A Blueprint for a Trinity Park We Can Use Today

The following op-ed originally appeared in the June 10, 2011 edition of The Dallas Morning News.

In 1998, Dallas voters embraced a bold, visionary plan to transform the Trinity River floodway into a vibrant urban park. But 13 years later, a torturous federal approval process combined with a significant funding gap have conspired to stop the project in its tracks. Add to that the recent revelations that local and federal officials were less than forthcoming about the Trinity toll road’s viability during the 2007 referendum, and it’s not an overstatement to say the public has lost faith in the Trinity River project.

We can reclaim this project and win back the public’s trust, but only if we’re willing to change the way we do things at Dallas City Hall. The grander, long-term vision for the Trinity park is incredible, but it’s still years away. We must give the public a Trinity park they can enjoy today, and we must do it as quickly and as inexpensively as possible. That means no high-paid consultants; no elaborate, full-scale models and enticing watercolor pictures; and — most importantly — no multiyear timelines. Continue reading

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Deja Vu All Over Again: Toll Road Continues to Slow Down Critical Levee Improvements

Sunday’s Dallas Morning News featured an article by Michael Lindenberger titled “Analysis:  Dallas’ crucial levees only weakened amid debate on park, toll road.”

Well, no, actually the park debate (by which I assume the DMN means the referendum to remove the toll road from the floodway) did not slow, even by a day, improvements to our levee system or lack thereof.  But let’s set that aside for a bit.

Perhaps the more important question is:  Is the fact that critical levee improvements have been hijacked by the Trinity Toll Road actually news to anyone who’s been following this issue?

Let me take you back over a year ago, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informed the city that our levees were rated “unacceptable” under the new federal standards.   The day after that announcement, the council voted to fund a study to determine the extent of the failures and plan for remediation.  It was crystal clear then (and frankly, before then) that the city’s insistence on intertwining the levee improvements with the toll road had slowed flood control improvements for years.  Take a look at the council meeting beginning at 01:59 where I point out that the mayor and council’s fixation on placing the toll road within the floodway has hopelessly intertwined the toll road with the levee improvements, thus grinding critical flood control measures to a halt.  That were it not for the toll road’s interminable delays, we could move forward on much-needed levee improvements.

That’s not news over a year later.  What’s news is that the mayor, city council, and city manager still refuse to acknowledge this reality and sever the two projects.  We can move forward on our levee improvements if we have the political will to put the safety of our residents ahead of this toll road.

In his article, Lindenberger states without attribution or explanation, “[I]n 2007, council member Angela Hunt led a referendum aimed at preventing a toll road from being built within the levees, citing worries about costs and impact on the parks. Things came to a halt again.”

Absolutely not true.  Take a look at 02:27.  No one at the city, NTTA or Corps ever stated that the referendum was slowing down their “progress” (or lack thereof) on flood control matters.  To the contrary; city staff was adamant that the project was proceeding full-speed ahead, despite the referendum.

So I challenge Michael Lindenberger to back up his statement that the referendum delayed much-needed levee improvements by even one day.  What particular aspect of the levee project “came to a halt”?  At what point did flood control plans halt due to the referendum and later resume and who made those decisions?  What evidence exists to support this unsubstantiated claim?

Aside from this clearly erroneous assertion, there is no news in this article.  The city has known for decades that our levees are in critical condition.  The mayor, council, and city manager have known for years that by interlocking the toll road with levee improvements we are irresponsibly and interminably delaying flood control safety.

Recently, city staff estimated that bringing our levees up to federal standards will cost somewhere in the range of $50 to $150 million.  Right now, $46 million remains of the 1998 bond funds allocated to the toll road.

What will be news is when the mayor and council decide to actually put flood control safety first and not just talk about it — when the city finally decides to cut its losses on the failed, unfunded, and unapproved toll road and shift that $46 million to critically-needed levee improvements.  That will be news.

City Should Use Trinity Toll Road Money to Fund Levee Study

Today the city council decided to take $4.75 million from Trinity Park bond funds to pay for a federally-required levee study. I voted against this and instead proposed that we use Trinity Toll Road bond money to pay for the study.

The toll road isn’t going to happen. The NTTA has said they are more than a billion dollars short in funding for the road. There are no “buckets of money” to dip into that the mayor once proclaimed were lying around for the road. The NTTA has also said that due to its current project commitments, it wouldn’t even be able to consider any other projects for five years. So, realistically speaking, the toll road is dead.

So if the toll road is dead, and the park is still viable, why on earth would we divert funds from the park instead of the toll road? We must move forward on flood safety improvements, so there’s no question we need to fund the federal levee study, and quickly. But take the money from a project that is clearly stalled, and let us get going on some park improvements that we can enjoy now.

Here’s a wrap-up of some recent news articles about the Trinity Toll Road: Continue reading

Good Houston Chronicle Op-Ed about Court Decision Against Corps

There was an interesting op-ed in the Houston Chronicle today about the recent federal court decision in New Orleans against the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.   The authors of Catastrophe in the Making: The Engineering of Katrina and the Disasters of Tomorrow argue against so-called “economic development” projects designed at the expense of the environment.  Good advice as the Corps considers the Trinity Toll Road:

At the center of the lawsuit is a shipping channel — the Mississippi River Gulf Outlet, or “Mister Go.” New Orleans sits 120 river miles from the Gulf of Mexico, and Mister Go was intended to provide a 75-mile long channel, straight to the Gulf.

