Forget the new Michael Van Valkenburgh Trinity River Park designs, the Trinity River Parkway, arguments over congestion, road speeds and meandering, Dream Teams of designers, and all the other stuff we’ve been batting back-and-forth during the 18 months since the Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration issued their records of decision on the Trinity River Project.
We could have broken ground on the Trinity River Park last April, give or take a few weeks or months.
That’s because when the Corps of Engineers approved the floodway modifications that were part of the City of Dallas’ Balanced Vision Plan for the Trinity River they approved two versions of the project. One included the controversial road. Another one didn’t.
This may be old news, but it feels like the full import of what that means was lost in the squabbling that ensued after the public got a good look at Alternative 3C, the version of the Trinity toll road the Federal Highway Administration approved around the same time as the Corps approved the floodway modifications.
Let’s recap. Back in April 2015, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers made its “Record of Decision” on the Dallas Floodway Project, aka the Trinity River Project. Two thirty-five percent designs of the Balanced Vision Plan were prepared by the City of Dallas and submitted to the corps, one that analyzed how a toll road would impact flood control, another that left the road out. The city – and the corps – wanted to make sure the park could be built with or without the road. After all, no one has ever been completely sure how – and when – the city will be able to afford its toll road.
The corps approved both plans. Around the same time, The Federal Highway Administration made its Record of Decision on the Alternative 3C of the Trinity Toll road. When everyone saw the high-speed road and all its flyovers and entrance ramps, they were shocked. Was Dallas really going to build that big thing in the long-promised Trinity River Park?
Enter Larry Beasley, the urban planner who wrangled together a “Dream Team” of designers to cool fears and offer a new vision for a meandering parkway that would offer access to the park and kill all those flyovers in Alternative 3C. That kick-started a year’s worth of design work and rethinking around the Trinity River Project, culminating in the announcement a few weeks ago that $50 million has been committed to help build out a new vision of the Trinity River Park. That vision exists in watercolors and as a big model at city hall that has been used to pitch the thing potential donors.
Critics of the new plan have questioned whether a complete redesign of the Trinity River Park – even if it will only impact a relatively small section of the floodway, from the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge to the Continental Pedestrian Bridge – will trigger the need to restart the environmental impact approval process with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Re-start is a little too strong a word, says Jim Frisinger, a spokesperson for the corps based in their Fort Worth office. Now that the floodway modifications included in the Balanced Vision Plan have been approved, Frisinger says the corps will work with the city to figure out how any changes to those plans will impact flood control. There are limits to what can be changed, Frisinger says, but without seeing any real engineering plans from the city, there is no way to know whether the new design would trigger those limits.
“A model is not an engineering plan, it is a concept,” Frisinger said. “But everyone in the room is aware that there are limitations, even if we are still at an early stage.”
But why are we at an early stage? The 35-percent designs of the Balanced Vision Plan (and in engineering, 35-percent complete includes a substantial level of detail) include a plan for a Trinity River Park that has many of the things that are being emphasized in the new design, such as restored wetlands, paths, and small, low-impact access roads and parking areas that allow greater access to the floodway. Furthermore, those park amenities could be phased-in over time as funding becomes available, or omitted altogether if they no longer make sense. For example, to get the park, we don’t have to build the lakes, or the urban plazas, or other amenities that might negatively impact the native ecology of the floodway.
And funding is available. The 1998 bond election set aside $11 million for the construction of the Trinity lakes and $36 million for the construction of the earthen “bench” that the toll road is supposed to sit on. Scrape the lakes and the toll road from the already-approved plan for the park, and we have $47 million ready to spend on making the rest of the park – the wetlands, the access points, the restored native landscaping and ecological remediation.
Then there is that $50 million that has been generously committed by the Annette Simmons for the park. That’s nearly $100 million to spend on a park that we could start building today.
But that won’t happen. Why? Well, for one reason, we have a new plan for the park now, one for which we will have to spend a chunk of that $50 million to design to the point at which the corps can weigh-in on whether or not it will fall within the already approved framework of floodway modifications.
So why are we starting over? Two reasons, says Mayor Mike Rawlings. The first:
“Everyone had made fun of the old park,” Rawlings says. “I didn’t like us trying to fight nature as opposed to using nature to make a great a park.”
Rawlings does have a point here – we did all make fun of the park, especially in the weeks and months after the corps approved it and the FHWA approve the big, honking Alternative 3C toll road. But what we were making fun of were the jugglers and the urban plazas and all the watercolors that made the Balanced Vision Plan look silly. Those pretty pictures were the smoke and mirrors that were being used to make us look away from the enormous road imagined in Alternative 3C. The joke — to spell it out — was that we were being promised all these silly, bizarre urban amenities that had nothing to do with parks, or with nature, or with the reality of the Trinity River or its native ecology in order to justify a big, stinky road running through the park.
But if you kill the road – and erase some of the sillier amenities — suddenly the Balanced Vision Plan, as depicted in the 35-percent designs, looks like a way to begin to restore the native ecology of the Trinity River.
But then, that’s exactly the problem. Even if it wasn’t mentioned in the unveiling of the $50 million gift for the park, the road, Rawlings admits, is still the thing that is holding up the construction of the parks.
Last month, Rawlings wrote a letter to Texas Department of Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff requesting that TxDOT include the Trinity Parkway project in TxDOT’s ongoing CityMAP study of the Dallas roadway system. CityMAP is the planning initiative that has looked at possibly removing I-345 and re-routing I-30 around downtown Dallas. It didn’t initially elect to study the Trinity Parkway, and TxDOT has since unveiled a plan to ease congestion on I-35 without adding a single lane. Also, federal studies have shown that the Trinity road will increase traffic on other roads.
Still, Rawlings says he has seen too many conflicting traffic studies conducted on the Trinity Parkway. He is looking to CityMAP to set the record straight, once and for all, on whether or not the Trinity Parkway will in any way impact downtown congestion. He says he has yet to receive a formal response to his request from Vandergriff.
“In my mind we need a road,” Rawlings says. “What type of road, we are going to put that to bed with the CityMAP issues. I think we are going to need that bench.”
In other words, this is still all about the road.