Really, About the Trinity Parkway, Don't Hold Your Breath. Not Yet, Anyway.

Dig the "concept" of an urban lake downtown. Because the "reality," well, it isn't close at all.

Back in October, Christopher Anderson of the North Texas Tollway Authority helped debunk several of the claims made by Mayor Tom Leppert and the Vote No! team during the Trinity River toll road debates. Anderson, serving as project manager, provided information that the NTTA had not made a decision regarding its share of the road's cost, the interlocal agreement between the City of Dallas and the NTTA included a financial commitment of between $140 and $150 million by the NTTA, the design work was only 35 percent completed at the time, and no final estimates for the cost of any of the toll road alignments had been completed.

Which did not stop Leppert and the VoteNo'ers from talking about how the cost was firm because it included contingencies. They also claimed the NTTA was contributing approximately $1 billion to the project.

Since the November 6 vote, some of us have been anxiously awaiting the release of the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which was supposed to be released in June or this month -- August, at the latest. Then, the NTTA board and Dallas City Council were scheduled to choose their preferred alignment in September -- at least, according to a presentation made in January to the council's Trinity River Project Committee. Only, the August 2008 date was already a major delay from the July '07 date provided at the February '07 committee meeting.

As it turns out, delays are the order of the day when it comes to the Trinity River toll road project. Maybe that's because the longtime project manager at the NTTA is no longer with the NTTA. And it only gets better from there.

With August but a few days off, I attempted to touch base with Anderson. Turns out he left the NTTA June 6 and was replaced by Dan Chapman. I asked Anderson what happened, and he sent me an e-mail saying, "It's all good. An opportunity to work on other environmental documents (rail, transit, etc.) besides highways and tollways came up. The new job allows me to broaden my NEPA [National Environmental Policy Act] experience."

I asked where he's working, and he didn't respond. This isn't the first time Anderson has gone silent, but Sherita Coffelt, public information officer for the NTTA, tells me he's with Jacobs Carter Burgess, an engineering consultant.

Coffelt agreed to answer my questions, the first of which was: When will the SDEIS be released publicly?

"The SDEIS will be released to the public following completion of TxDOT and FHWA review," she tells Unfair Park. "A public hearing on the SDEIS is tentatively planned for January 2009."

Which ... lesse ... is six months down the toll road. Yet another delay. So what happened?

Coffelt says the reviewing agencies have 30 days to review and comment on the SDEIS -- unless higher priority assignments interfere, which was the case with the United States Army Corps of Engineers and Texas Department of Transportation.

"Both the USACE and TxDOT required more than twice the normal duration to complete their respective reviews," she says. "The USACE had an emergency issue arise elsewhere in the district, and TxDOT had a logjam of higher priority projects that were being reviewed simultaneously with the Trinity Parkway SDEIS." (She does not say what the emergency issue was.)

She adds that projects closer to construction are given a higher priority, with the Trinity Parkway sitting as the No. 5 priority during the initial review by the TxDOT Environmental Affairs Division. Only now has the project has moved up to top priority.

"As with any project, and especially one of this complexity," she says, "there will consistently be issues that arise that impact the schedule."

These delays threatened the NTTA's goal to receive the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA)'s Record of Decision before the end of 2009, according to Coffelt, so representatives from the FHWA, TxDOT and NTTA met in Austin last month to discuss possible revisions to the Environmental Impact Statement schedule in an effort to stay on track.

"A collaborative effort between the FHWA, TxDOT and the NTTA resulted in a revised EIS schedule that still shows the estimated receipt of the ROD before the end of 2009. Allowing more time to complete the SDEIS review will help facilitate concurrent review of the Final Environmental Impact Statement by TxDOT, FHWA and the USACE," she says. "This will make up for lost time during the SDEIS review and ultimately keep the overall EIS review process on schedule barring other unforeseen or unplanned issues."

Of course, this project has been surrounded by unforeseen and unplanned issues, so we're not holding our breath. Now on to my second question, which was simple. How much is the current cost estimate for the in-between-the-levees alignment supported by Leppert and the council?

Coffelt says the cost hasn't changed from the Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which listed the current floodway alternative at $1.29 billion.

"Because of the long duration required for review of the SDEIS document," she says, "we have to freeze this information until completion of reviews and public release of the document."

Once the preferred alternative is chosen, it will be developed in greater detail, which will include an updated opinion of the probable construction cost. "The most current cost data will be utilized when the estimate for the formally designated locally preferred alternative is prepared," she says.

With the rising cost of steel, concrete, gas and just about everything else, logic says the final number will be much bigger than $1.29 billion and the $1.4 billion estimate last given by the city. So my final question was: Has the NTTA determined how much money it will pump into the project?

The NTTA has initiated development of the detailed information needed to facilitate the market valuation process, which will be performed after the SDEIS public hearing and a preferred alternative is recommended by the NTTA board and the Dallas City Council. Coffelt says the funding strategy cannot be determined until more detailed traffic and revenue studies are completed -- only, they're costly to obtain and have a limited shelf life.

"Following completion of the T&R studies and the development of the schematic design for the locally preferred alternative, the NTTA will have the detailed data needed to facilitate market valuation and determination of a funding strategy," she says.

And if it can't pick up the tab after Dallas has kicked in $84 million and the state and feds pony up around $200 million, who's gonna pay the difference?

"If additional funding is needed, it will likely be an issue resolved through the North Central Texas Council of Governments as the authority responsible for the regional toll revenue funding," Coffelt says.

So, just to clarify, we don't know anything more than we knew when this was voted on, which is now eight months ago and counting. The NTTA still doesn't know how much the road will cost, and, more importantly, it doesn't know how much it will be contributing financially. Meanwhile, the process continues to drag on.

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten