10:42 PM CDT on Saturday, March 21, 2009
By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News
As voters prepared to decide the future of the Trinity toll road in the
fall of 2007, newly elected Mayor Tom Leppert said again and again that he
had been assured by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers that running a toll
road between the Trinity River levees would be safe and cost-efficient.
"The Army Corps of Engineers and TxDOT and NTTA have studied this,"
Leppert told a crowd at the League of Women Voters debate on Sept. 25, 2007.
"They say it is safe. They say it is environmentally sensitive and they say
it is economically viable. ... They are the experts ... and every single one
of them say it's viable and it works, it can be done and there is no reason
not to believe it is [going to be] done.
But for months leading up to the election, the city had been told
repeatedly about concerns regarding the road's route between the levees –
concerns that could affect its cost, safety and potential for ultimate
approval by the corps. And those concerns were never discussed by Leppert
and other toll road backers during the campaign.
Documents released this month as part of a nearly 4,000-page
environmental review of the proposed Trinity Parkway project show that the
corps delivered its concerns in a Feb. 16, 2007, memo. In March, April and
May, city staff met nearly every week to discuss the corps' concerns with
representatives from the state Department of Transportation, the corps and
the North Texas Tollway Authority.
The corps worried that building the road in the levees would jeopardize
the 80-year-old earthen dikes that protect downtown Dallas from floods. It
did not rule the route out, but the corps issued a stern warning that
engineers had to find a way to mitigate those risks. The memo set off months
of meetings by city staff and their partners on the road about how to fix
the problems, according to documents in the environmental review.
Leppert said Friday that he was always honest during the campaign. He
stands by his statement that the corps assured him building the road between
the levees would be safe and cost-efficient. But he said he also told
audiences often that ultimate approval from the corps would have to wait
until the agency saw a near-final design for the road.
"I asked then and I keep asking, 'Is there anything that at this point in
time would keep us from crossing the goal line?' Their answer is no," the
Those same construction concerns have emerged in the last month as
potential problems not just for the toll road but also for the Margaret Hunt
Hill Bridge. The corps continues to say that until more is known about the
soil beneath the levees, it is loath to approve significant construction
there. It fears that water could seep downward along the smooth surface of
the piers or other supports built into ground and eventually flow underneath
the levees, possibly causing them to fail.
The latest plan calls for five concrete walls along the proposed path of
the parkway at a cost of about $45 million, but if the corps deems them
insufficient, that price tag could skyrocket.
Leppert said he met with the deputy commanding general of the corps
Thursday in Washington, D.C., and asked him again about any concerns.
"The reality of it is this: Are there issues that are going to come up?
Yes. But nobody said that it can't be done or that it's unsafe or that you
will never get there. Nobody in the know has ever said that."
Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt is the one council member who has
opposed the Trinity toll road from the beginning. She said she thinks the
mayor's sales efforts in 2007 got ahead of the facts.
"The mayor is a salesman," Hunt said. "I was there, telling him the corps
had not approved this thing. He knew that what he was saying was not
accurate. But I think he believed he could make it accurate, given some
time. He sincerely believed this project would win approval and that, a year
down the road, everything would be just fine."
Kevin Craig, the Trinity project director for the corps in Dallas, was
with Leppert at the Thursday meeting in Washington. He said the corps has
worked closely with the NTTA and the city for years on the project and never
said the road couldn't be built. But he was equally clear that it has never
said its approval is certain.
"We helped brainstorm different ideas about how to remediate the road's
impacts to the levees," Craig said. "But that certainly has always been done
with the understanding that any kind of approval would be dependent on
geotechnical analysis. So we would never have been in a position – then or
now – to give some sort of green light until we saw designs and technical
data that show the road is not injurious to the levee system."
"Even yesterday, we said to the mayor that we are committed to working
with you to identify solutions, and we are committed to that. But we can't
approve anything at this point. I can't say we've come across anything at
this point to which we could say absolutely no or absolutely yes."
