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The Ultimate Irony: NTTA Sinks Vote No! Print E-mail
by Sam Merten    Mon, Oct 15, 2007, 08:25 AM


When Mayor Leppert and others began the Vote No! campaign with a press conference Sept. 18, the message was clear. Putting the road inside the levees is the cheapest option.

Let’s take a look at why Vote No! says it’s so cheap. First, they compare it with the Industrial Boulevard alternatives and say the cost will rise $300-500 million because of the land and businesses that will need to be purchased. They also say it won’t cost taxpayers anything because the $84 million of city money will be repaid and the rest of the road will be paid with federal, state and North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA) money.

voteno_mailer2.jpgIf you’ve seen Vote No’s mailer, this is the money they say the city will be passing on if the referendum passes in November. The mailer reads, “Don’t let Angela Hunt send more than $1 billion down the river…”

At the end of Vote No’s press conference, Leppert told me he was “comfortable” that the price of the road was $1.2 billion. He also said approximately $1 billion of the cost will be paid by bonds issued by the NTTA and repaid using toll revenue.

With $84 million from the city, approximately $200 million in federal and state funding and roughly a billion coming from the NTTA, the numbers seemed to add up. Even when Leppert added $100 million to his estimate one week later, the numbers still were in line.

However, my problem with making any kind of budget guess or attempting to make any comparisons seemed a bit silly since the road hasn’t been designed yet or approved by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

I asked Leppert to help explain how he could claim the floodway alignment is the most cost effective since there is no final cost. He basically said it would be the cheapest since the City of Dallas is giving away parkland to the NTTA.

When it comes to the funding, the Vote No! campaign has used scare tactics to make people believe parts of the $200 million in federal and state money could be in jeopardy. They haven’t been able to produce any evidence to support this.

The key to the argument that taxpayers will be losing more than $1 billion in funding is the money Leppert has said the NTTA is kicking in. Without a firm commitment, the argument becomes moot.

The one person involved in this whole mess I’ve been dying to talk to for a while is Chris Anderson, project manager with the NTTA. Getting a response from the NTTA was vital to backing up a lot of Vote No’s claims, especially when it came to the approximately $1 billion in funding it was going to provide.

I was finally able to get in touch with Anderson, who told me he preferred to do an email interview to make sure he understood my questions and would have a record of our conversation. Anderson and “various subject matter specialists” answered my questions and then they were checked for accuracy, according to an email.

I have to admit, I was skeptical of what I would get, especially in this format. However, I was pleasantly surprised with how up-front Anderson and the NTTA were in answering most of the questions.

First of all, I was able to get a copy of the Interlocal Agreement (ILA) between the City of Dallas and the NTTA. There seems to be a huge debate as to whether or not to call this the Trinity Parkway or the Trinity Toll Road. Judging from this document, I’m calling it the Trinity Turnpike as it’s referenced as a turnpike project numerous times in the ILA.

The ILA, dated Jan. 1, 1999, was signed by Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan along with Jerry Hiebert, former executive director for the NTTA. Charles Heald, former executive director for TxDOT, also signed it on May 11, 1999.

In order to make it feasible as a turnpike project for the NTTA, the speed limit needed to be changed from 45 mph to 55 mph and it could not provide direct access, according to the ILA. This is how the road turned from a low-speed parkway with direct access into a high-speed toll road without direct park access. Surprisingly, another condition listed was “the turnpike project would be restricted to passenger cars and light trucks only,” but I’ll get to that in a second.

Based these conditions, referred to as section 2 below, the NTTA gave an estimate of what they would contribute to the project.

“Based on the Draft Feasibility Report, and assuming the design features in section 2 above, the Authority estimates that the Trinity Parkway could generate sufficient revenues to support an issuance of $140-150 million of turnpike revenue bonds.”

So between 1999 and now, we’re supposed to believe the NTTA changed its mind from contributing $150 million to approximately $1 billion. What could have changed?

As I mentioned above, the only real change is in ’99, only cars and light trucks were supposed to be using the road and now 18-wheelers will be truckin’ down the Trinity Turnpike. But is that enough to justify an additional $850 million commitment from the NTTA?

No matter how it’s justified, if the NTTA is going to commit a billion dollars, then a deal is a deal, right? Yet there is no deal and there is no commitment. Leppert and the Vote No! campaign have been making threats about funding that doesn’t exist yet.

