WASHINGTON - Ron Kirk, who persuaded voters to tackle the Trinity River project as Dallas mayor in the 1990s, voiced annoyance Friday at the Army Corps of Engineers' potentially devastating objections about the levees' design.

"I just find it remarkable that you would wait until you've gotten that far along with bridge construction and now raise a concern about the integrity of the levees," Kirk said.

"We knew the levees needed strengthening. That was the whole purpose of this program, to restore the structural integrity of the levees."

Kirk, who led the city from 1995 to 2002, joined President Barack Obama's Cabinet two weeks ago as U.S. trade representative. The Trinity project is a key part of his mayoral legacy.

"It ain't undone yet," he said in his office a block from the White House.

Kevin Craig, the corps' Trinity River project director, acknowledged that the rules of the game have changed. But he said they did so to make residents safer from floods.

The Trinity project was approved, he said, just before new rules were adopted regarding the testing of existing levees. "And a determination was made that the levees were unacceptable," Craig said. "Now we have got to develop a plan to fix some of those deficiencies."

City officials have been scrambling to determine whether they can tap $459 million in federal funds to bring the city's vast levee system up to standards. Congress authorized the funds in 2007, but not for that purpose.

"I'm perplexed. The steel is here. The piers are sunk. The first Calatrava bridge can be done by the end of this year," Kirk said, referring to the spans designed by renowned Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.

Kirk's assignment is to promote international trade and protect U.S. exporters from unfair barriers overseas. There's no indication that he could or would throw clout behind efforts to change the corps' mind.

"It's still important that we stay with it," he said. "We know that big public-works projects that are multidisciplinary, that involve water, levees and stuff, just take time."

U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, D-Dallas, a powerful advocate for the Trinity project, said she doesn't fault the corps.

"We must have safe and dependable levees," Johnson said.

Staff writer Michael A. Lindenberger in Dallas contributed to this report.

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