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Government

How We Can Finally Kill the Trinity River Toll Road

Why we are still fighting over it at all?
By Eric Celeste |
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Sometimes Dale Foster drags a chair to the top of the Trinity River levee, just west of downtown. From there, if he squints, he can see the future. In his mind’s eye is a lovely urban oasis: parks, trails, trees, and water. It’s a vision filled with bike riders, families, joggers. Not just young urbanites; it’s also sprinkled with people like him, men and women of a certain age who find themselves drawn to the city’s core. That’s why Foster and his development partners have purchased all the property between the Design District and the Lew Sterrett Justice Center, 40 acres of it: to build a walkable neighborhood that integrates with the long-proposed riverside parkland. He’ll sit in his chair smoking a cigar, sipping a scotch, lost in the dream of a $1 billion development he sees as the next step in Dallas’ urban transformation.

Of course, Foster and his partners bought the land because they want to make money. (Specifically, it is the area boxed by Continental Avenue to the north, Stemmons Freeway to the east, the Union Pacific rail line to the south, and the Trinity River’s east levee.) But if you listen to him for long, if you watch Foster trace the grassy paths that residents would walk to the river, you recognize him as one of the new breed of developers. These are people who’ve married the idea of making money with building modern, connected, walkable communities.

“What we want to build here,” Foster says, “is a true European-style neighborhood. Something seamlessly connected to the river and the neighborhoods around it.”

It’s a lovely vision. It is currently, however, a hopeless vision, one destined to fail. Because Foster’s modern urban landscape won’t be realized if a six-lane, high-speed toll road is built between it and the river.

Foster has to be careful with how he acknowledges this fact. He has been told in no uncertain terms—not by any current city officials, mind you; by powerful city leaders, nonetheless—that if he wants to see his development even on a smaller scale, he needs to get onboard with the Trinity River toll road.

If you’ve been paying attention to the news, this probably comes as a surprise. Because if the Trinity toll road isn’t dead, it’s barely functioning on life support. You’ve heard that the $1.5 billion or so needed to build it isn’t available from previously identified regional/state/federal sources. True. You may have read that many influential people and entities—previous champions of the road—have now publicly said the toll road is a bad idea. True. Perhaps you even saw TV news footage of the mock New Orleans-style funeral held in its honor. True, and funny. 

But none of that means the toll road is dead. Numerous players in this drama—developers, council members, state legislators, activists, City Hall insiders—have told me the same thing: while logic and enlightened thinking say the plug should be pulled, others are taking extraordinary measures to keep the toll road gasping for breath.

Who are the others? They are: Mary Suhm, the somehow still powerful former city manager (aka the power broker); Michael Morris, the director of transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments (aka the road lover); and John Scovell, CEO of Woodbine Development Corporation (aka the business guy). There are other public champions, but these are the folks who matter. These are the people who’ve tied their legacy to seeing this toll road completed, who paint those who’ve turned against it as “traitorous bastards,” to quote one such Dallas businessman. What makes them so stubborn and this fight so personal? 

Simple: their hunger for legacy.

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The Trinity River plan traces its origins back more than two decades, to when urban highways were still seen as an incontrovertible force for good. At the time, we didn’t understand two important things about transportation engineering. First, more highways lead to more traffic, not less. (The concept of induced demand—basically, if you double the number of lanes of a highway, you’ll simply double the traffic—has been recently proven by studies from the University of Toronto and Aalborg University in Denmark.) And, second, highways from the city center actually choke development around them, causing flight from a city’s core. (A Brown University study showed that cities lose 18 percent of their urban population for every new highway. They take people from the urban core; they don’t lead people into it.) 

Dallas is trying to retrofit its neighborhoods to deal with these realities for many reasons, not least of all because the youngest and smartest of our number today are driving less and demand it. From 2001 to 2009, per-person miles driven fell 2 percent among those 56 and older; 11 percent among those 31 to 55; and 25 percent among those 16 to 30.

Against that seismic shift, you have the two-decade-plus fight over the Trinity River Plan and a toll road that seems no closer to getting built than when it was first dreamed up. Former city councilwoman Angela Hunt foretold this. Five years ago, she wrote an essay that looked into the future. It began: “It’s 2014. Under Mayor Tom Leppert’s plan, the Trinity toll road should have opened last year, but its construction hasn’t even begun.” She closed the essay calling for city leaders to kill the toll road and complete the flood control and park aspects of the plan. 

An increasing number of voices, including the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects, have also said the toll road doesn’t fit with the Balanced Vision Plan. In fact, Alex Krieger, a professor at the Harvard University Graduate School of Design and co-author of the Balanced Vision Plan, told me he wants to apologize to the city for how the plan was taken over by toll road advocates. I spoke with him in early September, a few days before he was scheduled to come to Dallas for a transportation summit. 

