Tuesday, May 28, 2024 May 28, 2024
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Local Government

City Attorney: Intent of Trinity LGC Language Was to Kill the Toll Road

The city attorney says clarification may be needed. But let's also be clear about what is best for the future of the Trinity River.

Next week, the Dallas City Council will get a chance to vet legal documents that would create a new Limited Government Corporation (LGC) to take control of developing, managing, and maintaining a proposed Trinity River park in between the river levees near downtown Dallas. When those documents became public earlier this week, one big question stood out: Why would a public-private entity designed to build recreational amenities along the Trinity floodway include a stipulation that explicitly spelled out its authority to build a toll road — the highway project that has been at the center of decades of heated controversy over the Trinity River Project — as long as it received council approval?

As I wrote earlier this week, that language, as well as seemingly conflicting statements in the documents, seems to create loopholes that would give the LGC the authority to build a highway between the levees at some point in the future. Furthermore, as Jim Schutze now points out, the 1984 transportation law that provides the basis for the creation of the legal entity known as a “Local Government Corporation” explicitly describes such an entity as one that would “encourage donations of right of way for state highways, and donations of funds for preliminary planning and design for those highways” and to provide “a presently unavailable vehicle for private citizens to contribute property and money for the development of roadways.”

But Dallas City Attorney Larry Casto, whose office drafted the documents that would establish the Trinity LGC, said the intent of the language was not to create loopholes that would allow construction of the road down the line, but to make it clear that the LGC could not build any road or receive any federal, state, or regional funding for transportation infrastructure without explicit council approval. 

“The purpose of the LGC is recreational development only,” Casto wrote in an email. “The intent of the language relating to road-building duties is to prohibit the LGC from carrying out any of the City’s transportation functions. The LGC is limited to constructing roadway infrastructure that functions only as internal recreational vehicular and pedestrian accessways and not publicly dedicated rights-of-way, as further clarified in the term sheet.”

Casto added that in light of some of the questions that have been raised around the issue of the LGC’s road-building authority, his office is looking at whether the language needs to be clarified.

“The ‘scope and scale’ of any road necessary for visitors to access recreational features is exactly what the language is intended to limit,” Casto said. “I have directed staff to thoroughly review any modifications to the documents that are necessary to achieve this end.”

The need for clarification and revision of the documents seems clear. A document of this amount of import needs to tie up any ambiguity around potential road building activity. I’m no lawyer, but I’d like to see a separate section that deals with transportation in detail. The LGC should have the authority to build hike and bike trails, but any roads — including park access roads — that will allow automobiles into the floodway should be explicitly limited in scope. A park access road should not be a Mockingbird or Abrams-style six-lane divided boulevard, though, by my reading of the documents, there’s nothing saying the LGC couldn’t build that. The attorney’s office needs to clarify this.

It shouldn’t be difficult. Anyone who has a visited a Texas state park knows that park access roads are simple two-lane paved asphalt roads that are designed to provide access, but mitigate impact, to the natural environment. If an access road must be built in the Trinity, this is all it should ever be. The LGC’s formation docs should make this clear. Too, any vehicular access roads constructed in the floodway should be subject to council approval, which could happen during the design and phasing approval stage laid out in the LGC documents.

Of course, at the end of the day, the City Council can decide to do whatever it wants whenever it wants, and if down the road a City Council voted to amend the LGC’s bylaws to define it as “an organization whose sole purpose for existence is to build a big honking toll road in between the levees,” it can do so. But what needs to happen now is the creation of an entity whose very existence makes it explicit that Dallas is ending the era of the Trinity River toll road, and then, regardless of the public distrust that will always linger around the Trinity River Project, it is time to move forward.

And there are indications that the city is moving forward.

In the Dallas Morning News report on the LGC, Mayor Mike Rawlings said he is open to idea of killing Alternative 3C, the nomenclature for the federally approved design of a big honking toll road in the Trinity floodway. The council is set to vote on a resolution to kill 3C this month.

