Tuesday, May 29, 2012

I Finally Tread There or Why the Trinity Tollroad is a Bad Idea

I have been asked by some readers in person why I haven't written about the proposed Trinity Parkway within the Trinity River Floodway (on the link, I purposely put a proponents website up and will reference that in a minute). I have avoided it because it is a sensitive, highly political subject. One the could effect me personally and/or professionally. But, for reasons that are my own and because reading my posts will allow anyone to see between the lines where I stand, I will discuss them here.

Bottom line, there is nothing right about this project. Nothing. When deciding how I would approach this topic here, I thought the best presentation would be a point-by-point discussion of the major flaws.

For full disclosure, I was a volunteer in the Trinity Vote campaign working to remove this road from the Trinity Park Project. My ideal situation would have been to kill the road altogether, but that was thought to be politically unlikely.

The opening point I want to make is simple and has a wide range of appeal. Why on earth, if you are trying to build a premier recreational park, would you run a high speed road through it? Can you imagine a limited-access highway through Central Park or Prospect Park in New York? Millennium Park in Chicago? Olympic Park in Atlanta? Yellowstone National Park in Wyoming?Or even White Rock Lake here in Dallas? No, of course not. This would ruin the ambient atmosphere that large parks are supposed to generate and provide to the public. When was the last time you specifically can recall going anywhere near a high-speed highway with cars rushing by, without indoor barriers, to relax. The only thing I can think of personally are the firework watchers on July 4th and going to Hurricane Harbor for summer break. Both examples are extreme, because they aren't truly relaxation opportunities. I think the point is made.

The second point features an urban design perspective, and a mistake Dallas is rectifying elsewhere in the city. There are no counterpoints, no rebuttals, no yeah buts, freeways divide the urban landscape. There is a clear delineation between Downtown and Deep Ellum, Downtown and Uptown, Downtown and The Cedars, Downtown and the Industrial/Riverfront Blvd area. Even Knox-Henderson, a singularly defined neighborhood, is clearly divided between east (Henderson St) and west (Knox St). The Trinity Project was supposed to unify, or at least blur the division, between Downtown and the City's only real natural feature. I-35 and the rail lines make a clear division there. In some ways, the Trinity Project is a recognition that freeways divide. Yet, after the bond vote, this project slowly morphed into the one we know today, from a low-speed park access road to a high-speed, limited-access tolled freeway.

Ironically, just a mile away, the city has acknowledged the scar that freeways cause to the urban environment. Klyde Warren Park is a deck park covering Woodall Rogers Freeway with the sole purpose of reuniting that portion of Downtown and Uptown. Yet, the powers-that-be see nothing wrong with running one through a project they call Dallas' Central Park.

Third, this will not relieve Downtown's congestion problem. I have dissected the point before. Paradoxically, this is also the point that likely won the 2007 vote for the folks that wanted the tollroad. Last week, at a DDI membership luncheon, Mayor Mike Rawlings spoke. Recently, he came out for the first time on the issue in support of the road. The day of the luncheon, a Metro section article wrote that some council members who opposed the road brought some things to his attention and he would ask for more information. In referencing that article, he said his stance hadn't changed and asked the audience a question. Earlier that morning, a cattle car turned over, unleashing dozens of cows upon I-35, forcing its closure. He said the only reason he is for the road is for traffic relief and said if the road had been there, the congestion would be lessened. That is a straw mans argument.

First, the direction that was closed would not have been near a point to allow traffic to divert to this road. Second, we know from real world experience that the Induced Traffic Principle will increase traffic on a new road just by being there. The traffic will come just by the increase in the new capacity, causing a temporary, minuscule reduction in congestion on the existing facilities. However, equilibrium will soon be reached on the network where the previous reduction occurred and the existing roadway will just be as crowded as before and the new one will reach a similar point. There are over 40 lanes of freeway surrounding downtown. How can an additional six solve our congestion problem? There has not been a single case anywhere in the world where new roadways solved congestion.

Speaking of never being done before, the fourth point centers around the idea of building in a floodway as virgin territory on this planet. I want to make a distinction on two flood control terms. The Trinity River as is right now is a floodway. It is where a large amount of water is designed to go through in a short amount of time. A floodplain is what most natural rivers are, a place where the banks rise and continue on, going at its own pace, which can be fast or slow. You can build in a floodplain with minimal problems. Many roads do just that. However, a floodway is a much different animal.

Imagine a garden hose. The hose in this case is the floodway. Depending on the pressure, it can be a trickle or a stream. What happens when you put a finger over the opening of the hose, partially reducing the area for the water to vacate the hose? It comes out much faster. That is exactly what is going to happen with this road and exactly the difference between a floodway and floodplain. The road will displace millions upon millions of gallons of water. The only direction for it to go is up and out.

With a floodplain, an obstruction will just cause the water to reroute to another part of the plain. In a floodway, there is no rerouting. It is the finger. The levees will have to be built higher to accommodate the displaced water, but the opening will be narrower. Best practices should be to not reduce flood control capability, right New Orleans?

