As we explore the ideas of tearing down I-345 and redesigning I-30, a 9-mile phantom seems to haunt every conversation: the Trinity Parkway (“parkway” being the euphemism for what is really a tollway). In fact, Rodger Jones, an editorial writer for the Dallas Morning News, has suggested that the real motivation for tearing down I-345 is to reroute enough traffic to make the tolled Trinity Parkway financially feasible. When it’s not inspiring wild conspiracy theories, the Parkway is rattling around City Hall, distracting planning officials and causing an altogether unhealthy number of meetings between city staff and the Army Corps of Engineers and other federal agencies.
The time has come to stop believing in ghosts and embrace the facts before us, here in the 21st century. The Trinity Parkway is dead. It will never be built.
The very concept of the road was a flawed one to begin with. When D Magazine came out in 2005 in favor of the Parkway as an integral part of the larger Trinity River Corridor Project, we were wrong. We’ve since acknowledged the error and here do so again. Putting a road in a floodway was a bad idea. Making it a six-lane, high-speed road and putting it between downtown and the long-neglected natural resource that we are trying to re-engage with just makes the bad idea worse.
Last year, the city hosted an international design competition, spearheaded by the Dallas CityDesign Studio (part of City Hall), to generate ideas about how best to connect downtown with the Trinity River. One of the judges, a renowned urban designer, saw for himself where the Parkway was supposed to run, and he was shocked by how bad the plan was. His suggestion: don’t build it.
That’s the urban planner’s take. If you read between the lines, the federal government seems to agree. Much has been made of the Federal Highway Administration’s final environmental impact statement, released in March, which gives tentative approval for one proposed alignment of the road (carved into the eastern levee). But between the lines, the statement practically oozes incredulity. It refers to the Parkway’s alignment as the “least environmentally damaging alternative,” something that it would not normally approve but will in this instance owing to “a unique set of factors that warrant favoring an alternative with significant and longitudinal encroachments of the Dallas floodway.” One of those unique factors is that the Parkway has been “a prominent aspect of city of Dallas planning for over four decades.” In other words: “This is a bad idea. But for a long time you guys in Dallas have wanted to build a road in the floodway. Forty years of working on this bad idea! So whatever.”
As a side note, it bears noting that the Federal Highway Administration’s environmental impact statement casts doubt on whether Project Pegasus will ever happen. Recall that we were told Pegasus—the redo of the Mixmaster, the Canyon, and Lower Stemmons—desperately needed a reliever route, the Parkway. The feds now say that “deferral of [Pegasus] … due to lack of funding will likely result in its completion after the Trinity Parkway, assuming that it is reactivated in some form.” If there isn’t any money for Pegasus, then it doesn’t need a reliever route.
Finally, there is one last way to know for certain that the Parkway is dead: follow the money. The road was going to be built with funds from the city, the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT), and the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA). Estimates put the cost at somewhere around $1.5 billion. In 1998, Dallas voters approved $84 million in bond funds for the Parkway. So right now we’re about $1.416 billion short.
TxDOT doesn’t have any money. It’s carrying about $14 billion in debt and has thousands of miles of rural roads in immediate need of repair thanks to the heavy rigs rolling all over the state, serving the oil and gas industry. The NTTA, too, is strapped. It has about $10 billion in debt. The Parkway wouldn’t generate enough tolls to pay back investors. The NTTA knows this, but the agency won’t come out and simply state the obvious.
In fact, there are many transportation executives in North Texas who are intimately familiar with how the financing for the Parkway would work—and it doesn’t. They will tell you in private that they know the road will never get built. But in public, on the record, they’re silent. The reason they won’t pronounce the Parkway dead is because the road is no longer about transportation; it’s about politics. They don’t want to wade into those murky, dangerous waters.
When no one will say the obvious, that’s a strong indication we’re operating in a power vacuum. Who runs transportation policy in Dallas? Who makes the final call? Who will tell the public what everyone in private already knows? And why, above all else, is the newspaper still printing ghost stories?