The LGC also includes many oversight provisions that indicate a sincere desire on behalf of its drafters to ensure that the public-private entity created to steer the future of the Trinity is transparent and has real public oversight. As I wrote earlier in the week, I’d like to see some additions and revisions to the documents to further extend that oversight and broaden the potential effectiveness of the LGC. These include:

  • Allow all council members to nominate LGC board members
  • Grant the City Council power to ratify the LGC’s annual operating and capital budgets
  • Add language that acts as a policy guide to tie the operations of the LGC to land conservation best practices in line with standards set by the National Park Service and Texas Department of Parks and Wildlife
  • Designate some board chairs (voting and ex-officio) for naturalists, biologists, ecologists, environmentalists, etc.
  • Extend the LGC’s scope to the entire Trinity River watershed within the city limits, including the Trinity Forest.

It’s this last omission that I believe is the most glaring error in the LGC. Forget the toll road for a second — it’s a distraction. Let’s think about what we are trying to do in the Trinity River watershed. The LGC, as it is laid out in these documents, seems designed as an entity that can design and build the Michael van Valkenburgh park plan in a strip of floodway nearest to downtown. That’s fine. If this city’s philanthropic community wants to dump hundreds of millions of dollars into transforming the floodway into a manicured, stylized idea of what a wetland should look like (one that may or may not wash away without some pretty heavy and invasive engineering), I suppose there is nothing stopping them.

But I thought this was Dallas. I thought we were supposed to think big in this city, have big ideas, big visions.

Big Things Happen Here, right?

Well, the van Vaalkenburgh plan has a big price tag, but it’s small peanuts thinking. It reflects a lingering mentality that believes that we should “build a park” in the floodway, rather than truly embrace the Trinity River watershed for all its wonderful complication, subtly, and scale.

Dallas has been so focused on the damned road for so long the city has forgotten to get behind a real, big-time vision for what the Trinity River watershed could be. That vision is what we tried to lay out in our Wild Dallas issue. The “Wild Dallas” vision is this: The potential for the Trinity goes so far beyond a big, expensive park downtown. The Trinity River Project should be about unlocking the potential of the largest urban natural preserve in the country — if not the world — by preserving it, gently expanding access to it, and bringing the city’s life to its edges. The LGC should be set up in such a way in which it must take a leading role in developing a vision for the entire Trinity, and not get locked in with blinders, focusing only on the big ticket park. If the LGC doesn’t do that, then what the heck is the point?

If you have some free time today, go drive over one of the bridges crossing the Trinity, take a look at what is down there, and see what the floodway has been doing all by itself over the last few months. It’s overgrown. Shallow pools have formed. Floodwaters have moved dirt, molding little ridges and undulations in the plain. It’s wild, unkempt, and the birds have taken notice. Egrets and heron fish for tadpoles in shallow ponds. Clouds of sparrows waft through tall grasses. The floodway today looks like something approaching the pretty water colors that depict the van Valkenburgh plan, and yet, the city hasn’t spent a dime. The river is slowly returning its man-made, trenched floodplain to something akin to its natural state. All the city needs to do is get out of the way and gently nudge it in the right direction.

A properly designed and defined LGC led by the right people could nudge the Trinity in the right direction. It could add paths, interpretive centers, bird watching blinds, new non-concrete hike and bike trails, science centers, and overlook parks. Rather than spending millions to build steal-fortified ridges next to downtown (something the van Valkenburg plan proposes), that money could be used to hire educators who could to lead school children on interpretative tours along new paths carved sensitively through the Trinity Forest.

It could be used to hire more environmental managers to supplement the city’s grossly understaffed department to monitor, track, and protect the vast and complicated plant and wildlife in the watershed — or, at the very least, make sure the open pit debacle doesn’t happen again. It could fund archaeological studies in the muddy banks of the river and build small museums near the actual dig sites to house artifacts, lead tours, and tell the histories of the peoples who populated these lands before John Neely Bryan arrived.

It could partner with the Perot Museum, Old City Park, Dallas ISD, the Dallas Museum of Art, and other local institutions to create cross-disciplinary programming for children and adults that shows visitors and tourists — but more importantly, the people living in this city — that the river Dallas has ignored for so long nonetheless runs through the very heart of this region’s history and identity.

Dallas can build this kind of Trinity River Project. But first Dallas needs to actually think big — bigger than an expensive park, bigger than the space between the levees, bigger than this city has every had the courage to think before.