Documents contradict claims of toll road 'bait and switch'
11:56 PM CDT on Saturday, August 11, 2007
By BRUCE TOMASO / The Dallas Morning News
Opponents of the Trinity River toll road say city leaders pulled a
fast one nine years ago, promising Dallas voters a beautiful downtown
park and delivering a hideous highway instead.
They accuse the city of a "bait-and-switch," contending that when
voters approved a 1998 bond issue for Trinity River improvements, they
thought they were voting for a "parkway," a sort of Turtle Creek
Boulevard by the river – while what's being planned instead is a
multi-lane, high-speed freeway, something closer in concept to the
Dallas North Tollway.
But a review of city and state documents, court records, news
coverage and campaign materials put out by both sides in the months
before the 1998 bond vote shows clearly that the city intended to build
a tollway inside the levees.
Those records, thousands of pages of them, show that city officials
and state transportation planners thought a major reliever route was
needed to alleviate traffic congestion downtown and along Stemmons
"I can tell you unequivocally and emphatically that we never, ever
misrepresented the nature of what was being proposed. We were proposing
a highway," said former Mayor Ron Kirk, who pushed hard for passage of
the Trinity bonds in 1998.
"In everything we communicated, we made that clear to voters. And the
opponents of this project know that. If they're saying otherwise, it's
A color brochure that Trinity bond supporters mailed to
voters in the spring of 1998 showed sailboats, blue skies, a green park
... but no highway or cars in the park. The text of the brochure,
however, mentioned that the project included "a system of tollroads." A
March 1998 report from the Texas Department of Transportation described the proposed Trinity Parkway as a low-speed road, but
added "some design changes could be necessary" if it were built as a
toll road instead.
Newspaper ads taken out by opponents of the 1998 Trinity bond
proposal show they knew what they were fighting against: an "eight-lane
tollway inside the levee."
But the ballot language for the bond proposal described the planned
road only as "the Trinity Parkway." Critics contend that this was
misleading, particularly because city officials already knew they were
considering a high-speed, multi-lane toll road.
But Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, the driving force behind
a November referendum to kill the toll road, said if anyone's being
disingenuous, it's Mr. Kirk and his allies. She points again and again
to the language on the May 2, 1998, ballot, which described the project
only as the "Trinity Parkway and related street improvements."
"If the people who support this road are so certain that everyone
understood that what was being proposed was a huge, high-speed toll road
with no direct access to the park, then why in the heck wasn't that on
the ballot?" Ms Hunt said.
"If what you intend to build is a high-speed toll road, to describe
that to voters as a 'parkway' – there's something purposefully deceptive
A lawsuit brought by environmentalists in 2000 unsuccessfully sought
to halt the Trinity project on those very grounds. The suit argued that
city leaders had altered the project substantially after voters approved
the 1998 bond issue.
"Bait-and-switch is a perfect description," James Blackburn, the
Houston lawyer who represented the environmentalists, said last week.
"They called it a 'parkway' for a reason. If they had called it a toll
road, it might never have been approved."
The environmentalists lost that argument, however. On Sept. 18, 2001,
state District Judge Anne Ashby ruled in the city's favor, saying the
bond proposition "constitutes a valid contract with the voters."
The Court of Appeals in Dallas upheld the city's position on June 6,
2002. The appellate court ruled that there was no reason a "Trinity
Parkway" couldn't be a multi-lane, high-speed tollway, if that's what
the City Council wanted to build.
"There is nothing in the language of the proposition that defines the
specific number of lanes, speed limit, or configuration," the appellate
court wrote. "Rather, specific parameters are not included, most likely
so that the city would have the needed discretion to define the specific
roadway as all the component parts come together."
In addition to the road, the $246 million bond package called for
construction of a downtown park with lakes; flood-control improvements;
acquisition of hardwood bottomlands south of downtown in the Great
Trinity Forest; and other recreational amenities.
Ms. Hunt said that today, as she goes around talking to voters, "when
I say, 'Do you know they're building a toll road where we're supposed to
have our downtown park?' they look at me in disbelief. They look at me
and say, 'What are you talking about? That's the dumbest idea I've ever
Voters may indeed decide this fall that building the Trinity toll
road is a dumb idea. And many of them thought it was a dumb idea nine
The Trinity bonds were narrowly approved – by fewer than 2,400 votes.
