Thursday, June 7, 2012

Continuing the Debate on the Trinity Parkway

Imagine my surprise when I checked the stats this morning and found the Transportation Blog was a referring site to my post. After clicking on it, the Transportation Writer for the Dallas Morning News, Michael Lindenberger, checked the anti-tollroad Facebook Group and saw a link to my post. In it, he looked at the six points I made in the first Trinity Parkway post and made counterpoints of his own.

At the beginning, he notes that the Kill the Trinity group only has 400 members, indicating a lack of support for or against.

The road has been in the news a lot lately, and with some significant doubts raised by Hunt and two of her colleagues. But that hasn’t done much to mobilize the troops. Over on Facebook’s Kill the Trinity Toll Road, just 404 members had ‘liked’ the page. That’s not many.

Maybe most voters have accepted the road, or just feel like it will never be built no matter what anyone says — not an entirely unreasonable response given the years in regulatory roadblocks. Or maybe the opponents just don’t think Facebook is the best forum to express their views.

I would caution against using Facebook as a metric for gaging support. I purposely do not have a Facebook page, as does another 20% of my age range. Also, some people don't use Facebook for anything other than social uses. For some, voting in 2007 was a civic duty and made an opinion on what was presented, and joining a Facebrook Group about the Parkway isn't on the radar. There might be many more reasons, but whichever it is, I just don't think Facebook makes for an accurate polling sample.

On my first point about building a high-speed road in a park, Lindenberger says there isn't a problem because parks are just one aspect of the plan.

I think the answer the city would give, incidentally, is that building the park is just one part of the plan for making use of the massively underutilized acreage that makes up the Trinity River floodway. Indeed, NTTA cites an argument — and I think you’d forgiven if the adjective cynical appeared in your mind about now — that because the road was part of the plan for the use of the land for as long as the parks were part of the plan, it’s not possible to say that the road interferes with the parks. Indeed, since the park doesn’t exist, how can the toll road be charged with interfering with a plan that is no more realized than the plan for the road itself.

Thankfully, he attributes this to the city and not himself, because I think this answer misses the forest for the trees. This answer is almost like this is how we've always done it, so there is nothing wrong. My point is that as far as parks go, it should be an either/or deal. Parks and high speed roads are not complimentary.

Also missing was that this road has morphed from a park access road with speed limits under 45 and no freeway design. It would have been similar to any street. However, over time it turned into what we know. I did extensive research and this is an old idea. The idea of turning the Trinity Floodway into a high-speed roadway has been around since the 1960's. This just reeks of bait-and-switch.

Freeway revolts were really a major concern not just locally, but across the country. A popular tactic was to include parks in the project, whether to win a vote or to gain community support, because it was widely believed the public would get behind these proposals for the parks. Largely, it worked. To me, this seems exactly the same tactic, only with the road being sold as something else to voters.

Lindenberger then takes me to task (partially) on the freeway dividing the urban areas point.

That’s a hard one to swallow if you ask me. I mean, the north and south fo the city are divided alright — but it’s the river and the vast, vacant floodway that does the dividing, not a new six-lane highway within that natural barrier.

Of course, the if his point is that the road will divide downtown from the recreational areas planned for the floodway, or from the river itself, he may be on firmer ground. (Turns out, that’s exactly the point he is making, as he makes clear in a more recent post. You can read it here to decide whether you buy it.)

This is the hardest of his points for me to understand. Walk along Main from Downtown to Deep Ellum and tell me that section between the two urban areas isn't divided, isn't clearly delineated and, sadly, isolated from each other. What urban features are here between the two? No office, no residential, no retail, no restaurant, no park, etc. On top of that, high-speed freeway entrance/exit ramps aren't exactly pedestrian amenities, and neither is the high-speed-designed streets linking the two.

Even moving to a place like Akard and Woodall Rogers, which has no direct entrance/exit ramps, the lack of a continuous urban environment makes either side of the freeway an edge of both their respective urban areas. Indeed, both of their edges require several blocks before the urban area picks up activity. Now, shift the focus to Main and Akard. That area, the center of downtown, draws activity in all directions. The mix of uses encourages activity at all hours of the day. Areas near freeways can not say the same.

Now make that comparison to any street intersection with a freeway. Why is there no activity at any of them? Even Dealey Plaza, with its tourist attractions allowing all-hours activity, there is zero spillover to the other side.

