Last month, I began working my way through the master plan for the Trinity River Project, along with maps and drawings showing what lies ahead for the project. Although I’m on the Council’s Trinity River committee, we haven’t been given a primer on the overall scope of this project, and I wanted to fully understand it.
I was very, very disappointed in what I found: This is a roads project.
Yes, you read that right. All those rumors you’ve heard, all those Jim Schutze articles you’ve read, they’re right on the money. The vast majority of the public funds for this project will be spent on a six-lane highway INSIDE the downtown levee. (To be clear, the levees are the little hills that run along both sides of the Trinity River basin.)
So you’re thinking to yourself, why on earth would we put a huge highway — a toll road — inside the levee that is supposed to contain the biggest park in the world? Frankly, I have no idea.
I’ve gotten various explanations about the toll road. Some say we must have a road there or we’ll have traffic problems in Dallas (imagine). Some say I-35 is overwhelmed and must be expanded, and this is the single, best, and only way to do it.
Others offer this explanation: Without the road, we couldn’t pay for the park. Here’s how that theory works. We’ve got to dig out a bunch of dirt to create the man-made lakes. TxDOT needs a bunch of dirt to build up the levee for the road, so they’ll buy that dirt from us, and we’ll basically get the lakes dug out for free. Unfortunately, I have a sneaking suspicion that at the end of the day, TxDOT is going to say that the City was going to dig out the lakes anyway, and we’re lucky that they took all that dirt off our hands, and here’s the bill, thank you.
Up to now, when people have asked me what I think about the Trinity River Project, here’s what I’ve said: Whether I like it, love it, or think it’s the worst project ever, my responsibility as an elected official is to effectuate the will of the voters who approved the Trinity River Project bond in 1998.
So what exactly is the “will” of the voters? I think we can deduce that in two ways. The simplest is to look at what residents wrote on comment sheets and questionnaires the city sent out at the time the project was being developed.
I reviewed all of the comment sheets, and when residents were asked about the most important part of the project, they said “the parks.” When asked what they thought about the transportation part of the project, they stated some variation of “NO HIGHWAY! NO TOLLROAD! THE ROAD WILL RUIN THE PARK!” Often in capital letters. Usually underlined.
Another way we can discern voter intent is to look at what residents ask most about when they want to know what’s going on with the Trinity River project. People ask me all the time, “When is the Trinity River park going to be ready?” “When will we be able to canoe down the lakes?” No one has ever, ever asked me, “When is the huge toll road going to be built?” People want the huge, glorious park that they were sold and that they voted for. People want flood control and protection. People want the lakes, the wetlands, the Great Trinity Forest. No one wants a big stinking toll road with cars whizzing by. If you’ve been down to the Trinity River, say, around Sylvan Avenue, the nice thing about being down in the floodplain is that you’re surrounded by a vast park with green hills on either side. You don’t feel like you’re in the middle of a city. Loud, polluting cars zooming by inside the hill are going to kill that.
I got this bee in my bonnet after the Trinity River committee met today. We were briefed on the North Texas Tollroad Authority’s possible involvement with the tollroad. I voiced exactly what I’ve stated above, and pointed out that I wouldn’t be supporting a highway along the Trinity Park in any way, shape, or form.
The chair of the Committee, Ed Oakley, pointed out that the tollway was a done deal, and I wouldn’t have the opportunity to vote against it; that the only input we have now will be to create a pretty design for the toll road.
As to whether the toll road is a done deal, only time will tell. As to making the toll road pretty, I say that that is putting lipstick on a pig. We can dress up the tollway any way we like. We can coat it in chocolate frosting and put a big red bow on it, and it’s still a toll road right alongside a park.
Who’s bright idea was this?
Last thing I’ll say is this: I’m a skeptic, if not by nature, then profession (attorney). When I see that all of the Trinity River Project comment cards and questionnaires unequivocally stated, in no uncertain terms, that residents didn’t want a tollroad, yet they got one anyway, it makes me very, very uneasy with the current comprehensive plan process. The city claims to be soliciting resident input on the comprehensive plan, but at the end of the day, I really wonder if it’ll make any difference at all. I get the feeling that the fundamentals of that plan, like the Trinity River Project, have already been written in stone, and we’re going to get what we’re going to get. I worry that in a few years, we’re going to be asking ourselves, “Who’s bright idea was this?”