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Money Questions Pop Up in Dallas’ Bond-Funded Plan to Add a 50-Mile Trail Loop

Get this thing built!
By Shawn Shinneman |

Back in 2017, when voters were mulling over a bond package they would eventually pass with flying colors, one difficult-to-argue portion involved trails. Specifically, the city’s 50-mile, paved loop around Dallas. Improved mobility? Better connections between neighborhoods? New stuff to look at while struggling through exercise? Sign us up. Sign us up. Sign us up.

And all that was to come for a paltry $20 million—paltry at least in the context of the $1 billion bond package, and with the knowledge that the trail overall was to cost $43 million. The county, the North Texas Council of Governments, and the Circuit Trail Conservancy is to provide the rest. When CTC Executive Director Philip Hiatt Haigh was on EarBurner recently, he said 38.5 miles of the trail is already built. Dallas’ portion helps connect the rest; the bond was to pay for three links through water or roads and stretch the trail more than eight miles. It would extend from White Rock Lake down to the Great Trinity Forest in southern Dallas. That portion of the trail, denoted by the red squiggly in the photo above, is called the Trinity Forest Spine.

“I was under the impression that all this was secured,” said Councilwoman Jennifer Staubach Gates on Monday, meaning the money. “But it’s not, is what you’re saying.”

Gates and others on the Quality of Life, Arts & Culture Committee sat for a briefing on the project’s progress, where they eventually learned, after a little digging, that The Loop will cost a bit more than originally anticipated. The city is now considering shifting course and working with the Army Cops of Engineers, which would likely be able to build that stretch at a cheaper price under a single contract to perform both design and construction work.

But talks with the Corps are preliminary, according to Parks Director Willis Winters. When Councilman Mark Clayton, of District 9 near White Rock, asked Winters whether the Trinity Forest Spine would be completed if it didn’t work out with the organization, Winters took an excruciatingly long pause, staring at the monitor and tapping his fingers.

“That doesn’t sound like a yes,” Clayton said finally.

“The issue that we’re dealing with is that the cost estimates are coming in high, higher than when we put them together before the bond program,” Winters said. The Corps of Engineers idea could make the money stretch.

But with the city-funded portion of the trail twisting south, Clayton is worried it will end up forgotten. He wanted to be sure that “if we’re talking through a lens of equity in the city, and that’s the theme of the day, that we’re thinking all the way through it and we’re not just building because the folks that are the most connected say this will make my area better and the people who have the least amount of voice and rely on the city the most are ignored.” When he was assured that all parties were committed to making The Loop a full loop, Clayton added, “I’ve been down here long enough to know how it works.”

The Trinity Forest Spine is not the only part of the project that is suddenly a question mark. The city also now expects to have to find additional money for the Trinity Skyline Trail Links, a cost Winters estimated at $2 million or $3 million.

Haigh added on a phone call today that all four of the city projects came in over the cost estimates in the bond package. The organization is now pursuing additional funds in the form of everything from federal grants to private donors. He said the estimates given for the old plan “just aren’t realistic in today’s landscape.” But he wouldn’t provide a funding goal or an amount of money the city is short, because various dollar amounts will—obviously—equate to the quality of the trails.

“If we had $100 million, we could build a $100 million trail system,” he said.

Haigh also pushed back on Clayton’s notion that a part of the project might not be completed. “For a trail project, one that goes down to the Trinity Forest …. is by far the sexiest project that we’re doing.”

Although he attended the briefing, Haigh was a mere observer Monday and didn’t get a chance to speak that reassurance to the committee. And what it heard instead wasn’t particularly comforting for Council members Gates and Clayton, as well as Uptown and Downtown Councilman Philip Kingston.

“We were told this was a completed loop, that if we put $20 million in the 2017 bond package, it would be done and it would be done quickly,” said Kingston. “So, today’s presentation is alarming and disappointing in terms of completion and timeframe.”

The timeframe currently has the city completing part of the Trinity Forest Spine in late 2021, with completion of the piece stretching from the Lawnview DART Station to Elam Road and AT&T Trail TBD. Haigh said on the podcast that they’d like to have it all done in five years.

These are concerns to be considered down the line, as the city formulates how it will connect this thing. The City Council will take up the points of the deal later this month, on February 27.

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