| Schutze |

Leppert Answers Our Levee, Tollway Questions

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Heard back from our new mayor this afternoon on my questions about the Trinity River Project. I had accused him of ducking my questions and possibly, therefore, being less than manly. Turns out he called me Friday, but I failed to pick up my voice mail and call him back. I guess in order to be fair now I have to accuse myself of possibly ducking his call-back and, therefore, being less than manly myself. At this rate, one day there will be no manly men left in my world.

After the jump, I ask and Leppert answers. Might want to get yourself a cup of coffee before you click.

I had asked him about his repeated assertion that the North Texas Tollway Authority is going to dig out manlymade lakes for the city as part of their agreement to build a toll road between the flood control levees along the Trinity River downtown. He says if we kick the toll road out from between the levees, the NTTA won’t dig our lakes, and we will lose X amount of money.

In an e-mail to the mayor, I said, “There is no contract with the NTTA to excavate lakes. The Corps of Engineers will need fill dirt. They can excavate the lakes. All of that is pie in the sky now.”

My point was to ask how the mayor can warn that the NTTA will pull out of its agreement to dig the lakes when there is no agreement for the NTTA to dig the lakes.

Mayor Leppert told me on the phone today: “There is not a contract, but there is an agreement, and that agreement has been provided to the city. It has been reaffirmed in my conversations with the NTTA, so I feel very comfortable with that.”

I said: “At this point it’s a verbal agreement?”

He said: “No, there have been written exchanges, and [city manager] Mary Suhm and I feel very comfortable with that. And plus, I have had them say it to me directly because I have asked the questions.”

I asked: “If it’s something we’re counting as part of the funding of the thing, why wouldn’t there be a contract?”

He answered: “Because we’re not at that stage.” He reiterated: “I feel very comfortable that there is an understanding and an agreement.”

I asked him why the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers could not be prevailed upon to dig the lakes, even if the road goes away, since the Corps will need dirt to pile on the levees to make them higher. He said there is no agreement with the Corps.

Leppert mentioned specifically that the Corps has not done soil sample testing to see if it can use the dirt from the river bottom. This, in fact, is a potentially explosive issue. A number of state and federal Web sites carry warnings of serious chlordane contamination in the river bottom. For that reason, it is illegal to possess any fish taken from the river where it passes through downtown.

I asked Leppert if he believes the NTTA is bound by its agreement to dig out the lakes no matter what core samples of the river bottom soil may turn up in terms of pollution. If there is bad chlordane down there, is the NTTA really going to say, “Sure, we’ll go scrounge around in there and put our hand into creating a public recreational resource there no matter what toxins we turn up?”

Leppert repeated he is comfortable that the NTTA will dig the lakes.

I had asked him why he tells audiences that moving the road out from between the flood control levees will greatly extend the timeline for design of the road, since there is no final design for it now. Six months ago all of the previous design work, based on putting the roads on the levees, presumably went into the circular file because the Corps of Engineers surprised everybody by ruling that the road could not be built on or near the levees.

Leppert insisted that a core of design work has been built up over past years based on having the road somewhere on or between the levees. Moving the road, he said, will waste all of that effort and push the timeline back. He also made what I thought was a reasonable case that putting the road on Industrial Boulevard will cost more time because of land acquisition.

The last thing we talked about was money. I said I didn’t know how he could compare the cost of a road between the flood control levees with a road anywhere else when we don’t know what it will cost to flood-protect the road between the levees, now that it can no longer be flood-protected by putting it up on the levees.

How do you flood-protect it out there? Build a dirt bench for it? But the Corps has said you can’t do anything that will block water from flowing between the levees. How do you build an expressway on a dirt bench between the levees and not block water?

Leppert said, “This is not going to be the equivalent of sending somebody to the moon.”

I said, “Well, the Corps has said it is unique because no one has ever has ever built a highway like this between flood control levees.”

Leppert, former CEO of one of the world’s largest construction companies, said: “I have built a lot of things that people said were unique. The reality of it is, yes, it may be, but you learn a lot of lessons from doing other things, and you bring those to bear. This is not going to be sending somebody to the moon.”

I said: “You will have to forgive me. I do think because it involves levees and flood control and we have the lesson of Katrina behind us, it is significantly different. There are dangers here that are of a different order from building a road somewhere else.” Long silence.

I asked: “Do you think that’s a fair statement?”

He said: “I think that there are challenges in every single project you undertake. This is clearly not a small project. As I have said a number of different times, I think you’ve heard me, there are a lot of complexities in this, a lot of challenges in this, but I feel comfortable that there is nothing there that I look at today that is going to prevent us from having project that will meet the concepts and the guidelines that have been laid down. It think it will be terrific project.”

So there you have it—what we said, how we said it. Better take a rest. You might be over-scintillated. It happens. I can’t help that. -- Jim Schutze

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