“It is not possible at this time to state specifically what portion of the project's cost will be assumed by NTTA. A clearer idea of total project costs will only be determined when we substantially complete design work,” the NTTA said. “No decision on the funding of the Trinity Parkway has been made.”   

The NTTA said its actual contribution will be based upon the results of its final investment grade and toll financing study, how robust its system is, if system financing is applied, whether the project will be financed as a stand-alone project and its final partnership agreements.

So the NTTA says not only does it not know what its portion of the cost will be, but it doesn’t know what the total project cost will be until the design work is completed. This has been a question on my mind for a long time. Just how far along is the design process?

“We are currently evaluating eight alternatives under the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA) process. The alternative selected for construction will not occur until environmental clearance is received. Design is roughly at the 35 percent level for all alternatives, in that we are utilizing design criteria to establish horizontal, vertical and hydraulic attributes for all alternatives under assessment. Once the environmental process is completed, a full-scale design of the selected alternative will occur,” the NTTA said.

This explains why the argument made by Vote No! that the floodway alignment is the cheapest is flawed. If the designs for all alternatives are only at 35 percent, there is no way to accurately project the total cost of any of the alternatives, making it difficult if not impossible to make a comparison between any of them.

One of my concerns with the NTTA supposedly committing so much money was the potential impact on toll prices on the rest of the system. Voters in North Dallas who don’t spend time downtown may have a new reason to vote if they drive on the Bush Turnpike and Dallas North Tollway. I asked if the NTTA is expecting to raise tolls on the remaining NTTA structure to help pay for this road.

“That is unknown at this time,” the NTTA said.

How about the claim that the $84 million of City of Dallas money will be reimbursed by the NTTA, essentially making this road free for taxpayers? This is taken from the ILA.

“The Authority is receptive to the City’s request [for reimbursement] and will agree to reimburse the City in an amount based upon the portion of the $84 million the City shall expend on the Trinity Parkway that is not attributable to the cost of right-of-way acquisition, said reimbursement being dependent and conditioned upon a finding that the Trinity Parkway is financially feasible as a turnpike project and being in an amount which, in the reasonable judgment of the City and the Authority, the Authority may reimburse without violating existing repayment obligations or impairing the Authority’s long-term ability to study or undertake other projects. The actual amount of the reimbursement to the City shall be determined in a subsequent agreement between the City, the Authority and, if appropriate, one or more other parties.”

With the amount of reimbursement to be determined in a subsequent agreement, is it accurate to be telling people they’ll be getting their $84 million back? Clearly any reimbursement is up in the air.

In the end, the undoing of Vote No’s strategy regarding funding was done by NTTA, the ones building this road. You gotta love the irony. But wait, there’s more. Let’s talk about the safety of this project.

Sunday’s Dallas Morning News editorial urging voters to vote no addressed the issue of safety, acting as though anyone siding with Angela Hunt and Vote Yes! had lost their mind. In the Vote No! mailer mentioned at the beginning, this was included about flooding.

“Your ‘No’ vote means families will get the critical flood protection they need to protect their homes and neighborhoods -- on schedule without unnecessary delays. The historic rains that fell on our region this spring should serve as a reminder that until this project is completed, parts of our city are at great risk.”

I asked the NTTA to explain the engineering difficulties associated with building a road in a floodway since this has never been done before.

The NTTA said the challenges include maintaining the long-term integrity of the levee system, maintaining the ability of the floodway to convey design floods, maintaining levee integrity and floodway conveyance at all times during construction of the road and maintaining the city and Corps' ability to perform their operations, maintenance and repairs on the levees as well as flood-fighting activities and surveillance.

I also asked if the NTTA received any concerns from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers about putting piers from the road into the levee.

Yes, and we are currently working with the Corps to address those concerns,” the NTTA said.

So while The DMN and Vote No! want you to believe everything is peachy regarding the safety of this road, there are undeniable risks with putting a road inside Dallas’ floodway. The DMN story cites the Corps as saying “building within a floodplain is not unusual.” However, this road is going in a floodway and no one has been able to name another road like this in a floodway anywhere in the country.

“We are not aware of a similar project being constructed,” the NTTA said.

I also asked the NTTA about potential pier work that would be done to existing bridges. I wanted to know if the removal or reconstruction of the existing piers is included in the $1.3 billion cost estimate.

