There have been plenty of Trinity River shindigs in the 10 years since the original vote to approve the project, but no event brought out more big guns than the mayor's Trinity River Corridor Project Summit Friday at City Club. The alphabet-roster of attendees could fill Unfair Park for a week, but the short list included reps from the NTTA, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, TxDOT, FHWA, HNTB and any other acronym you can think of. From the City of Dallas, there was Mayor Tom with City Manager Mary Suhm sitting to his right, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan to her right and Trinity River Project Director Rebecca Dugger to her right. Dave Neumann, chair of the council's Trinity River Committee, snuggled up to Leppert's other side.
Angela Hunt was joined by six council colleagues (Jerry Allen, Tennell Atkins, Elba Garcia, Sheffie Kadane, Linda Koop and Pauline Medrano), and even Bill Ceverha was spotted running around. Dallas County Treasurer Joe Wells (one heck of a nice guy) said he was told it was standing-room-only as he walked in. Wells nabbed a seat, but when Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price showed up an hour late, because he was getting briefed about another failed jail inspection, he had to stand at the door. Apparently, this is going to be a quarterly gathering with the next meeting in April, according to Leppert.
Leppert began the meeting by mentioning a $2-million grant received from the Hoblitzelle Foundation that will go toward improvements for the Moore Gateway Park. He talked about how Dallas would see the fruits of the Trinity River Audubon Center soon. Then it was all about "moving forward aggressively." So let's do just that.
The big announcement was that Leppert wants to shave a year off the timeline for the Trinity Turnpike from 2014 (which was just announced January 8) to 2013. Genius: The city releases a timeline, and then says it will beat it just 10 days later. Let the patting off backs begin.
The Trinity Project is the "poster child for cooperation" and will be "the legacy of the people at the table," Leppert said. The legacy part is a given, although it's yet to be determined just what kind of legacy it will be. As for all the cooperation, Michael Morris of the North Central Texas Council of Governments challenged Leppert to make everyone "throw away their name badges" in order to become more of a cohesive unit.
There were other problems with this whole cooperation song and dance. When former NTTA executive director Jerry Hiebert did his PowerPoint presentation (one of many Friday) to talk about "compressing the timeline" for the Trinity Turnpike, Colonel Christopher Martin said the Corps didn't participate in the timeline and said, "This is the first time I'm seeing it." As Leppert continued to talk over and over again about moving ahead of schedule on the turnpike, Martin said there were "a heck of a lot of unknowns." Martin and Morris also cautioned Leppert about the risk that would be involved with moving ahead of schedule -- alas, without going into specifics.
There seemed to be a lot of finger-pointing, such as, "That is the NTTA's timeline, not ours." While the major players all knew each other, it seemed as though this was the first time all of them were in the same room at the same time. Certainly Martin's comment should be the most troubling. This was the first time he saw the timeline? If this was such a fine example of team building, why wasn't the most important member of the team involved in the process? That's like getting in the huddle and having everyone but the quarterback know what the play is.
At the end of the meeting, council member Angela Hunt was showing reporters copies of timelines provided by the City of Dallas from January 2006, July 2006, January 2007, May 2007 and December 2007. She wasn't happy -- as in, she told Unfair Park, "I'm so pissed off about this."
Hunt has good reasons to be upset. Every once in a while, Rebecca Dugger brings a fancy timeline to the Trinity Committee meetings to show everyone a schedule of when each part of the Trinity Project will begin its design phase, start construction and be completed. An analysis of the timelines provided by Hunt shows a history of these timelines consistently moving forward for each project -- not backward, as Leppert hopes to do.
Perhaps most troubling is the time between construction start and completion has magically shrunk in many cases to keep projected end dates intact. The reason these dates would be manipulated is the same reason Leppert wants to speed up construction on this project: because delays cost money. In fact, Leppert even repeated the $10-million-per-month statement related to delays.
As I outlined previously, the new timeline exposed delays in the project, and Hunt's analysis proves this even further. I won't bore you with all the specifics, but I'll run you through two examples to show you the insanity behind these so-called timelines.
Example 1: The Trinity Turnpike
According to January 2006 and July 2006 timelines: Construction begins in late 2007, ends in early 2013.
January 2007 and May 2007 timelines: Construction begins in late 2008, ends in early 2013.
December 2007 timeline: Construction begins in mid-2010, ends in early 2014.
Example 2: Lakes & River
January 2006 and July 2006 timelines: Construction begins in late 2007, ends in early 2013.
January 2007 and May 2007 timeline: Construction begins in late 2008, ends in early 2013.
December 2007: Construction begins in early 2011, ends in summer 2014.
As you can see in both cases, the construction start dates for the '06 and January and May '07 timelines is delayed one year, but the end date stays the same. Then, in the latest timeline, you see more delays in the construction start date, but the end dates aren't bumped back accordingly.
