Road Rage

Dallas Mayor Laura Miller has conceded to me that the toll road under design for the Trinity River project is a bad road.

"The city manager and I have complained to the North Texas Tollway Authority and told them to fix it," she said in an exchange of e-mails. "We fully expect they will. Otherwise they won't have a road project on city-owned land."

But the same Laura Miller remains so dead set against allowing taxpayers to vote on the road that she and her supporters are using paid "blockers" at the polling places to keep people from signing petitions for a referendum.

This is about a plan to put a high-speed six-lane toll road through the brand-new park we're trying to build along the Trinity River downtown. Angela Hunt, a city council member, says the road is out of control. Hunt is gathering signatures on petitions for a vote next November.

We would vote yes or no: Do we want to pass a law saying the road through the park has to be what we voted for in 1998 when we approved the whole project—a four-lane low-speed access road to the park?

Miller says an election would be a big mistake. But she admits the road now being designed is a mistake.

Well, this week she admits it. Last week, not so much. Since Hunt announced her referendum campaign, Miller has insisted in speeches and a radio debate that the current design is perfect, created and endorsed by experts "from Harvard" and from Seattle, whom she hired under a private, undisclosed contract to design the biggest public amenity in the city's history.

Miller's mantra has been that the voters must not meddle with the "Balanced Vision Plan" designed by Alex Krieger of Cambridge, Massachusetts, and William Eager of Seattle, Washington.

But last week Hunt came up with an e-mail from Krieger to Miller telling Miller the toll road in the park is not what he designed. Krieger tells Miller he sees "absolutely no evidence of concern for the 'context sensitive design' that was promised as part of the balanced plan."

"What concerned me most," Krieger writes, "was that the engineering of the road was proceeding as if it were a great big interstate highway instead of a parkway."

Eager, the transportation expert, suggests a breach of faith. "We had a deal to make this parkway of a design appropriate to a park setting," he tells Miller in an e-mail. He warns her that the toll road along the river, on which trucks are supposed to be banned, is being designed to accommodate trucks:

"The only reason for 12-foot lanes would be if there is not really a commitment to 'no trucks,'" Eager warns.

I tried to reach these gentlemen for this story, as I always do, and as always they did not respond.

Last week when our blog, Unfair Park, broke this story ("Angela Hunt Proves It: the Mayor's Been Lying About the Trinity River Toll Road," May 1), Miller replied ("Mayor to Schutze, You Are Wrong," May 1) by blaming the engineering company, Halff & Associates, designing the toll road for the North Texas Tollway Authority.

"But with Halff still working for the NTTA, some of that big-road-itis continues to exist," she said.

In fact the size and design of the road have nothing to do with mental illness at Halff & Associates. More like money.

Several years ago somebody—we have never been told who or why or when or how—decided he or she didn't want the road we voted for in 1998, the soft meandering little park road.

Somebody—our own municipal Boo Radley—asked the NTTA if they couldn't build a bigger, fatter road and do it faster with toll money. The NTTA said maybe. They hired a company called Wilbur Smith & Associates in Connecticut. Wilbur Smith came back with harsh news.

Wilbur Smith found that if the city kept the toll road at what the public had voted for—45 miles an hour with generous access to the park—the toll money from the road would produce only $70 million toward cost of construction.

But if the city lopped off all the access to the park, limited the access to downtown, provided no access at all to southern Dallas and jacked the speed limit up to 55 miles per hour, it could raise $150 million for the project. The Wilbur Smith study also suggested strongly that the city would need to allow trucks.

Why? Faster road, more customers. More cars, more trucks, more revenue. Just what you want in a park, eh? But that's exactly what this is about.

Miller insists the road will be only four lanes through the park and no trucks will be allowed. Last Sunday Angela Hunt showed me the official renderings of the road supplied to her in response to an open records demand: The renderings show six lanes right through the park.

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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