard time grasping the difference between a floodway and a floodplain. It wasn't the first time I disagreed with her as she appears to be the designated author of all Trinity-related editorials, but I appreciated her willingness to stand behind her work and answer a few questions.

So when I read yesterday's editorial calling out Mayor Tom Leppert for having "undermined the public trust" and wondered what Angela Hunt's name was doing in there, I was relieved to know that at least I'd be able to find out why Hunt was getting called out too, even if I didn't agree with Nelson's reasoning.

Nelson wrote: "And in the heat of battle, Hunt was guilty of airing a misleading TV commercial and of making claims about the Pegasus road project that proved to be flat-out false."

A LexisNexis search of The News provided only one story matching the phrases "Angela Hunt" and "Project Pegasus" -- a September 2007 piece by Bruce Tomaso. However, it mentioned nothing about any claims by Hunt regarding the project. So I e-mailed Nelson for some clarification regarding which ad she was referencing, along with an explanation about the claim from Hunt about Project Pegasus.

The TV commercial was the one that Angela Hunt used during the last week or so of the campaign. The ad flashed a series of words and isolated phrases pulled from The Dallas Morning News. The ad only quotes the Morning News and leaves the impression that our paper was on Hunt's side.

The Pegasus issue emerged when Hunt met with the editorial board. She made several claims about Project Pegasus being the real congestion reliever and the toll road being unnecessary. When we met with TxDOT officials to ask about Hunt's assertions, the project manager [Tim Nesbitt] said that Pegasus entirely depended upon the toll road to relieve congestion. He said that without the inclusion of the toll road, Project Pegasus would receive an "F" grade for traffic flow and likely would not be approved for federal funding. The TxDOT officials disputed much of what Hunt had said about their plans for Pegasus.

A further search on yielded an August 2007 editorial penned by Nelson describing the disconnect between Hunt and Nesbitt's claims regarding the importance of the toll road to Project Pegasus.

The toll road, Ms. Hunt contends, wouldn't do much to ease crippling congestion where Interstates 35E and 30 swirl past downtown. In fact, she says, the Project Pegasus redesign of the canyon and mixmaster is the real reliever.

Just one problem: That's not true.

Ms. Hunt is not an engineer. Tim Nesbitt is. And the Texas Department of Transportation project manager says the toll road known as the Trinity Parkway is essential to a plan to keep cars moving past downtown Dallas and beyond.

Nesbitt's claims about the toll road were also outlined in the aforementioned Tomaso piece and again in an October 2007 editorial.

As for the TV ad, Nelson explained her thoughts in a November 2007 editorial.

Technically, the TrinityVote ad accurately, if selectively, quotes The News. Those words have appeared in print.

But practically speaking, the commercial is purposely misleading. It leaves the distinct impression that the newspaper is squarely on Ms. Hunt's side.

News reporters, of course, aren't advocating for or against the Trinity toll road. The editorial board is.

The quotes can be found in two ad watch stories by Dave Levinthal from October 25 and 26 of 2007, where he analyzed a TV ad and mailer from the Vote No! campaign.

"I think she's mistaken," Hunt tells Unfair Park. "We didn't take any of the statements written in The Dallas Morning News out of context. We didn't misrepresent or mischaracterize the statements; we quoted them verbatim. Colleen and I have a difference of opinion about that because we cited the material and made direct quotes. If she has a problem that their reporters are reporting accurately and those news articles are being quoted, then she needs to have a discussion with the metro page editor, not me."

Hunt says anyone paying attention to the debate was aware the editorial board was "staunchly, absolutely opposed to our efforts," writing 14 editorials defending the toll road.

"I think what frustrated them is we found some helpful information in their news articles," she says. "If they have an issue with that, they need to take it up with Dave Levinthal, who wrote the articles, and take him to task for having the audacity to objectively review the advertisements sent out by the pro-toll road group."

While she doesn't remember her specific conversation with the board regarding Project Pegasus, she maintains that the toll road is an unnecessary component to move forward with the project.

"While I understand that the members of TxDOT, with whom the editioral board met, may disagree, I find it interesting that those in the Texas Transportation Commission have a very different view," Hunt says. "I think there's arguably some very conflicting information."

Hunt points to a statement that Ric Williamson, former chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission (now deceased), gave to KERA.

"If the toll road as envisioned now is radically changed, Project Pegasus will have to be redesigned. I'm not taking a position; it's just a logical conclusion," Williamson said. "Project Pegasus is so important to the clean air plan and congestion relief for North Texas. I can't imagine a circumstance where it wouldn't be redesigned and moved forward. It's just that important."

I asked Nelson if she gives any credibility to Williamson's statement.

I don't want to speculate too much about one comment taken from an interview I haven't heard. But I will say that when Angela Hunt first met with the editorial board, she said she wasn't certain that we even needed a toll road at all. She basically suggested that Pegasus was a standalone project that did not depend upon the existence of a toll road. Nesbitt said the project counted on the toll road to relieve congestion. Williamson seems to suggest that if the toll road is moved/changed, then Pegasus would need to be blown up and redone (for a price). His comment seems to assume that a toll road would still be part of the project, even if the alignment changes.

I know that Angela said other things later in the campaign, but at the time that we were writing this editorial, Angela was telling us that a toll road wasn't necessarily an imperative. And TXDOT said: That's not true.

While Williamson's comments came two months after Hunt's meeting with the board, she says a strong case can be made that the 1998 Major Transportation Investment Study proves that Project Pegasus without the inclusion toll road will play a major role in relieving traffic. Hunt also says she relied on information from advisors like Sandy Greyson, who spent time on the Regional Transportation Council and served as the chair of the Dallas City Council's Transportation Committee.

More important, Hunt claims the toll road isn't designed to relieve congestion on Interstate 35 or Interstate 30.

"In looking at where the toll road goes and that the engineering drawings and schematics don't make any linkages or ramps between the toll road and 35 or the toll road and 30, a very good argument can be made that this toll road does not relieve congestion."

Hunt also gave us a reaction regarding D Magazine publisher Wick Allison's admission that he was wrong after debating her about funding tied to the toll road on FrontBurner.

"I was actually very impressed and pleasantly surprised that Wick responded, and more than that, he acknowledged the accuracy of what I had been saying," she says. "It only took 16 months."

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten