Getting Answers from the City's Holy Trinity About the Trinity Project

Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm
It's been almost a couple of months since Unfair Park provided a wrap-up of the first installment of the mayor's Trinity River Corridor Project Summit, where the big news was that Mayor Leppert is gonna shave off a year from the competition date for the Trinity Turnpike. All the peeps involved in this project packed City Club to find out that the timeline for the road's completion, which was released just 10 days before the meeting, was changed to 2013 instead of 2014.

In the item, we brought up some concerns about the cost of the road, the timelines for each part of the project and the Texas Horse Park. After the meeting, City Manager Mary Suhm agreed to meet with me to discuss these issues, and I finally was able to sit down with her early last week. She invited Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan and Trinity River Project Director Rebecca Dugger, completing the city's Trinity trinity.

Given my history with Suhm and Dugger, the meeting was filled with plenty of tension and dirty looks. As I walked into Suhm's office, she asked if I was taking over the Trinity beat from Schutze. I assured her that Jim would keep covering the Trinity. "So you two are tag-teaming it?" she asked. Um, no. But for what the threesome had to offer, well, let's jump.

The first issue addressed was cost of the proposed Trinity Turnpike. Suhm said the cost was "likely to go up" but later amended that comment, saying, "A more accurate statement is, it's going to change." Which, of course, leaves the door wide open for the cost going down -- though it's unlikely.

I asked each of them if the $1.29 billion price tag was the most current cost as far as they knew; they all said "yes" and added that they hadn't seen any documents disputing that number. Dugger, though, added that the cost is in "2007 dollars," and it is the same number contained in the Supplemental Draft Environmental Impact Statement, which will be released to the public this summer. She did say that the SDEIS has a cost estimate for 2013 but said, "I don't have those numbers memorized."

In my story from January, I analyzed the most current cost estimates provided on the city's Web site from 2003. Two costs were given: one of $535 million from March and another of $614 million from November. Dugger explained that the number jumped because the road evaluated in March was smaller than the current plan, had lower speeds and wasn't tolled or connected for its entire length. She said the $614 million road was based on the Balanced Vision Plan and was tolled with six lanes throughout.

Since the cost estimate included "a contingency factor of 20 percent" and was "escalated to four years into the future," according to the city document presented to the council in December 2003, I asked if $614 million should have been the cost in December 2007. "I don't know," Dugger said. "I know it had the 20 percent contingencies in it." She stressed that the estimate was given to the city by the North Texas Tollway Authority.

Then I pointed out that even if the $614 million cost was current in 2003 and not 2007 as the document stated, then given the current 7.2 percent inflation rate for road construction (as opposed to the 4 percent rate in the document), the cost would be way off the current cost of $1.3 billion. How off? About $490 million.

"In talking to the NTTA about how they do estimating, they've kind of blown some of their estimates in previous years," Dugger said, "and the NTTA board asked them to go back and revise their methodology about how they estimate."

In other words: Their bad, not ours. Dugger added that a big difference from 2003 is that now the NTTA has added "agency costs" of approximately $275 million, and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers has required diaphragm walls, a 15-foot clearance and moving the road off the levees, all of which have increased the cost.

Of course, it's been Trinity River toll road critics' contention that putting the road in the floodway is making this thing expensive in the first place. Speaking of: We discussed the delays council member and TrinityVote honcho Angela Hunt handed out to reporters back in January, which showed strange trends in the timelines of all aspects of the Trinity Project. To make a long story short, nearly every part of the project has been delayed, and in many cases the construction end dates stay the same when the start dates were delayed.

"The reason we've been bumped is because of the things the Corps is requiring us to do," Dugger said.

Dugger said the Environmental Impact Statement has been delayed because new alternatives were required by the Corps, along with changes in hydraulic modeling and other aspects of the road construction as it relates to building it in a floodway.

As for why the beginning dates are postponed while keeping the end dates intact, Dugger said the NTTA is "looking to expedite parts of the project," such as giving construction incentives and having concurrent contracts on different areas of the project. She used building the part of the road outside the levees and the part inside the levees at the same time as an example. Somehow this complex idea didn't occur to anyone sooner.

Through her comments, it was obvious that building this road in a floodway is causing problems. I asked if the delays in the project were a result of building the road in between the levees. "I dunno," Dugger said.

To which Suhm said, "It might be part of it, but it's certainly not all of it." Suhm went on to say that public policy issues take time, and this is the only project she's been involved with that included the city, county, state and feds. "Surely it's challenging," she said. "The location makes it a challenging project."

Given it's so challenging, why is the city so focused on putting it in the floodway? Suhm said she didn't understand the question. I then rephrased it, saying that since the floodway option was chosen based on cost, then the rising costs of putting it in the floodway negated the cost argument. She quickly said cost was a factor but, "It was the only place for it to go."

Which, again, raised the age-old question: Why not put the thing on Industrial Boulevard? "You can't put it there without tearing up everybody's businesses and cost," Suhm said. "It's not just cost. It's: Does the public want all those businesses torn up. I don't think they do."

Dugger jumped in and emphasized that the city is "taking all options to fruition." Suhm said she doesn't think any part of the project is "one simple thing." That is something upon which everyone can agree.

Finally, I asked for an update about the Texas Horse Park. Dugger said there isn't a briefing scheduled, and Jordan said, "They're [Texas Horse Park Inc.] working on raising the money." Jordan also said THPI was "making contacts with people," and she doesn't know the amount that has been raised so far. Glad to hear everyone is up-to-date on that one at the city level.

I hate to beat a dead horse with the Trinity issue, but what I see here is a complete lack of accountability. Got problems with cost? Blame the NTTA. Got problems with the delays? Blame the Corps. When is the City of Dallas culpable for issues related to a project that is receiving funding from Dallas taxpayers? Got a problem with that? Blame Leppert.


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