Ten other bond proposals – for things like parks and playgrounds, a new
police headquarters, a fire station, libraries and an animal shelter –
won overwhelming public support.
"One of the major points of public debate back in 1998 was the toll
road," said Craig Holcomb, the former Dallas City Council member who
supported the bond issue and who now leads the group opposing Ms. Hunt's
"People who voted against the Trinity bonds weren't opposed to the
Great Trinity Forest. They weren't opposed to an equestrian center. The
controversy was about the toll road."
The list of documents that identified the Trinity Parkway as a
planned toll road before the May bond vote is a lengthy one:
•The city printed 20,000 booklets (5,000 in Spanish, 15,000 in
English) to distribute to voters in advance of the election. The 18-page
booklet summarized all the propositions on the ballot. The summary of
Proposition 11, the one to authorize the Trinity bonds, described the
proposed Trinity Parkway as "a 6-8 lane reliever route" and said: "This
project is under consideration by the North Texas Tollway Authority for
development as a toll facility."
•On Nov. 5, 1997, the City Council was briefed on "Trinity Corridor
Transportation Improvements." Printed materials for that briefing
discussed options for speeding up construction of the Trinity Parkway by
building it "as a toll facility."
•In the weeks leading up to the election, supporters of the bond
issue mailed out slick color brochures to about 75,000 households,
urging voters to approve the bonds. The brochures could not have
portrayed the Trinity project in more glowing terms. They included
watercolor drawings of sailboats on the downtown lake, a bubbling
fountain, bicyclists, street vendors, a couple in a canoe. (There is
nothing in the drawings that looks anything like a highway.) The
brochures likened the Trinity project to "San Antonio's bustling
Riverwalk ... New York's beautiful Central Park ... Austin's scenic Town
Yet, even this exuberantly flattering brochure made it clear to
anyone who read the text that "a system of tollroads" was part of the
•A political ad purchased by opponents of the Trinity project was
published in The Dallas Morning News on April 28, 1998, four days before
the bond vote. The ad urged voters to reject the bond proposition. One
reason: "Proposed eight-lane tollway inside the levee would increase
•In the 10 months preceding the 1998 bond election, there were at
least 27 news stories, four editorials, two letters to the editor and
two "op-ed" commentaries in The News that described the road as a toll
Both commentaries were written by environmentalists who opposed the
Trinity project. One called the project the "mayor's exorbitant scheme"
and said it included "costly, dangerous, polluting toll roads inside the
levees." The other said, "The construction of an eight-lane tollway
within the levee system ... isn't economically or environmentally
•Jim Schutze, a columnist for the Dallas Observer, wrote a lengthy
story denouncing the Trinity project on Jan. 22, 1998 – 14 weeks before
the election. Today, Mr. Schutze echoes the line of Ms. Hunt's group,
TrinityVote, that what happened back in 1998 was a bait-and-switch – a
phrase he used in an Aug. 2 appearance on KERA-FM (90.1). "This was
presented to people as a park and lakes and sailboats," he told KERA's
But his 1998 story made it clear that he, at least, was aware that
the Trinity bond proposal called for a toll road. In it, he referred to
the role of the North Texas Tollway Authority ("a bunch of road
hucksters hungry for work"). He described the toll road's route and how
it would be built using fill dirt excavated from the riverbed. And he
talked about how financing for the transportation aspect of the Trinity
project was critical to the project's overall completion.
"Without the road money," he wrote, "the river plan doesn't work
Mr. Schutze did not return telephone calls or e-mail messages seeking
his comment for this story.
•Elsewhere, the Observer, on April 23, 1998, described the Trinity
project as "a fetid, mosquito-infested lake in a treeless park bounded
by expressways – all paid for with taxes."
Former Mayor Laura Miller, who succeeded Mr. Kirk in office, was
running for the City Council for the first time in that same May 1998
election. (She would win and go on to represent an Oak Cliff district.)
As a candidate, she opposed the Trinity bond project.
That's because she didn't like the toll road, she said last week.
"We all knew there was a highway in the river bottom," she said. "And
I didn't like anything about it, and I said so loud and clear."
In 2003, as mayor, she led an effort to revamp the toll road design,
making it more environmentally sensitive. The new design, unanimously
adopted by the City Council that December, reduced the number of lanes
and shifted them all to the downtown side of the river, providing
unfettered access to the river park from the Oak Cliff side.
