Something stinks. It’s coming from the direction of the Trinity River, and it’s not the water.
Nearly 10 years after voters approved the plan for the Trinity River project, only one thing is painfully clear: virtually no visible progress has been made and none of us are really enjoying the river any more now than we did then.
But what stinks is the fact that both sides in the current debate are clouding the issue, making it difficult for the voters to make informed decisions.
Is it true that the Trinity River park project would be better without a toll road running through it? Absolutely.
Is it also true that the traffic problem in Dallas is bad and only getting worse, and we need to seriously consider traffic reliever routes now to allow for the continued growth of downtown and the urban core? Yes. It only takes hopping on I-30 or I-35 from Oak Cliff between 7 a.m. and 9 a.m. to fully appreciate the woefully inadequate roadways we’re dealing with.
The problem is that our choice in November is to build a toll road or to build a toll road. Sure, you get to decide if you want your toll road 100 yards closer to downtown, but your only option in November is to build another road.
John Norquist, former mayor of Milwaukee, Wisconsin and current head of the Congress for New Urbanism, explained this very problem of building roads to solve traffic problems in his book “The Wealth of Cities.” “Widening roads to solve traffic congestion is like loosening your belt to solve a weight problem,” Norquist explains. “Among traffic planners, this is known as latent demand. Big roads fill with traffic to the point of gridlock, and when you widen them (or build new roads), they fill with more traffic congestion.”
So it would appear that the problem with the referendum in November is that we don’t have the option of forcing our city leaders to develop real solutions to our ever-worsening traffic problems. Imagine if we could invest the money for the toll road into new and better forms of public transportation, reducing the total number of cars on the road and therefore reducing the need for additional roadways.
But alas, that is not the decision we get to make this November. And so we are left with a decision between a road and a road. Given those choices, we decided to look, simply, at what makes the most sense for Oak Cliff.
The truth is that you can build a great park and an efficient toll road inside the levees, and neither will really suffer as a result. And Oak Cliff will surely reap substantial rewards in the way of development dollars, increased property values and more.
The area between the levees is big. Really big. When you cross the river at 60 miles per hour, it’s easy to take the size for granted. But if you get out of your car and walk down the levee and into the area on either side of the river, you start to get a better sense of the scale of this project.
At its widest point, the distance between the two levees is nearly two-thirds of a mile, or nine football fields. At this point, the proposed toll road will be 80 yards wide. That means less than 10 percent of the distance between the levees will be used for the toll road. At its shortest point, the distance between the two levees is one-third of a mile, or five and a half football fields. At this point, the proposed toll road will be just 40 yards wide. Add to this a proposed budget of $1 million per mile for landscaping, and you start to get the idea that perhaps the toll road won’t destroy the natural beauty of the Trinity River project after all.
But, there are other options.
The North Texas Tollway Association has already drawn up multiple plans that put the toll road outside of the levee. One plan turns Industrial Boulevard into a six- to eight-lane highway, requiring private land along the existing Boulevard to be purchased and businesses to be demolished.
Another plan builds a double-decked highway on top of the existing Industrial Boulevard. It would soar 60 to 80 feet in the air and would cost at least an additional $300 million to complete.
Finally, one last plan includes north-bound lanes on one side of the levee and south-bound lanes on the other side, effectively cutting downtown, and Oak Cliff, off from the very park we all so desperately want to enjoy.
But let’s get selfish. If these are our choices, here’s why the Trinity River plan, as it stands today, makes the most sense for Oak Cliff.
By building a toll road along the downtown side of the project, it effectively puts all of the recreational aspects of the park on the Oak Cliff side of the river. Access to the parks would be easiest from Oak Cliff, which would encourage our brothers and sisters to the north to venture into the Cliff. In theory, this leads a greater number of patrons into our restaurants and shops. It also, in theory, encourages more people to consider Oak Cliff when buying a home.
But will this happen if we vote in November to change the plan that’s been in place for a decade? Most likely, yes. Forcing the city to develop a new plan for relieving traffic that doesn’t involve the land inside the levees will not derail the entire Trinity River project, as some would have you believe. The project will continue. The Calatrava bridges will be built, and the parks, lakes and trails will be completed.
And traffic will grow worse. Dallas has already been recognized this year as having some of the worst traffic delays in the country. It is estimated that traffic in Dallas results in over 58 hours of wasted time per year, per commuter. So the truth appears to be that both sides of this issue are correct. We need a beautiful Trinity River park project, perhaps the largest urban park in the country, and we also need traffic relief options. The question comes down to whether the city can figure out how to finish the project and allow both needs to be fulfilled.
So until we have a decision between a road and a real solution to our traffic problems, we vote on the side of what’s best for Oak Cliff. Voting no in November, in a roundabout way, is voting yes for the Cliff. And we’ll vote yes for the Cliff any day.