“Assuming the current piers are structurally sound, we do not anticipate that the Trinity Parkway crossing beneath them will require their removal or reconstruction,” the NTTA said.

In response to the bridge collapse in Minnesota, The DMN took a look at bridges in the D-FW area. They even came up with this nice map of area bridges with a sufficiency score of 50 or less. The Minnesota bridge score was 50. On that map, you’ll see three red dots on the Sylvan Bridge, which the Trinity Turnpike will pass under. The bridge has ratings of 39.6, 6 and only 4 near the point where the road will be.

I’m no expert, but with such a poor score, I don’t think it’s a stretch to say it’s not accurate to assume the piers are structurally sound.

Finally, I wanted to get an explanation on the cost difference between the recent addition to the Dallas North Tollway and the proposed floodway alignment.

“It is inaccurate to describe the proposed Trinity Parkway and the newly opened extension of the Dallas North Tollway as ‘nearly the exact same road’ simply because they have a similar length. They are two very different projects,” the NTTA said. “Urban highways typically have higher costs than rural projects, but the traffic demands help justify this.”

This answer, along with many other aspects of the ILA and answers to other questions left me with several follow-ups, which is a flaw of having to communicate via email. However, I’ve forwarded more questions to Chris Anderson and hope even more information will be provided by the NTTA.

At the end of its answer to my extension comparison question, the NTTA once again proved how cost estimates for this project are unclear at this time.

“No final estimate of construction costs has been completed for any of the Trinity Parkway alternatives under review,” the NTTA said.

At the Vote No! press conference, Mayor Leppert said something I’ll never forget.

“One of the challenges is to make sure the people of Dallas understand the issues that are at stake and be able to communicate the basic facts,” Leppert said. “The converse of that is we want to make sure some of the inaccuracies out there, some of the falsehoods, are corrected so that you [the media] and the citizens of Dallas have a good, solid understanding of what this project is and the key elements of that.”

This information from the NTTA, along with everything else that has been uncovered along the way, proves Leppert and the Vote No! campaign have been unable to communicate the facts because they are the ones using inaccuracies and falsehoods in their message. It’s up to the voters to find the facts and if enough of them take the time, Angela Hunt and Vote Yes! won’t have anything to worry about on Nov. 6.


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Comments (16)add comment
written by HSH , October 15, 2007

Excellent reporting Sam. Thank you for doing the work on this issue that the DMN refuses to do. I hope this is picked up and circulated by everyone who reads your work.

written by Branden Helms , October 15, 2007

It was a sad day in 1990 when the Times Herald was purchased by Belo. We have been sitting with only the DMN's account of things for too long. Thanks Sam.

written by dave c. , October 15, 2007

Sam, if you start your own news service I would pay to get it. Thank you for working so hard to get the facts. Thank you for asking the questions the DMN won't. Looks like the pave the Trinity crowd are just making it up as they go along. That explains a lot.

Dallas could be a better city with more informed voters. For too long the DMN has kept it readers in the dark. They may be corrupt or just lazy but whatever the reason the DMN has become completely unreliable. The reporting on this issue is an outrage. So bad that the DMN has gone past being useless (their usual)to being down right dangerous, irresponsible and I would say deceptive.

You may just be the light of one candle but in the dark room that is Dallas you really stand out, Sam.

Thanks again.

written by Donnat , October 15, 2007

Today's weather alert says the Trinity is cresting at certain spots again and will overflow its banks by evening. And still these sad "vote no" folks keep saying we gotta have a toll road in the middle of a floodway.

Who put the LSD in the water supply?

written by Jesse Diaz , October 15, 2007

Dallas LULAC Council 4496 is of the understanding Councilman Dave Neumann is hosting a forum for Mayor Tom Leppert at the Park in the Woods (6801 Mountain Creek Parkway) Recreation Center on Monday, October 29th from 7-9 p.m but is not including anyone from the Trinity Vote Yes campaign.

According to a current blog posting, Councilman Neumann invited Councilwoman Angela Hunt to provide a debate team for the aforementioned forum and she accepted. Then, Councilman Neumann reportedly advised her the forum had changed and it would only be Mayor Leppert.