Yes, as he says, the river is a divider, as is any river. But, go to established cities without freeways ruining the waterfront, and see that city activity can go right to the edge. It is a contributing asset to the local neighborhood, much like the other mixed uses mentioned two paragraphs ago. Freeways not only do not encourage pedestrian activity, they suppress it.

I made the point above to also illustrate the point that it will divide downtown from the park. If he agrees with me on the second paragraph, then there has to be at least some recognition that freeways are dividers. What is the difference between Downtown being divided from the park and Downtown being divided from Deep Ellum?

Unsurprisingly, the idea of congestion is harder to digest.

Here’s one I’m hoping to hear some feedback on. He writes that a new road won’t ease congestion in downtown. His point, interestingly, isn’t that the road, as designed, won’t reach the right people and therefore offer only limited relief — an argument others have made, including Hunt, and council members Sandy Greyson and Scott Griggs.

His point is bolder. He writes, “There has not been a single case anywhere in the world where new roadways solved congestion.”

That’s a subtle enough rhetorical switch that I almost missed it, but his prediction that it won’t “solve” congestion is probably inarguable. But will it ease it? Wil it make it better, and if so by how much and for how long?

Those the questions that need to be asked, and answered. Then we can turn to asking whether those benefits are worth the costs.

I take this stance because it is true, not because it is politically palpable. Hunt, Griggs and Greyson have to say the road is a bad route because in this part of the country, saying freeways are bad is not a popular way to win majority support (I don't want to put words in their mouth, a couple of them may truly believe that only the routing is wrong). Instead, more people can relate to the argument that design is bad, but freeways themselves are useful. And they are. It is just that we have designed them wrong and put them in the wrong place.

Interstate highways were originally planned only to go to the cities edge, leaving the cities themselves intact. Whether this was for cost considerations or actual urban concern, I don't know. However, the cities themselves wanted the freeways. Some, like some that I profiled, have seen their mistakes after the fact.

But back to my point. How will six lanes have any meaningful impact, not only in congestion relief, but in the smaller idea of congestion reduction? Of course, without an understanding of Induced Traffic, it is easy to make the case that traffic is based on a linear supply-and demand relationship, rather than one based on a more complex idea of human behavior.

The thought on the surface is this: adding the Trinity Parkway will increase capacity in downtown by six percent. But much of that capacity will be absorbed right away, just by the addition alone. Some of that will be blunted by being a tolled facility, but as long as the region primarily isn't, the Induced Traffic Principle will apply.

My offer still stands. If anyone can find one example of a freeway construction/expansion that provided long-term traffic relief, I will rescind the point and never oppose the Parkway again. However, I know that won't be the case , so the point is moot.

The flood control point is agreeable to both sides. Lindenberger also added that the Corps and NTTA agree with me.

Environmental was glossed over, but that is hard to argue too. Autos pollute. There is a river there. The Trinity will get polluted.

He does take me to task on the cost, and wins, but only because I was sloppy.

Truth is, we published the cost estimate of $1.29 billion as far back as 2007, including in the page one piece I wrote about the outcome of the election. And the current estimate isn’t a range between $1.4 billion and $1.8 billion. The estimate is $1.4 billion in today’s dollars, but $1.8 billion if you allow for inflation between now and when the construction would begin, sometime in 2016 at the earliest.

Also, the 28-mile Green Line cost $1.8 billion, not $700 million. (And incidentally, it carries on an average about 10,000 people back and forth to work, or wherever, each weekday.)

But these quibbles aside, I don’t think any one will argue with his prediction that the real cost would be $2 billion or more by the time the project gets underway — despite the fact project after project has come in under estimate in recent years as the economic slowdown has made competition for big projects especially fierce.

In my defense, (EXCUSE ALERT) I originally published the post in title form without a body, it wasn't typed yet. I did this late at night. Post like this can take a few hours to write, fact check, proofread and polish. Since I made that blunder, I couldn't do what I usually do and finish it up the next day after time runs out (right now, it is getting late and I will only type a few more sentences, then resume tomorrow). So, the numbers I quoted were from memory, some right, some wrong, and some not in the right context.

Here's what I wrote.

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.

Taking my Trinity Project folder off the shelf, here's what my notes say.

