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Private investors want to build a tunnel under Mockingbird

By Bu Suzanne Sprague

HIGHLAND PARK – (Ambient sound of traffic noises.)

Suzanne Sprague, KERA 90.1 Reporter: Nearly 25,000 cars drive through Highland Park along Mockingbird Lane each day. They pass by Southern Methodist University, a large Methodist church and more than 200 homes, including Scott Brei's.

Scott Brei, Mockingbird Lane Resident: Any time during the day, you will hear screeches from cars trying to stop or avoid an accident. You'll hear numerous large sized trucks, and it would be difficult to have a conversation in the front yard, put it that way.

Sprague: Traffic is expected to increase along the Mockingbird corridor, and throughout most of North Texas, over the next few decades. Officials admit there isn't enough state or federal money to solve the problem. But a private group, called the Texas Turnpike Corporation, believes it has a plan that would cut east-west congestion and turn a profit for its investors. The Ccorporation's Vice-Chair Kathy Ingle says the group is looking at...

Kathy Ingle, Vice-Chair, Texas Turnpike Corporation: Putting a tollroad tunnel under Mockingbird Lane that would extend from the east on Central Expressway about 6-1/2 miles west, come out at around I-35/183.

Sprague: This would be the longest road tunnel in the United States. Organizers say they could make it safe and clean and a boon for nearby property values, which are hampered by the traffic congestion on Mockingbird. For the price of a toll, drivers would have access to Love Field and Central Expressway, although they wouldn't be able to connect to the North Dallas Tollway. Up to 60,000 cars a day could use the tunnel, which would run about 100 feet below the homes of Scott Brei and other Mockingbird Lane residents.

Brei: 100 feet down does not bother me. Most certainly I think it's part of a mindset. I'd rather have a reduced traffic count out on Mockingbird than worry about a tunnel with increased traffic below me.

Sprague: But many of Brei's neighbors disagree. When the tunnel was first proposed last summer, Highland Park officials were besieged by letters from concerned residents.

Bob Blakeney, Mayor Pro Tem, Highland Park: I received I'll bet close to 100 letters. I didn't count them, but it was a big stack of letters; and I read the letters, and I only received one letter in favor of the tunnel.

Sprague: Bob Blakeney is Highland Park's Mayor Pro Tem. In October, he and other town council members agreed not to pursue the tunnel idea because there was so much resistance from residents along Mockingbird Lane. So, according to TTC's Kathy Ingle, last month tunnel proponents began private talks with the residents to try to change their minds.

Ingle: It's not as if we suddenly decided we needed to do community outreach. We always intended to. But our timing was not correct. We should have done this before.

(Ambient sound of people at a meeting.)

Sprague: The investors hired a consultant to facilitate some half-dozen community meetings in Highland Park and Dallas. Usually, 10 to 20 people turned out. And, for the most part, residents have said they're not interested in a tunnel. In fact, more than half of the homeowners on Mockingbird have signed a petition against the construction of any tunnel under their homes. Lorraine Raggio says one of her biggest concerns is safety.

Lorraine Raggio, Mockingbird Lane Resident: If there's a problem below, we will definitely be affected. We're all heated by gas. One fire and we're toast. One explosion and we're burned toast.

Sprague: Engineers say an explosion is unlikely if vehicles with hazardous materials are prohibited from the tunnel. However, fires, sometimes caused by traffic accidents, can be just as deadly. There have been eight major road tunnel disasters across the world over the past 30 years. The most recent occurred in 1999, when 40 people died after a truck caught on fire in the Mont Blanc tunnel connecting Italy and France. This is the story that Mockingbird tunnel opponents, like Lorraine Raggio, cite most often.

Raggio: And then to say that our property values are not as risk? I want to meet the people who would think about buying a house on Mockingbird, paying market value, and then say they can sleep through the night restfully. I cannot imagine it.

Sprague: Subway and sewer tunnels run under dozens of U.S. neighborhoods. In North Texas, there is a toll tunnel under the Addison Airport. And the state is proposing a six lane tunnel under LBJ Freeway between Midway and Hillcrest Roads. But Seattle has the only comparable road tunnel in this country built directly under homeowners. And unlike the proposed $800 million mockingbird project, Seattle's tunnel was publicly funded.

Stuart Rogers, Highland Park Resident: If DART came to Highland Park and said, "We need to connect Love Field with the Mockingbird Station," I would probably be for that, because I feel like that's a reduction in car traffic and an increase in mass transit.

Sprague: Stuart Rogers lives in Highland Park. Not all of his neighbors share his enthusiasm for DART, but many harbor a general distrust of a private corporation taking on a public works project. Some 53 investors, including billionaire Harold Simmons and media executive Jeff Marcus, have put between $50,000 and $200,000 into the project so far. They would split $24 million if the tunnel project went forward, and then reap profits from the tolls in later years.

Bill Wiggington, Mockingbird Lane Resident: If the City of Highland Park wants to have a tunnel, we can pass our own bonds and build our own darn tunnel without any private company being involved.

Sprague: Bill Wiggington is a Mockingbird Lane resident and among those who are concerned the cities of Dallas, Highland Park, and University Park would get socked with a huge tab if the tunnel turned into a failure. Tunnel investors respond they'll write a contract that puts the entire financial burden on them. And they say the residents' concerns about safety, aesthetics and noise can be resolved during the design phase of the project.

Ingle: There's a lot of information out there and not all of it is accurate.

Sprague: Again, TTC's Kathy Ingle.

Ingle: But that is not to minimize the number of concerns brought to the table by residents and property owners along Mockingbird.

Sprague: Part of the problem is that no specific plan for the tunnel has been written. And no one has conducted an in-depth traffic study to determine if a tunnel would truly alleviate congestion on Mockingbird. Investors are trying to build up enough public support to justify paying for a feasibility study. So they are continuing to hold meetings in the Park Cities and Dallas. For KERA 90.1, I'm Suzanne Sprague.