Building Mister Go was a massive effort, moving more dirt than did building the Panama Canal. Politicians called it the “key to the region’s economic future,” providing a busy outlet for commerce.

Local critics predicted that, instead, it would be an inlet for marsh-killing salt water….

Unfortunately, while the flood concerns were largely on-target, the economic claims were not. Mister Go never delivered the boon it promised. What it did deliver, with every high tide and every storm, was salt water. That killed plants in formerly healthy wetlands. Once the plants died, soil would slump into the channel, after which we taxpayers would pay to dredge it again….

In hindsight, it all seems implausible. Unfortunately, it’s not just plausible — it’s being repeated all across the country. New developments in California sit below sea level and atop fault lines. In Missouri, strip malls and industrial parks have paved over floodplains. In North Carolina, tax dollars help speculators build expensive homes on fragile barrier islands.

That’s how the Growth Machine works. Ignoring environmental warnings and promising great economic rewards, a small number of speculators push projects that usually don’t help the economy and that, in the most severe cases, can actually destroy lives, costing billions of dollars.

That’s also the real significance of the judge’s decision in New Orleans: When politicians support economic growth at the expense of the environmental systems that protect and support us, we need to know that they may be talking about a kind of growth that we probably can’t afford.

We owe it to ourselves to learn that lesson before we fall for the same empty promises again.

How Katrina Court Decision May Affect Trinity Project

Last week, a U.S. federal court judge slapped the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers up one side and down the other for its part in the Katrina tragedy.  Citing the Corps’ “monumental negligence,” Judge Duval berated the Corps for focusing on waterway improvements to satisfy the needs of commercial shipping interests rather than ensuring flood control safety for New Orleans residents:

[T]he needs of the maritime industry were a substantial focus for the Corps activities as concerned the [Mississippi River-Gulf Outlet project].  At the same time, however, the safety of the citizenry of the metropolitan New Orleans area was another of its charges….The tension as to which client’s needs were more important plays a decisive role in this tragedy….[T]he Corps clearly took the position that its primary mission was to keep the shipping channel open to deep draft traffic regardless of the consequences.

As the Corps reviews and considers Dallas’ Trinity Toll Road and bridges, this significant court decision underscores the Corps’ responsibility to place the safety of Dallas residents first.  A tension exists in Dallas, as it did in New Orleans, between transportation desires and levee safety.  This court decision leaves no doubt that safety must be paramount.

Today’s Dallas Morning News has a good story by Michael Lindenberger about the effect that the federal court decision may have on Dallas’ Trinity River Project:

The corps made big mistakes over the years leading up to Katrina, said University of Texas at Dallas President David E. Daniel, a civil engineer who was chairman of a national panel of civil engineers who reviewed the failure of the levees.[Daniel] said it’s easy for residents, in both Dallas and New Orleans, to overlook a potential for disaster. Catastrophe isn’t always the first thing Dallas residents think of when they view the usually docile Trinity River.“But I can speak to another parallel [between the situation here and in New Orleans],” he said. “Even in New Orleans these devastating hurricanes of the Katrina type are extraordinarily rare. Decades go by with nothing particularly serious happening. It lulls you into a false sense of security, until that extreme event hits.”

“The corps did not place the health and safety of the public at the top of their agenda,” Daniel said Monday. “Their designs were not safe enough. So we certainly would hope that they are being more deliberate now.”…

 

Trinity Toll Road Update

Just a few updates on the Trinity Toll Road, for those playing along at home:

First up, excerpts from Michael Lindenberger’s article in the Dallas Morning News, “U.S. postpones decision on Trinity toll road to evaluate levee problems”:

Problems with the Trinity River levees have prompted the Federal Highway Administration to postpone a decision about where to build the controversial Trinity toll road….The agency will take until April or May reviewing how the levees’ problems could affect the toll road’s cost or environmental impact….On the toll road, [FHWA Texas Division Chief Janice] Brown said, the FHWA will weigh any additional costs associated with putting the road between the levees when it issues its final decision….”Additional costs will be a factor,” Brown said. “But we don’t yet know how much more the road will cost as a result of the levees.” If costs for building the road between the levees become too high, that could prompt the agency to order the route changed or cancel it altogether.

The FHWA’s new study comes after the agency spent years evaluating the toll road’s alternative routes as part of its draft environmental impact statement….

Once the new report is issued, the FHWA will open a period of public comment – a lengthy process that requires the agency and its partners, including the North Texas Tollway Authority, to respond to every comment related to the proposed toll road. Such responses can take months, or longer, depending on their volume and complexity. Continue reading

So NOW Can We Move Forward on Plan B?

On Monday, the Mayor held a press conference, flanked by Senator Hutchison and Congresswoman Johnson, to deftly spin the sorry state of our levees into a positive, uplifting tale called “The Path Forward.”

Here’s what happened: Dallas has got this man-made channel of greenspace called a “floodway” where all the run-off water in the city goes. If it goes down into a storm drain, it ends up in the Trinity Floodway. The floodway has these earthen mounds running along it — levees — that are intended to keep that water in the channel and prevent it from breaking through or topping over, resulting in injury to people and property.

Since Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the arm of the federal government that inspects levees — has come up with new standards to try to avoid another Katrina-like catastrophe. As a result of their revised standards, the Corps recently gave Dallas’ levees an “unacceptable” rating. That’s a failing grade in Corps-ese. The consequence is that the city has to fix the levees to meet the Corps’ new standards. Continue reading