The fifth point piggybacks off the third and fourth. If we know that congestion is coming, the resulting emissions will have a negative effect in the air and being in the floodway, the water too. I'm not saying engineering can't done to avoid getting most of the runoff into the Trinity River Basin, but anyone who thinks it will be 100% successful in preventing brake dust, oil droppings, tire rubber, etc., from entering the river is naive at best. Our air already violates one of the EPA's benchmarks (ozone). The Trinity is already notorious for its pollution. Is it really in our best interest to make both worse? I would say so, especially if we are trying to make this area a recreational amenity.

Some proponents will say that the reduction in congestion will clean our air, as less cars are idling. I propose this. I can point to any major city on the map and show an example of new roadways failing to relieve congestion. I can point to Vancouver and Toronto as city's that never built a large scale freeway network and therefore who have far fewer congestion problems. I can point to city's like Milwaukee, Portland or San Francisco that tore down freeways and didn't see any increase in congestion. If they can name one city that saw lasting effects of congestion relief from a new or even an expanded freeway corridor, I'll cede that it is possible the Trinity Parkway will accomplish what they say. Until then, I know of no such case study.

The final major point I want to make is how this thing just keeps ballooning in cost. When first proposed in the '90's, the price tag was less than $400 million. When it was redesigned into a limited-access freeway, it was less than $700 million. During the Trinity Vote Campaign, it had just eclipsed $1 billion. As it stands right now, the conservative estimate is $1.4 billion and the maximum range is $1.8 billion. A statistical research paper (I can't remember the author, but can look it up if I am requested) showed that most public works projects, roughly three-quarters, come in over budget. Design isn't finalized, federal approvals haven't come, construction won't happen within a year or two at best. I don't think it is a stretch to conclude this road will exceed two billion.

At $222 million a mile, this would be the highest cost per mile of roadway in the country. What could be built with that money instead? The 27-mile Green Line cost $700 million. Those funds could complete the long sought after Cotton Belt rail line. It could complete the 2030 DART transit plan. Add that to the fact that Dallas is still facing budget issues, it seems that the money is better spent somewhere else. Maybe raise the library's funding to pre-recession levels or restore the street maintenance budget. Now, admittedly, this too is a straw mans argument. The money for this road doesn't exist. It can't be exchanged for something else. But by saying this, I do want to illustrate the priorities of the road backers. "Who cares if a few staffers from each department are fired, we can build a road that will benefit me."

Since roughly only $100 million can be accounted for towards construction, there is a huge funding gap. At the federal level, congress keeps punting the transportation bill down the road because they can't agree what funding is adequate enough to go where. The state just cut $4 billion from schools, I doubt they will find an extra billion laying around. The city just gave their employees a cost of living raise for the first time in four years, I don't think they can finance a huge amount right now.

So how does this thing keep hanging around. If you dig , you'll see the backers are also the ones that would benefit financial, whether real or perceived. Real estate interests along the route want the road. I believe they still cling to a 1960's mode of thinking in that the road will increase the value of their land. It works in a pastoral setting, where a new road allows access. But in the urban core, no new road can increase access. In fact, it can actually decrease the value of the land. Downtown highest land values are the ones furthest away from the freeways. Same thing in Uptown.

Also, there is a lot of money to be made by road builders, designers and engineers. Money that A) they won't get without it and B) money that won't be spent at all. Those folks are the ones pushing for the road. Incidentally, those are also the ones behind the shadowy Citizens Council. Our Mayor also happens to be their representative in the previous Mayor's election. Coincidence?

Now, when looking at proponents arguments, see the first link from road designer HNTB, they almost always include raising the quality of life. If you go by each argument above, how can it do anything but decrease quality of life? If it ruins the appeal of a park, separates the park from the city, adds to the congestion problems, weakens flood control, deteriorates the natural environment and is so costly, where is the upside?


Steve Stofka said...

In the 1950s Philadelphia built the Schuylkill Expressway through Fairmount Park. Now, while this didn't ruin the park absolutely--it is vast--it certainly ruined one of the major amenities (Schuylkill River views) and destroyed another (Chamounix Falls and Lake).

And it was congested from Day 1.

One of the planners involved on the project later said it was the worst mistake he ever made.

Does Dallas really want to repeat that experience?

Branden said...

Sadly Steve, Philly isn't an isolated example. Just about every major city after WWII used a cost/benefit analysis that was narrow in focus. Generally speaking, the cheaper the land, the higher the recommendation. That is why cities with natural waterfronts have freeways right next to them. It was the cheapest option.

It is also why lower-income neighborhoods have tons of freeways in and around them. The land was cheap and it was considered a public benefit.

But one of the frustrating things for me is that we should know that cities across the country are considering measures that either remove freeways from the waterfront or bury them. Why would you repeat a 60 year old mistake that others are trying to solve?