The News Must Have Amnesia Regarding Mayor Leppert and the Toll Road. And Just What The Heck Does "At Risk" Really Mean?

To my delight, I returned from vacation and discovered that the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement for the Trinity Turnpike has finally been released. It would have been a nice read on the plane ride home, but rest assured I'll be scouring the 1,942 pages and reporting back shortly.

In the meantime, I also stumbled on yet another poorly reported story about the toll road in The Dallas Morning News by transportation writer Michael Lindenberger, whose biggest gaffe was exposed by Schutze shortly after the 2007 referendum.

Before Jim left for a vacation of his own, he asked Robert to post the final paragraph of Lindenberger's recent piece, which I'll discuss after the jump. Personally, I found this graph much more interesting.

The new environmental report answers those concerns in painstaking detail, but nevertheless makes clear that the two biggest unknowns -- how to pay for the multibillion-dollar road, and how to convince the corps that it won't pose a threat to property and people should the Trinity River flood -- remain its biggest stumbling blocks.

So Lindenberger says the SDEIS makes it clear that the two biggest unknowns with (as Sam Coats referred to it) this honkin' toll road are funding and approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. That's right folks, nearly 11 years after the vote, we still don't know who's gonna pay for this sucker or if it will make the city's flood-control system less safe.

Yet, during the Trinity River toll road debates, Mayor Tom Leppert assured voters that funding was in place and the corps already approved the road. No worries, said Leppert and the Vote No'ers.

Does Lindenberger mention this? No.

Does Lindenberger seek comment from Leppert? You wouldn't know from reading his story.

As I've mentioned before, Lindenberger and The News are omitting facts that can only be characterized as vital to the story. Keeping them out makes it look like he either doesn't know the facts, he's protecting the mayor or he's intentionally deceiving the readers -- none of which are appealing options.

It's refreshing to see The News finally bringing some of these issues to light -- even if it's 18 months too late -- but is it too much to ask for them to go all in and give us the full story?

Now back to the quote at the end of the story by Rebecca Dugger, the city's director of the Trinity River Corridor Project.

"That's why it is called at risk," she said. "We've always been upfront, very upfront that this is at risk, and that something could happen at the end. But it was a risk we felt we needed to take."

While I haven't always agreed with Dugger, this simply doesn't jump out at me, mostly because she's right -- the city, the North Texas Tollway Authority and other participating agencies have been upfront about the current alternative proceeding at risk.

Essentially, all these entities have been investing time, funds and resources on an alternative that has the potential to be rejected (although Dugger and everyone else have always maintained that they've felt it would ultimately be approved). This isn't something the city, the NTTA or anyone else has been hiding to my knowledge.

I addressed this briefly in the paper version of Unfair Park, where I explained that although the preferred alignment was only one of eight under consideration, it was the only one moving forward with final design. Space considerations prevented a full explanation of what "at risk" really means, but I kept a response from Dan Chapman, project manager from the NTTA, for a rainy day.

We have limited opportunities to expedite the delivery of the Trinity Parkway project if a riverside alternative is ultimately recommended. Design-build, or overlapping design with construction, is not an available construction procurement alternative because the USACE [U.S. Army Corps of Engineers] will require 100 percent complete construction plans for their review and approval before any parkway construction can begin within the Dallas Floodway. This means we must utilize the traditional design-bid-build process.

If we can't expedite delivery of the project by overlapping design with construction, our only other significant opportunity to expedite the project is to overlap design with the environmental process. This is not unique, but does require the local entities to proceed with final design "at risk" in advance of the FHWA [Federal Highway Administration] Record of Decision (ROD) on a preferred alignment. We currently estimate receipt of the FHWA ROD before the end of 2009.

The term "at risk" applies because until the FHWA ROD is received, there is no FHWA recommendation of a preferred alternative. Design efforts performed in advance of the ROD are "at risk" of being inconsistent with the FHWA decision. The region has decided this is a worthwhile risk to take in order to expedite delivery of this critical transportation project.

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Sam Merten
Contact: Sam Merten