Dallas Mayor caves to pro-toll interests on Trinity Toll Road

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Six questions on Rawlings’ support of the Trinity

Transportation Writer
Dallas Morning News
02 May 2012 11:38 PM

Now that Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings has lined up with his predecessors to support the Trinity River toll road, one minor mystery associated with the project has been answered. But there are still plenty of unanswered questions and unresolved hurdles.
How soon can the project begin? The Federal Highway Administration could issue a decision on the road — whether and where it can be built — by January. That would put the issue squarely in the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers’ lap, which must then approve two separate permits. That could take much of next year. Construction, under the best of circumstances, won’t begin before 2016, with the road open by 2019.

What about the money? The tolls on the road aren’t expected to produce anywhere near the amount of money needed to pay back debt needed to pay for the road, which will cost $1.8 billion (in 2016 dollars). Rawlings said that doesn’t bother him, in part because he’s confident that once the case is made for the road in Austin and elsewhere, and the regulatory hurdles are overcome, the money will be found.

Is it important to identify the funding soon? If all goes well, the federal highway agency could be ready to issue its final approval in January. But it won’t do so unless the city produces a plan that shows how the project will be funded. Here’s how the spokesman for the highway agency in Washington put it Wednesday: “In its financial plan, the project must demonstrate that funding is reasonably available for the completion of the project — which doesn’t necessarily mean the funding needs to be in hand at the ROD [record of decision] signing.”

So there is wiggle room. But the government means it when it says the funds have to be real. Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan conceded Wednesday that the city is nowhere close to having the funding reasonably certain.

Does the city have much time? Not if it doesn’t want to delay the project. Jordan stressed that final federal highway agency approval will be delayed anyway until the corps makes its decisions about the road and the other components of the project that are within the floodway. But the highway agency said that’s simply not the case.

Spokesman Doug Hecox said the agency does not expect to wait on the corps. “FHWA is on track to have its record of decision before the Army Corps of Engineers finishes its [evaluation],” he said.

Does Rawlings’ support for the road mean more waiting for the rest of the project? He said he has demanded the opposite, namely that the city have on his desk a plan for fast-tracking lakes and some other elements by June. Construction, he said, could be finished by 2015.

However, for as long as the city is relying on the road construction to provide the means to dig out the lakes, work on the lakes won’t begin until after approval for the road is issued. And that won’t come until after the money for the road is found.

In that sense, Rawlings’ support for the road keeps the lakes tied to the prospects of the toll road.

Will Rawlings’ support push the project over the hump? It’s tremendously important. His support by no means makes the approvals any easier and isn’t required in any fashion by the federal government. But had he opposed the road, or continued to keep his peace about it, his lack of support would have been heard loudly, not just by the federal officials but also by the North Texas Tollway Authority, local officials and residents in general.