While our council nor I have yet to take an official position on the Trinity River Referendum vote on November 6th, our council strongly opposes use of City of Dallas taxpayer funded facilities for one-sided forums that do not provide an equal level playing field to both sides on this issue. Furthermore, our council firmly believes hosting a political forum in a city owned recreation center without providing both point of views on this issue to the general public amounts to an illegal use of city property.

Our council would hope the forum at the Park in the Woods Recreation Center will provide both sides on this issue. Failure to do so may provide civil rights organizations such as LULAC and other citizens to exercise their right to conduct protest pickets in front of this and other taxpayer funded facilities while their one-sided political forums take place.

With less than a month to go before the November 6th referendum vote, it does not take a rocket scientist to realize the potential harmful effects negative publicity of this type would have to those who would trample and disrespect Dallas' taxpayers.

Jesse Diaz, President
Dallas LULAC Council 4496
Cellular: 214-228-6778
Email: This e-mail address is being protected from spam bots, you need JavaScript enabled to view it

written by Mike , October 15, 2007

Great work once again, Sam. Thank God for the internet and the bloggers like yourself who give us the facts when the traditional media sources refuse to do so.

written by Pat Cotton , October 15, 2007

Great job, Sam! Thanks for helping us get correct information from experts in the field. This certainly clarifies the speculation offered by the pro-toll road (turnpike) folks. We do not have any reliable or verifiable information on the plans for the park or the toll road (turnpike). We cannot approve these ideas with absolutely no true figures to rely on. Vote yes to keep this crazy toll road out of our park.

written by Dave , October 16, 2007

Oh, sure, great. Add Sam to the likes of Angela Hunt, Avi Adelman, Sharon Boyd, Jesse Diaz, and Jim Schutze. People who claim to be marginalized and advocate big time conspiracy theories when they couldn't work with others to make a positive thing happen for the city even if they HAD an plan ... which they don't. I'm tired of Dallas being held hostage by cranks with marginal social skills who position themselves as champions of the little guy.

written by HSH , October 16, 2007

Dave -- Why not address the reporting? Or is it because you can't make a cogent response to facts so you, too, resort to ad hominem attacks?

This will be the NO strategy for the remainder of the campaign. Mayor Leppert and his PO'd band of bigwigs can't win this on message (although it's debatable whether they even have one) so they GO NEGATIVE. Let the Swift Boating begin.

It won't work this time.

written by Mike , October 16, 2007

Here's what I'm tired of, Dave: Dallas being held hostage by arrogant, greedy, self-serving Dallas Citizens Council fat cats who do not now, never have and never will care a whit about the best interests of this city.

written by East Dallas Eccentric , October 16, 2007

Sorry Dave, the people who signed the petition and are moving to support the removal of a tollway to feed the suburbs are the core (if not the majority) of the informed and active electorate of Dallas.

Nice work, Sam and good observation about the Sylvan Bridge. Does anyone really know what kind of fill, excavating and construction was used when the river's natural course was changed around 70 years ago? Who knows what lies beneath or what the consequences of a throng of trucks traveling over 24 hours per day would do?

written by Quentin , October 16, 2007

Thank you Sam for this informative piece. It's clear that the pro-pavement does not have a concrete plan, despite their claims to the contrary. There are a lot of stars that need to align before the project as advertised can be implemented and that is not being conveyed to voters. Again the powers-that-be are treating us like ignorant children, which is the number one reason I am voting 'Yes', and subsequently saying 'No' to the tollroad.

written by Allen Shaffer , October 16, 2007

Has it occurred to anyone that the Big Cigars downtown don't really care how bad their Vote No! debaters look? My bet is that they've already lined up a judge (ex Dallas City attorney Lindsey maybe?)to throw the vote out once it's counted.

written by cc , October 17, 2007

The rules of politics again trying to swamp the rules of physics.. but that is not possible in the long run.

written by Stan Aten , October 20, 2007

Per Rebecca Dugger, the current cost for the proposed Trinity Tollroad is $1.3 billion dollars (as of July). Back in 2000, NTTA said they could only raise $348 million from selling bonds for the tollroad. If you the city's share of $84 million (less $7 million spent on studies, you come up short about $1 billion dollars which has to be funded by TXDOT or the Federal Govt. TXDOT has already stated that by 2009, they will have no money avaiable to fund new road projects and the Federal Govt. Trust fund for funding Interstate highways will barely cover maintenance costs by 2009.

So, I guess the question to ask is who has a spare billion dollars to fund this flood prone project?

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