1998 - $398 million (

2005 - Total transportation component of project, $908 million (D Magazine Special Report, 2005). This was one of the problems the Trinity Vote Campaign raised. The cost of the road was never truly known, at least publicly. How much of the transportation project was for the Calatrava Bridges, Industrial Blvd (now Riverfront), miscellaneous street improvements and the tollroad? Also frustrating for some folks was the allocation of the costs. Phase 1 was to include flood protection (13.93% of the total budget), environmental restoration (4.74%), parks (7.22%) and community development (.09%), the transportation component took the most, by far (74.03%). Getting an itemized breakdown was near impossible. If the Trinity Vote Campaign accomplished anything, it was the unburying of the tollroad's cost.

2007 - According to a handout by Michael Morris, Transportation Director at the North Central Texas Council of Governments, at an October 29, 2007 Town Hall Meeting at Park in the Woods Recreation Center, the Parkway was on the ledger for $937.6 million.

Using the numbers Lindenberger provided (1.29 billion), in the span from one of the last community meetings listed above until shortly after the election, the cost had already risen by $300 million. If we account for inflation, the 1998 total would be $561.8 million. Yes some projects have gone down during the recession, but this one is still nowhere near close, so saying that it could go under in unlikely. Also given the fact that a high-speed roadway in a floodway has never been done, I just have my suspicions that under-budget won't be an adjective if this project were to ever get off the ground.

As for the Green Line, he is correct on the total costs. I recalled the amount the Federal Government pledged, $700 million. Using a cost per mile, the Green Line comes out to a little over $60 million a mile. The Parkway is still, using current estimates, $222 million a mile. I have no doubt that will not stay that low.
The last point he made, and the last I want to touch on is quite a bit more esoteric. Who is pushing for the road? When the Stemmons family donated the land that the current Trinity River runs when the levees were built and the channel moved and straightened, one condition was to make the channel usable for transportation. At the time, it was intended for barge shipping down to Houston. Stemmons built up the entire Industrial corridor and helped with the freeway through the area, known as...Stemmons Freeway. They are still the major property owner in that area.

As a member of the influential Citizens Council, who is a main player in campaigning for the road, Stemmons certainly has play and push. Now there is no smoking gun, but why does the Citizens Council keep itself at the forefront as the primary proponent of this particular aspect of the project?

It also doesn't help that Lindenberger's paper is owned by a family who are members of the Citizens Council. I generally believe that the editorial board is independent of the owners whims. But, all this seems too coincidental for many folks opposed to the road. Especially when many of the things the editorial board pushed as fact and reasons of support of the tollroad have proven to be false. This is no longer a reliever road for Project Pegasus, the Corps has not endorsed or approved the road and funding for the entire project is not dependent upon the tollway. But, unlike their stance on the death penalty, they haven't changed their stance.

Now, certainly all of this is conjecture, but it sure is easy to start connecting those dots.

We both agree that contractors play a role, but he wonders about the property owners.

That doesn’t gel with me, and never has — partly for the same reasons that the blogger makes above. Who is going to make money off a toll road that glides through an otherwise deserted floodway? Sure there will be some exits over on the other side of the river and all, but is the prospect of limited property schemes at a handful of exists really enough to drive this train?

Lindenberger himself may have gotten past the '50's thinking, I just don't someone who made a fortune in that era has. Developers, particularly suburban-style one that Stemmons is known for, still view the freeway exit ramp, not the road itself, as the ticket for increased property values. Also when viewed with the mistaken belief that I-35 will be more free flowing, it is entirely plausible to see why they are for it.

In another irony about this road, research is emerging challenging the belief that congestion is bad the the local economy.

What I said at the beginning of the last post still stands. There is nothing positive about this road, at least for the urban core. And I think it is that point that causes the problem and debate. Dallas is not an urban city and certainly the region is far from being one. Where you stand depends on where you sit. If one isn't concerned with making Dallas a better urban area, then the road has far fewer flaws. If North Park is their idea of a great public space, then of course the freeway makes sense. If transit, walking and cycling are foreign transportation concepts, then is it a surprise that this road is favored.

The only urban area that radically supported the tollroad in 2007 was Uptown. Parts of Oak Cliff did too, but it was much closer. Every other urban area voted it down. But, since the suburban areas within the principle city far outnumber the urban ones, it came down to them. And it was still 54% to 46%. As Dallas urbanizes, as more of the facts come out against the pro-road side and as North Dallas delves further into tea party ideals (I wonder what they would say to a government project that has ballooned in cost), I think the outcome would be much different today.

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