I wanted to hear what Leppert had to say, but instead I wound up talking with Mary Suhm. "I want to do this as fast as we can, but you also have to understand how complex it is and how many regulations we need to meet," Suhm told Unfair Park.
After looking at the 258-page report by the National Surface Transportation Policy and Revenue Study Commission, I found something interesting. Basically, the report talks a lot about what Mayor Tom is trying to say: Delays cost money, so let's get road projects done faster.
To illustrate this point, they use an example of a $500-million project slated to end in 2011 and have the cost soaring to slightly more than $1 billion if the project is delayed 10 years. How do they get this number? Glad you asked. They used a 7.2 percent yearly inflation rate based on "the average rate of cost increase for highway projects from 2000 to 2006 as measured by the FHWA's Price Trends for Federal-Aid Highway Construction."
So I go to the city's Trinity River Corridor Project Web site and click on "Appendix B -- Capital Cost Estimate." Once there, it's clear the info is way out of date. So I grab the $535-million estimate from March 2003 from page 29 and I'm off.
Now stay with me here. Two things are important to note. Within this document, it is stated that "Basic Phase 1 project costs were escalated to four years into the future" and "cost escalation was assumed at an annual rate of four percent." So, essentially, this should have been the price on March 2007 using a 4-percent inflation rate.
Despite this, let's be nice and assume the $535 million was the price in 2003, and we'll also use the current 7.2 percent inflation rate. This gives a cost of $757,404,199.55 for March of this year, give or take a cent or two. Now Leppert will say nearly $300 million worth of contingencies is built into the $1.3 billion cost. However, "a contingency factor of 20 percent was applied due to the uncertainty of estimating construction costs when a project is still in a very conceptual stage," according to the 2003 city document. And even if you were to look past that $300 million, there's still $250 million unaccounted for. (In case you're wondering, the $535 million wouldn't hit the current cost until 2016, when the 7.2 percent inflation would have it at approximately $1.32 billion.)
Also, the November 2003 cost estimate listed on the same page as the March 2003 one is at $614 million, far more than the 4 percent inflation rate stated on the document. I'm forwarding these cost and delay concerns to Suhm for her response.
One last thing on cost. In Bruce Tomaso's story, he listed the cost of the project at $1.7 billion. This comes as a major shock to anyone following the project cost, because throughout the entire Trinity campaign, Leppert and the Vote No'ers were using $1.3 billion. Of course, Tomaso provided a full explanation as to why the cost soared by $400 million. Oh, wait. He didn't. I'll be asking Suhm about this too.
When Unfair Park previewed the release of the latest timeline, it was mentioned that the design for the Texas Horse Park was scheduled for May. This date was also shown at the meeting on a huge poster. The design was delayed after the Trinity River Committee realized that Texas Horse Park Inc. (THPI), which is responsible for raising $15 million by September, had only come up with slightly more than $300,000.
I wrote that the item should have hit the council agenda January 23, but when the agenda was released and it wasn't on there, I immediately contacted Dave Neumann's office. He never called back. However, I grabbed him just before I talked with Suhm. When asked about where THPI was in the fundraising process, he said, "I don't know."
Neumann said THPI will be coming to the Trinity River Committee in March or April with an update, and then it will go to the council for a vote to move ahead with spending city money on the design. He said the committee doesn't have a target dollar amount THPI needs to come in with. "We're positive about it," he said, "and we think they'll come forward as anticipated."
However, when asked if the committee had a target dollar amount for THPI, Suhm gave Unfair Park a different answer: "Yeah, yeah. Well, it's up to the council members. I don't know what their amount is, but I think if they [THPI] came in there with a couple million, they'd be comfortable."
As chair of the Trinity River Committee, Neumann should be up to speed on this stuff. But I've spoken with members of the park board who know more about the Texas Horse Park than Neumann, and when it comes to other Trinity info, he's lost.
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Suhm also said "the horse park will get done." She challenged me to a bet, and when I asked if she meant they would raise the money by the September deadline, the bet disappeared. However, she said, "They might very well make that date."
Another thing Suhm and I talked about was the $60-million diaphragm walls that the Trinity River Committee was just told were necessary. No one should be getting their undies in a bunch, as she says it's all part of the $300 million in contingencies. Suhm pointed out this was put in place to accommodate these kind of unknown expenditures. Fair enough. Still a noteworthy concern, though, as money keeps getting tacked on to the price.
"You're gonna have a zillion stories because there will be a zillion challenges and problems to get over." Suhm said. "The nice thing for me is having worked on it the length of time I have, I've hit a bunch of road bumps and gotten over 'em, we've gone around them or smoothed them over. We've worked through a bunch of problems, so I know we can."
That's one thing we can definitely agree on: There will be a shitload of problems with this thing. And we'll both be there every step of the way.