Controversial Trinity toll road squeaks by voters…BIG MONEY wins again

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Dallas voters endorse Trinity toll road
November 6, 2007
By BRUCE TOMASO / The Dallas Morning News
The Trinity toll road lives.

With all but a handful of Dallas precincts counted late Tuesday, a ballot measure to kill the high-speed highway inside the Trinity River levees was losing by a 53-47 margin.

The vote means the city’s Trinity River project, an ambitious plan to transform the barren river corridor, will proceed as planned. In addition to the highway, the project includes increased flood protection, a downtown park and other recreational amenities.

Proposition 1 would have forbidden construction of any road inside the river levees unless that road were four or fewer lanes, had a speed limit of 35 mph or less, and provided direct access to the riverside park.

The language was written expressly to kill plans by the city and the North Texas Tollway Authority to build a high-speed toll road inside the levees.

The Trinity toll road – officially known, much to the chagrin of its opponents, as the Trinity Parkway – would run from U.S. 175 southeast of downtown Dallas to where State Highway 183 branches off from the Stemmons Freeway near Texas Stadium.

The road is envisioned by its designers as a reliever route to help ease congestion along Stemmons and in the freeways that meet in the Canyon and Mixmaster along the southern edge of downtown. State highway planners have said that construction of a reliever route is necessary if work is to proceed on a $1 billion project to untangle the Canyon and Mixmaster.

Nothing in Proposition 1 would prohibit construction of a reliever highway elsewhere. Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, who led the fight to kill the Trinity road, said she was not against building a high-speed toll road; she was just against building it next to the downtown park that is planned inside the river levees.

At the McKinney Avenue Contemporary theater, where Ms. Hunt was gathered with about 150 supporters, the crowd was taking the early vote numbers in stride.

Former Dallas City Council member Craig Holcomb, a staunch supporter of the Trinity project as currently conceived, called the early totals “a great sign.”

Supporters of the road argued that no good alternative routes existed. The best of a bad lot, they say, would be to run the highway along where Industrial Boulevard and Irving Boulevard are today.

That alignment would require the displacement of more than 230 existing businesses, according to the North Texas Tollway Authority.

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and others said acquisition of those business properties through condemnation would result in lengthy and costly litigation with property owners. The NTTA estimates that building the toll road along Industrial would cost at least $300 million more than building it inside the river levees, where the right or way is unobstructed and already owned by the city.

But none of those arguments were persuasive to those who simply thought it foolish to build a toll road next to a park.

Ms. Hunt often joked in debates that she didn’t know of anyone who wanted to have a picnic next to the Dallas North Tollway. Former mayoral candidate Sam Coats, another opponent of the Trinity Parkway, said at one debate that by voting yes, Dallas residents could send this message to the power structure: “You’re not going to screw up this park by putting a tollway in it.”

Until a year ago, the Trinity toll road hadn’t figured in a public conversation, and certainly not a heated one, in a long time. Voters had approved a Trinity road – albeit narrowly – as part of a 1998 bond issue. The proposal withstood several rounds of lawsuits by environmentalists. And in 2003, the Dallas City Council unanimously adopted what became the working design for the toll road – four lanes where it would pass through the central city, six lanes elsewhere, all of them on the downtown side of the river corridor.

Planning along those lines was proceeding – perhaps agonizingly slowly, but without controversy.

Then along came Ms. Hunt, an energetic young trial lawyer with a knack for asking questions and little patience for ambiguous answers.

After her election in 2005, Ms. Hunt was appointed by Mayor Laura Miller to the City Council’s Trinity River Project Committee. As Ms. Hunt tells it, as she attended committee meetings, she grew increasingly frustrated by the lack of precise information from the city staff on the costs and timetable for completion of the Trinity project.

In particular, she said, she grew concerned that the cost of the toll road was spiraling out of control – it’s now $1.3 billion and climbing – while other aspects of the Trinity project, notably the downtown park, remained woefully underfinanced.

The final straw, for her, came last November. That was when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informed the city that the toll road would encroach farther into the park. In the wake of the Katrina disaster, the Corps had grown leery of the city’s plans to build the road into the side of the levee – the Corps’ engineers wanted it moved so it didn’t touch the levee at all.

That realignment would reduce the size of the downtown park by more than 40 acres.

Ms. Hunt said enough.

In March, she announced that she would lead a campaign to let voters decide whether to keep or scrap the toll road. In June, she and volunteers from the group she’d started, TrinityVote, turned in boxes of signed petitions to the city secretary.

Ms. Hunt needed 48,000 valid signatures to force her measure onto the ballot. More than 52,000 names that she turned in were validated, and on Aug. 15, the City Council reluctantly approved placing Proposition 1 on the ballot.

The election pitted Ms. Hunt against the mayor and many prominent civic and business organizations. All 14 of her fellow council members opposed her referendum. So did the entire county commissioners court, the entire North Texas congressional delegation, and every Chamber of Commerce in the city. When making his first council committee appointments as the new mayor, Mr. Leppert made a point to exclude Ms. Hunt from the Trinity River committee.

Former Mayor Ron Kirk opposed the anti-tollway measure. So did former Mayor Miller. So did Ed Oakley, the former council member who ran against Mr. Leppert for mayor. So did Veletta Forsythe Lill, Ms. Hunt’s predecessor as the councilwoman from District 14 and her onetime political mentor.

Her opponents raised and spent far more money. The Dallas Citizens Council, representing the leaders of the city’s most prominent businesses, gave $200,000 to the Vote No campaign, by far the largest single donation to either side.

None of that seemed to faze Ms. Hunt. From the beginning, she reveled in portraying the TrinityVote campaign as a populist one, in which the little guy would have his say, no matter what the downtown suits thought about it.

“There are some politicians who want to pave the Trinity,” she said on the day TrinityVote turned in its petitions. “But as of today, that decision is no longer in their hands. … They’ll get a chance to vote on this at the polls like everybody else. But their vote won’t carry any more weight than yours.”