The Feb. 16, 2007, memo from the corps said it was worried that the road
and its ramps would cross the levees in five spots, creating five areas
where water could seep into the ground near the piers and eventually travel
under the levees themselves, potentially causing them to fail.
In the months following the corps' memo, ideas for how to address these
concerns ranged from building up to five new bridges – with spans as long as
about 550 feet – to building a series of concrete walls 100 feet deep into
the bedrock at each of the five crossings.
Last week, Trinity River Corridor Project manager Rebecca Dugger, an
engineer with the city, said the bridges option was rejected because of the
complex engineering required and big price tag, then estimated at about $190
"It would have been like having to build five new Calatrava bridges," she
said, referring to their engineering complexity.
On May 7, 2007, the interagency group briefly discussed moving the road
out of the levees altogether and running a tunnel beneath Industrial
Boulevard as a way around the problems. But NTTA quickly ruled that option
out, saying the cost could reach $5 billion
The minutes from these meetings of the Trinity Parkway's geotechnical
team included in this month's environmental report show that discussion of
the other options persisted well into the spring, even as the city was
talking down Hunt's efforts to win enough signatures on a petition to force
a vote on the project that fall.
The group finally decided on what seems to be the least expensive option
– building the five concrete walls at a cost of about $45 million total.
NTTA project director Dan Chapman said this past week that those costs
were included in the cost estimates used during the campaign, but he
conceded that none of the group could have known at the time whether the
corps would ultimately sign off on the approach.
The worst-case scenario then was the same outcome project engineers are
worried about today. The corps may decide that inserting new concrete walls
into the levees will increase the risk of flood. If so, it could require
that the walls be extended for nearly 10 miles – at a cost that could reach
hundreds of millions of dollars or more.
The city knew about these issues in the summer and fall of 2007, as the
campaign heated up.
Former City Council member Craig Holcomb, another leader of the pro-toll
road campaign, said that he had not known specifics about the need for
concrete diaphragm walls during the campaign, but that providing too many
details would have distracted voters.
"If we wanted, we could have bored the public to tears with all the
details, both positive and negative, but if you do that, they quit
listening," Holcomb said. "The fact is if questions were asked, we answered
"Part of the problem we had – on my side of the table – is that if I were
to bring up diaphragm walls – and at that point I didn't know about those
specifically – well, typically in most forums you get two or three minutes
to talk, and definitely only get two or three minutes to get the people
energized about the project."
The disclosure that there were concrete concerns about the parkway's
route through the levees voiced well before the election – but not addressed
in detail during the campaign – has disappointed some voters.
"In hindsight, I do not think that the city leaders were truthful or as
open as they should have been about engineering issues and costs," said
North Lakewood resident Lee Carter, who said he voted against the referendum
to block the roadway precisely because he wanted to strengthen the hand of
Leppert, who was newly elected and had taken a lead role in pushing the toll
He now says that not enough tough questions were asked – by officials or
by the media – and that city officials labeled parkway opponents as cranks.
For now, Hunt hopes the fight over the toll road is over soon. "This is
the demise of the Trinity Parkway, but its corpse is still warm. I hope we
can move on," she said.
Other council members – including Deputy Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway and
Mitchell Rasansky – declined to predict the death of the parkway, but said
the council will ask more questions about other routes. Both men supported
the toll road in 2007, and now say they should have been told more about the
The Federal Highway Administration is still studying a total of eight
possible routes, though some of those have already been ruled out by the
corps. Public comments are being accepted until May 15, and a hearing will
be held May 5.
But Leppert said talk of other options is badly premature.
"I am just not one to throw my hands up and say we can't do it," he said.
"The city has looked at all these other options for years. Frankly, if there
was a better solution [than building in the levees] we would have taken it a
long time ago, gladly."
Courtesy of the Dallas Morning News, Sunday, March 22nd 2009 Edition
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