Ms. Miller, now a strong supporter of the Trinity project, said she
is "frustrated and dismayed" by the current efforts of Ms. Hunt and her
supporters to undo that work.
Those who accuse the city of a bait-and-switch often point to a March
1998 study by the Texas Department of Transportation, the "Trinity
Parkway Corridor Major Transportation Investment Study." That thick
document offers a comprehensive look at the city's downtown traffic woes
and transportation needs.
That study does describe the proposed Trinity Parkway as something
akin to what Ms. Hunt's group has in mind – "a lower speed parkway
design rather than a freeway design," with a posted speed limit of 45
mph. (Her referendum would limit any road inside the levees to two lanes
in each direction and a speed limit of 35 mph.)
However, on the next page, the study said: "Some or all of the
Trinity Parkway reliever route could be constructed using toll funding"
– a decision, in fact, that the city had already made by March 1998.
And if that happened, the study said, "some design changes could be
necessary," meaning the road would have to be built as a high-speed,
multi-lane freeway, to move more cars more quickly.
"No one is going to pay a toll to drive 35 miles an hour," Paul
Wageman, chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority, said in an
interview last week.
Ms. Hunt, however, reiterated that if the city wanted to build a
high-speed toll road providing little access to the park, it should have
just said so.
"If that was the case, then that can be stated on the ballot," she
said. "Why not be honest with people?"
Ray Hutchison, who represented the city in the 2000 lawsuit brought
by Mr. Blackburn, said general, even vague, language is common in bond
proposals. (Mr. Hutchison's firm, Vinson & Elkins, also employs Mr.
Kirk, the former mayor.)
"You've got a lot of discretion in the issuance of bonds in how you
frame the proposition," said Mr. Hutchison, a nationally recognized
expert in public finance law.
"But once you frame the proposition, you're stuck with it."
He said, for example, that if the City Council issued bonds "for the
improvement of Main Street between Harwood and Ervay, it couldn't turn
around and use the money for repairs on Elm Street."
But if the proposition just said, "for downtown street improvements,"
the council would have the leeway to use the money where it saw fit.
In the case of the Trinity Parkway, he said, the proposition
intentionally said nothing about what sort of road should be built.
"That is a matter for the City Council to decide."
Planning for what would become the Trinity River project began in
1996. In the summer of that year, Mr. Kirk hosted a summit of state,
local and federal officials to discuss improvements within the river
corridor. The city established a Trinity River Corridor Project
Management Office. Its first director was appointed in January 1997.
By mid-1997, the city was evaluating a comprehensive, $1 billion
plan, devised by the Texas Department of Transportation, to address
downtown traffic woes.
One element of that plan: the nine- to 10-mile-long Trinity Parkway.
As early as that summer, there were public discussions of building
that parkway as a toll road.
The main advantage of that approach, Dallas city officials were told,
was that a toll road could get financed much more quickly, shaving years
off the completion schedule.
With conventional funding, collected in the form of gasoline taxes
and dribbled out annually by the state, design and construction of the
road was expected to take at least 13 years – and probably longer.
Dallas would stand in line, along with other Texas cities, for a share
of that highway money.
But as a toll road, where the tolls paid by motorists help pay back
construction costs, the Trinity parkway could be built in as little as
eight to 10 years, state officials said.
"We're going to have to look at a toll road. It may be the key to
getting things going along the Trinity," Alan Walne, then a Dallas City
Council member, said at a council meeting on Aug. 20, 1997. Three weeks
later, the council unanimously endorsed the state plan, including the
Trinity toll road.
Although a formal contract between the city and the North Texas
Tollway Authority regarding financing of the road wasn't finalized until
January 1999, in principle, the City Council had agreed by the fall of
1997: The Trinity Parkway would be a toll road. That would necessarily
mean a higher speed, and more lanes, and less direct access to the park
than what many environmentalists wanted.
From then on, a high-speed toll road "was always intended to be a
key, integral piece" of the downtown traffic solution, said Timothy
Nesbitt, a project manager in the Dallas district of the Texas
Department of Transportation.
"To claim, 'We didn't know about it, you disguised it' – it was never
Courtesy of the Dallas Morning News, Sunday,
August 12th 2007 Edition
Additional Articles can be found in the Dallas Morning
Return to Trinity Project Home Page on the NDNA Web Site