Should Dallas seek earmarks to fund the I-30 replacement bridge?
Proposed site of McDermott Bridge
DALLAS — You’ve likely seen the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge rising over the Trinity River. Its distinctive white arch appears as a gateway to West Dallas, and the bridge is supposed to be complete in October.
The city also plans for a new Interstate 30 bridge over the Trinity to complement the Hunt Hill bridge. Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava designed it as well.
But on Tuesday, the city laid out why it wants to redesign the I-30 bridge that’s named after philanthropist Margaret McDermott.
The city wants to add some new features and reduce the cost of the structure. However, one source of funding remains controversial: $92 million in federal earmarks to pay for the special design.
It's a price tag some critics say the nation can no longer afford.
The existing I-30 bridge is 50 to 60 years old and needs to be replaced... so much so that the Texas Department of Transportation moved up the construction timetable for a new bridge to mid-2012.
But the city wants more than a basic replacement bridge that TxDOT could fund.
“We believe it is a viable, favorable way to go, and we wanted to let you know what direction we're trying to head,” City Manager Mary Suhm told a City Council committee on Tuesday.
The original design for the McDermott bridge — with its sweeping four steel arches plus approaches and ramps — approached $500 million, according to the city.
To cut costs, the city wants to redesign the span by scaling back the arches, while adding sidewalks and bike paths.
What would not change is the $92 million in federal earmarks to pay for the remaining arches — and for anything else beyond the cost of a basic bridge over the Trinity.
Suhm said Dallas still deserves the earmarks. “If that money were not in the City of Dallas, it would not go to fill a hole anywhere — it would go to some other city.”
But with the Washington debate about debt and cutting spending, Phillip Dennis — who is on the steering committee for the Dallas Tea Party — said earmarks for a designer bridge can't be justified.
“Is a bridge with $92 million in bells and whistles, is it nice... or is it necessary?” he asked.
Since 2005, Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison (R-Texas), Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson (D-Dallas) and Rep. Pete Sessions (R-Dallas) have inserted the earmarks.
In a written statement to News 8 on Tuesday, Hutchison wouldn’t say whether the earmark is still appropriate or should still be spent — only that the federal share “has been met.”
"The bridge has always been a federal, state, and local cooperative effort. The federal share of the bridge has been met. I have been told that the new design will save taxpayers around $100 million and will be a major improvement in transportation flow and safety, done in an aesthetically pleasing design."
Even though Sessions has publicly rejected earmarks, Torrie Miller, a spokeswoman for the congressman, told News 8 that moving forward with the McDermott bridge project is "imperative" to ensure the safety of North Texans:
"The Texas Department of Transportation identified the need to replace it over 15 years ago. Congressman Sessions applauds the City of Dallas’ leaders, with whom he has worked on this project since 2005, for their decision to make fiscally responsible and innovative adjustments that will save taxpayer dollars, allow the bridge to be built in a timelier manner and use the funds that have already been secured for its completion."
The Tea Party's Dennis accused Sessions of talking out of both sides of his mouth on the earmarks issue. “If he's against them now, then he should be against this $92 million," Dennis said. "Let's use it toward paying off our record $1.65 trillion deficit this year.”
In a written statement to News 8 late Tuesday, Rep. Johnson maintained her support for the I-30 replacement bridge:
“I am proud of the federal funding that my colleagues and I have fought hard for on behalf of the City of Dallas. I am encouraged by the City’s innovative approach to complete the project at a lower cost. I worked extremely hard for the 30th Congressional District and its infrastructure to ensure safety and decrease congestion. The Final decisions regarding bridge design and construction schedule will rest with the City of Dallas, but it is important for the federal government to play a supporting role in funding this important job creating and economic development project.”
Although not a reason for moving quickly on the redesign, City Manager Suhm says an advantage is showing Congress the earmarks will be spent.
The Council will vote on the bridge redesign April 13.