About Air and Water

Monday, July 30, 2007

Trinity road in Trinity Park going to voters

Barring legal challenges, voters will decide in November whether to keep highway in Trinity corridor project plans

By BRUCE TOMASO - The Dallas Morning News - Monday, July 30, 2007

Opponents of a toll road inside the Trinity River levees collected enough signatures to force a November vote on the project, the Dallas city secretary said Sunday night.

Supporters of the toll road say it's needed to alleviate downtown traffic congestion. They say it's been approved already not just by those 1998 bond voters, but also by the City Council in 2003. And they say that scrapping the road would further delay other aspects of the Trinity project.

Ms. Hunt's group had 60 days to collect about 48,000 valid signatures from registered voters who live in Dallas. TrinityVote turned in more than 80,000 signatures on June 29. By law, City Secretary Deborah Watkins had until Sunday to certify whether a sufficient number of those were valid.

Mr. Holcomb said his group "will take a little bit of time to look the petitions over," but suggested that a legal challenge to Ms. Watkins' certification was unlikely. "Our focus will be on November," he said.

If approved by voters, the referendum would ban construction inside the levees of any road that's more than two lanes in each direction and has a speed limit of more than 35 mph.

The practical effect would be to kill the currently conceived Trinity toll road, which is envisioned as a high-speed, multi-lane highway. The road would run about nine miles, from U.S. Highway 175 south of downtown to the confluence of Interstate 35E and State Highway 183 to the north.

Seeking a new alignment for such a highway outside the levees would be prohibitively expensive, and acquiring the land to build it would take years, according to Mr. Holcomb and several downtown business groups.

A roadway inside the levees has been a part of the Trinity River project from Day One. But the size, configuration, cost and purpose of that road have long been matters of deep dispute.

In the Trinity plan first approved by the City Council shortly after the 1998 bond vote, the highway would have been divided with four southbound lanes on the Oak Cliff side of the river and four northbound lanes on the downtown side.

In 2003, at the urging of then-Mayor Laura Miller, the City Council revised the plan, coming up with a new version that council members said was much more environmentally friendly: All lanes were moved to the downtown side, providing unrestricted access to the downtown park from the Oak Cliff side. The road was reduced from eight lanes overall to six north of Continental Avenue and four south of there (with room to expand to six later.)

But the kinder, gentler version would still provide limited access to the riverside park; its chief function would be to whisk cars past downtown, alleviating congestion on Stemmons Freeway and other existing roads.

Ms. Hunt was elected to the City Council in 2005 from District 14, which includes parts of downtown, Uptown, East Dallas and Oak Lawn. She was appointed by Ms. Miller to the council's Trinity River committee and eventually came to question the cost of the road, which has escalated considerably, to almost $1 billion.

She said she reached her breaking point on the subject of the toll road early this year, when city staff informed the Trinity River committee that the road would have to be moved closer to the river — farther in from the levees — because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, in the post-Katrina era, was concerned about protecting the integrity of those levees.

This would mean less park. It would also mean that those enjoying the park by the river's edge would be closer to the traffic noise from the tollway.

"This, to me, has just become a bloated project, a dangerous project," she said at the time. "Costs keep going up. Green space shrinks."

She announced plans to launch the petition drive shortly thereafter.

In talking with constituents, she said, she learned that many of them didn't know that when they voted for the bonds, they were voting for a toll road in their downtown park. The 1998 ballot measure, in describing the road, mentioned only "the Trinity Parkway and related street improvements."

However, news stories around the time of the 1998 bond vote clearly described the proposed road as a toll road. An advertisement taken out by environmental groups and others in The Dallas Morning News in April 1998 urged people to vote against the bonds, in part because the project included a "proposed eight-lane tollway inside the levee."

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