Where, when unknown for Dallas' planned Trinity Parkway

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by By MICHAEL A. LINDENBERGER / The Dallas Morning News

wfaa.com

Posted on August 15, 2009 at 4:44 PM

Updated Friday, Oct 16 at 11:15 AM

It's been nearly a year since Dallas voters decided to keep the Trinity Parkway alive, but prospects for the toll road - and especially for the hurried-up schedule Mayor Tom Leppert has championed - remain as uncertain as ever.

To keep on schedule and open by late 2013, construction would need to begin by summer 2010. But so far, even the most basic questions about the controversial project - how much it will cost, whether (and where) it will run within the Trinity River levees, and who will build it - remain unanswered and, for now, unanswerable.

"It's hugely complicated, with any number of hurdles, seen and unseen, and pitfalls everywhere," said Daniel Chapman, Trinity Parkway project manager for the North Texas Tollway Authority, the agency that has committed to building the toll road.

Some of the most severe hurdles are familiar to those who followed the debate last fall, when a grass-roots effort to kill the toll road dominated the city's political discourse for months, only to fail at the ballot box.

Approval from federal highway officials isn't expected for another year. And a special review by the Army Corps of Engineers has yet to begin, and once it does, the necessary OK from that agency will probably take 12 months or more. Without both approvals, construction can't begin.

But other, newer issues are clouding the road's prospects as well.

The turbulence on Wall Street has severely hampered NTTA's ability to raise capital, reducing for instance its borrowing capacity by more than $500 million just since April.

"The funding issue is still hanging out there, and that's a pretty big one," said Bill Hale, top engineer for the Dallas district of TxDOT, which has called Trinity Parkway a critical first step in billions of dollars in badly needed highway improvements.

Neither the challenges nor the unanswerable questions have deterred NTTA and the city of Dallas. Each has spent millions advancing the project, estimated to cost $1.4 billion, since November's referendum.

"I certainly don't want to make it sound like it is going to be easy," Mr. Leppert said Thursday from a U.S. Conference of Mayors convention in Miami. "But yeah, I really think we can get there. We have a lot of different partners, and they are working well together. There are a lot of moving parts to this, and we can't lose focus."

The deadline

A lot has to happen to keep the project on schedule. For starters, construction has to get under way by July 2010.

The most immediate obstacles to overcome for that to happen are winning approval for the projects by the two federal agencies.

NTTA met last week with more than 150 engineers and others interested in competing for $30 million worth of design contracts for the parkway. It hopes to have firms selected for eight different jobs by the end of the year. That's important because the Army engineers won't even begin considering whether to approve the toll road until it has been at least 30 percent designed, officials there said. Once it begins the review, it could take a year or more before a decision is reached.

"It's a very, very aggressive schedule, and I know the city and everyone is pushing hard to meet it," said Gene Rice, lead engineer for the corps' flood control project in the Trinity River Corridor. "But we haven't approved anything yet. And there is a lot to do. They've given themselves a pretty short time frame."

Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt led the unsuccessful fight to kill the toll road, and said worries over its viability are anything but new. "All this was known over a year ago," she said. "We campaigned on it."

The city and NTTA are taking something of a risk by fast-forwarding the design process, however. In doing so, they are basically assuming that the other federal agency whose approval they need - the Federal Highway Administration - will agree with them on what route the toll road should follow.

But that's not guaranteed. The highway administration is considering eight options to which by law it must give equal weight, and local officials acknowledge they will have to go back to the design drawing board if the route they plan to send to the corps isn't the one the administration chooses.

"This is a very, very aggressive strategy," the NTTA's Mr. Chapman said. "But the NTTA wanted to follow on the mayor's leadership and build on the momentum of the referendum. And to have a chance to meet that schedule, we realized we were going to have to do a lot of things in parallel - even at the risk of maybe having to come back later and start again on the design."

NTTA executive director Jorge Figueredo said Wednesday that the agency has already spent more than $2 million trying to move the toll road project along. But he said any promises to meet the mayor's deadline come with significant caveats.

"We're doing everything we can," Mr. Figueredo said. "Will we meet the 2010 deadline? It's possible. Is it likely? I don't know."

Other concerns

Meeting the construction deadlines advance the project only so far, however.

NTTA has long promised to build the road and years ago accepted that city contributions would be capped at about $84 million. But few promises come with a blank check.

With no route determined and with the road's design not yet begun, the agency has been unable to find out for sure how much revenue it could expect from operating the toll road. Without that information, NTTA can't know how much of its own money it would have to spend to build the road - or whether it can afford to build it at all.

Toll revenue flat

About the only thing the agency knows is that construction costs keep rising and that its finances are increasingly squeezed.

At the same time, revenues from NTTA's existing toll roads aren't growing as they have in the past, as Americans drive less each month in the face of high gasoline prices.

"So with everything else going on, our [toll transactions] are flat," Mr. Figueredo said. "Now, our experts say that's just temporary and they will come back. But we don't really know if that is the case."

Those concerns and others have left some of the toll road's biggest backers fretting over whether NTTA will be able to borrow the money it needs to build the road.

Mr. Hale, the Dallas engineer for TxDOT, and regional transportation planner Michael Morris have begun asking whether it would make sense to attempt to scale back the initial construction of the roadway. Maybe then, they say, the price tag would be small enough that construction could be paid for in cash.

It's not clear how, or whether, the roadway could be built more cheaply in stages. But the mayor cautioned against reading too much into the financing discussions that he acknowledged are circulating freely among regional backers of the project.

Mr. Figueredo played down the likelihood that the road could be built in stages, but conceded that whether NTTA continues to play a lead role in developing the project beyond the design phase is an open question.

"We're good at what we do and we're ready to move on the engineering, to move this project forward," he said. "But if it comes to a point in the future where it makes sense for someone else to take the lead, then the policy makers can make that decision."

Desired timetable

November - The Federal Highway Administration releases for public comment the environmental impact statement, outlining preferred routes with modifications suggested by state and federal officials.

December - The North Texas Tollway Authority awards roadway design contracts worth as much as $30 million. Designers gamble that the locally preferred route will win federal approval, and design accordingly.

March 2009 - The Federal Highway Administration closes the public comment period, beginning final review of the Trinity Parkway's environmental impact. It's a milestone, but "there is plenty of room for modifications, even significant ones, at this point," administration spokesman Doug Hecox says.

Summer 2009 - Designers submit roadway designs to the Army Corps of Engineers, which begins a lengthy review to determine whether the road would interfere with flood-control plans.

October 2009 - "Barring anything unforeseen," the highway administration issues final environmental approval for the project, ending 11-plus years of federal review of the toll road.

Spring or summer 2010 - The corps issues a permit allowing the roadway to proceed.

July 2010-Deadline for construction to begin.

December 2013 - Parkway opens to traffic.

Construction hurdles

CORPS APPROVAL - Since Hurricane Katrina, the Army Corps of Engineers has stepped up its scrutiny of projects that could affect flood-control efforts. Without corps approval, the toll road can't be built between the Trinity levees. But the corps won't begin its review until the road is at least 30 percent designed. Preliminary design will begin late this year, with an eye toward submitting it to the corps by next summer. The review could take a year or more.

OTHER APPROVAL - The Federal Highway Administration has been studying the project for more than a decade and expects a final decision by October 2009 - about nine months before the deadline for construction to begin.

FINANCING - The parkway is expected to cost at least $1.4 billion, and any delays will push that figure upward. The North Texas Tollway Authority hasn't determined how much it could borrow against future tolls - and hasn't decided whether it can afford to build the project at all. The agency expects to have a clearer picture by next year.

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