Regardless of the $50 million grant that is intended to kick start the development of a new Trinity River Park, the future of the Trinity River Project still revolves around the idea of building a toll road or parkway inside the river’s flood plain. Throughout the long history of the Trinity River Project, that much hasn’t changed.
At first, the rationale was that the construction of a road inside the Trinity River levees was what made funding of the construction of the park possible. In recent years, however, that equation has flipped. Lingering political support for the road is now an albatross around the neck of the park, and struggling efforts to incorporate the design and the funding of the road into the park project continue to delay a long-awaited public works project that was approved, sans road, by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers last year.
Now, even the contractual developer of that road, the North Texas Tollway Authority, is distancing itself from the Trinity road project, according to one member of the NTTA board who spoke to D Magazine but requested to not be named.
In recent months, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has approached the NTTA about its willingness to continue to pursue the Trinity road project now that the road has been reimagined by a team of prominent designers that the mayor assembled last year. According to the NTTA board member, the requirements of building the newly reimagined road fell so far outside the parameters of the tollway authority’s contractual obligation to the city that the NTTA determined it was no longer interested in pursuing the Trinity road project.
“What happened was, without dragging through the long history, our basic contractual obligation is to determine feasibility of the toll road,” the board member said. “Through all of the moving around, that was always our focus. We came to the conclusion that that was not a feasible project and told the mayor. We were always open to conversation, but we are not going to participate going forward.”
The NTTA’s reason, in short, is that the road doesn’t pencil out. And it’s not that the new, meandering road imagined by the mayor’s design team doesn’t make financial sense. Alternative 3C – the huge, multi-lane, high-speed thoroughfare that was approved by the Federal Highway Administration – doesn’t even make sense as a NTTA investment.
The approval of Alternative 3C by the Federal Highway Administration in April 2015 prompted the mayor to launch his effort to rethink the road and its potential impact on the park. It also prompted the NTTA to re-crunch its numbers on the road. According to the board member, the NTTA determined the total potential revenue of the Trinity toll road, over its lifetime, was about $200 million, nowhere near the total cost of the road, which is estimated to be around $1.3 billion. And even if the new vision for the road cut the construction costs, potential toll revenue would also drop.
“That is not feasible under any toll road scenario,” the board member says.
Mayor Mike Rawlings says he has had several conversations with NTTA board chair Kenneth Barr about the feasibility of the road and the NTTA’s ongoing involvement. Rawlings says that he got the impression that the NTTA was still open to continuing the conversation.
“Basically what I was asking them was we have a winnowed down road, a smaller road that everyone feels comfortable with,” Rawlings says. “It is not going to have the ingresses and egresses, it may be a slower speed, and that’s really the nature of that — trying to get ducks in a row. The question was what needs to be done next. He felt like a further design was needed to take it to a 30-percent design.”
Barr did not return a phone call request for comment.
Funding plans for the Trinity road have always been complicated. Most recently, plans to fund the road have included a convoluted tangle of city, state, and regional sources. As early as February 2015, the Dallas Morning News reported that the NTTA was willing to walk away from the project if the Dallas City Council decided not to pursue it.
In October, Rawlings sent a letter to Texas Department of Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff asking for the state highway authority to look at the parkway as part of its CityMAP study. CityMAP is a TxDOT initiative to rethink the configuration of the highways that surround downtown Dallas. It has looked into the removal of I-345, the eastern portion of the downtown highway “ring,” as well as re-routing I-30 around downtown Dallas. When it launched, CityMAP elected to not include the Trinity Parkway in its study. Last month, TxDOT presented a plan to ease north-south congestion on I-35 without adding a single lane of highway. Federal studies have also shown that the Trinity road project would increase traffic on city-center roads.
Rawlings says he wants CityMAP to look at the Trinity Road so that the traffic and congestion issues surrounding the road can be resolved. “I want to see this number issue put to bed for once and for all,” Rawlings says. “I’m getting a lot of people very concerned about the congestion in the city, a lot of work has been done on this road. But if for some reason we don’t need a road, why should the state spend all this money?”
Perhaps there’s another question to ask: regardless of the pressure from those who still want the road and the years of effort that have gone into imagining and re-imagining it, who, exactly, is still willing to spend money on the road?