“A parkway that makes the Trinity more accessible is a good idea,” he said. “A fricking highway is not the thing to do. We were all duped a bit. It’s clear now that the traffic folks nodded as we showed them the Balanced Vision Plan, but they were just waiting for us to get out of town.”

So why, then, would some people today still say that killing it is impossible? Because of a desire for legacy. A big, tangible, concrete legacy. And because a few of these toll road supporters just aren’t going to admit they were wrong and Hunt was right. Put Scovell in that latter camp. In the business community, no one holds more sway over toll road sentiment than the highly emotional developer.

As for the legacy angle, there are two people whose careers are tied to this project. Behind the scenes the past several weeks, Suhm and Morris have led a barnstorming tour of Dallas. They are twisting arms, trying to convince business leaders that we still need the toll road. Suhm didn’t respond to my interview requests, but I’m told that one point she and Morris stress is that voters approved the road. The wishes of the public must be respected, no matter the funding struggles, no matter what the urban planners and architects and developers say.

This is accurate without being true.
Voters shot down a referendum on the toll road in 2007 only after they were told the entire project would die without the road. Few people today believe that’s the case, which is why you now hear folks like Mayor Mike Rawlings (parroting Morris) offer new, confounding reasons why the road must be built. In August, Rawlings said we need the toll road because people in Pleasant Grove need to get to the new Parkland Hospital. Voters were misled in other ways, too. They were told the toll road would only be four lanes instead of six, and backers’ claims that the Army Corps of Engineers had signed off on the road alignment between the levees turned out to be a mischaracterization of the Corps’ position. Besides, as noted, 2007 notions are largely irrelevant. The city has changed dramatically in the seven years since the referendum, and market forces now align with the naysayers. 

Wick Allison, the chairman of D Magazine Partners and a longtime toll road advocate, recently said that he was wrong and Hunt was right. Now Allison feels so strongly about this stance (as well as about the need for aggressive, modern urban planning citywide) that he has been working to convince politicians and business leaders that killing the toll road is the first step in a series of sweeping changes that Dallas must make.  

But how does he convince them, besides hammering them with data? Well, one thing he doesn’t do is tell people, “Angela Hunt was right.” Those in the Scovell camp get stubborn when it comes to admitting that Hunt was right. (That aversion also applies to current council members Philip Kingston and Scott Griggs.) As one Dallas developer (not Foster) told me: “When I realized this parkway had really become a horrible toll road, I thought, ‘Oh, Lord, no. I’m on Angela Hunt’s side? How is this possible?’ ”

It’s possible because the facts on the ground have changed. The market has caught up with Hunt’s projection. Now big developers like Jack Matthews and Phil Romano, both poised to invest millions in the urbanization of the city, have said publicly or privately that they see the toll road as a hindrance to development, not a help. 

So how would one go about killing the toll road once and for all? That’s a difficult question to answer. Someone could raise money for another referendum. Good luck convincing that someone to do it. 

Maybe a referendum isn’t needed. The mayor has said that the toll road can be built with state money. But some state legislators are quietly discussing filing several bills to eliminate potential funding sources. That still wouldn’t kill it, though. Suhm and Morris have been telling people that they don’t have to raise all the money for the toll road right away. The buzzword they’re using is “phases.” The toll road could be built a little bit at a time. And once it gets started, the thinking goes, it won’t ever go away.

The best hope to stop the toll road is probably the May citywide election. The southern Dallas council members are aligned in a bloc supporting the toll road, because they argue it offers relief for their constituents who must drive north to find jobs. It’s a compelling and, as Google Maps shows, flawed argument. There are plenty of connections northward for people who want to bypass the city. The toll road cheerleaders on the Council are dug in, though; a vote to kill it wouldn’t pass. But if a slate of candidates were backed for those seats, candidates who understood how bad urban planning hurts the entire city, southern sector included, then the toll road starts to look vulnerable. “We’re vetting candidates right now,” one City Hall insider told me.

There are other possibilities. The North Texas Tollway Authority doesn’t want any part of the toll road, because its officials know that the numbers don’t work. If they overcame their reluctance to get involved in a political fight and just shared what they know about financing, that would help. 

But Dale Foster can’t wait around for the NTTA to change how it operates or for legislation to get passed in Austin. He has 40 acres to develop. So he’s trying to square the vision of the toll road’s cheerleaders—more cars, more speed, more noise—with his notion of a park-lined village. And no matter how hard he squints, he just can’t see it.

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