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Trinity Decision: Is Toll Road Necessary to Rebuild Mixmaster?

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(KERA)
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Helicopter pilot Ken Montgomery gets a daily firsthand view of traffic congestion in Dallas.

By Shelley Kofler, KERA News

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Dallas, TX – Sam Baker: Supporters of the Trinity Toll Road in Dallas say that if voters scrap the road in Tuesday's election, it may be impossible to fix the most congested transportation stretch in North Texas will suffer. KERA's Shelley Kofler joins me now as we continue our series of stories, The Trinity Decision.

Shelley, that congested section is Dallas' downtown Mixmaster, correct?

Shelley Kofler: Yes, Sam. That's correct. But whether the mixmaster improvements are completely lost without the tollroad is part of this debate. Listen to what Texas Transportation Commisioner Ric Williamson says near the end of our story.

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(Trinity Series Story #2)

To get a feel for the traffic patterns around Dallas you can look at a map online or spread one out on your kitchen table.

Here are the two traffic loops that encircle downtown Dallas and here are the freeways- 35, 45 and 30 that cut into and across the loops, kind of like spokes on a wheel.

There's also another way to see the big picture. Hitch a ride with traffic pilot Ken Montgomery as he hovers 5,000 feet above the freeways during the commute home.

Kofler/Ken Montgomery: It's six o'clock. Is this peak traffic? Pretty much. Southbound 35 is extremely heavy. What have you noticed in the mixmaster area in the time you've been flying up here? Just more and more congestion. It gets really heavy in morning and afternoon drive time. But the accidents are what really cause problems because a lot of people can't get off they're stuck in the canyon

The canyon Montgomery's talking about is part of the Dallas mixmaster . A section of the traffic loop where Interstate 30 dips below street level, and Interstate 35 heads south. Built in the 50's, it has outlived it's design, and federal highway administrators say it's now so congested rush hour lasts 6 hours a day, and vehicles crawl at an average 20 miles an hour.

Michael Morris: The Interstate-35 mixmaster is the most outdated unsafe congested unreliable section of transportation pavement within the region.

That's Michael Morris of the Council of Governments talking. He's the chief transportation planner for North Texas, and says experts in his field have talked about adding lanes and capacity to the mixmaster for 20 years. In 1998 local government groups adopted a $1-billion dollar plan for doing that. It's known as Project Pegasus.

But Morris contends you can't rebuild the mixmaster and the clogged arteries feeding into it unless you open the Trinity toll road first. He says the toll road would provide a travel route for 100,000 vehicles while crews redesign the mixmaster.

Morris: We stage construct the Trinity first as a reliever so the citizens won't be as upset with us when we have to limit lanes during that reconstruction.

And Morris says there's no point in widening freeways leading into Dallas until the toll road and new mixmaster are finished.

Morris: Imagine yourself coming up 67 its been widened. Interstate-35 has been widened. We've fixed the dangerous curveat the zoo and Bank of America building. Then all of a sudden you take that 10 lane section and turn it into four lanes as you to the downtown section . All you are doing is cueing up what is five lanes in each direction trying to shoe horn their way into a 2 lane section.

Opponents of the 55-mile-an-hour toll road inside the river levees oppose it because it would be next to the Trinity Park. They believe it would ruin the park experience and cut off easy access to recreation. They don't deny traffic congestion is a growing concern but Former Dallas Council Member Sandy Greyson says downtown leaders didn't really study all the options.

Greyson: When you talk about the seven alternatives that are being studied, the only one that was ever really seriously studied was the one in between the levees.

Greyson says that's because the city owns the property inside the levee and is willing to give it to road contractors for the project. She wants planners to look at alternatives including a traffic reliever route along Industrial Boulevard. Industrial also parallels the river but sits outside the levees further from the park.

Greyson: You can have a toll road along Industrial coexist with good economic development just like Preston Center, along the Dallas North Toll Road coexist. And that is a high end retail center next to a toll road. You can have that along Industrial.

Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert disagrees. He's leading the effort to build inside the levees and says a road along Industrial would break the bank.

298 :20 we would need to buy about 800 parcels of land, relocate between two and three hundred businesses. We have to pay for that. It increases a minimum 300, more realistically 500, million dollars. That's money that's got to come from some place. And at that point it doesn't pencil. And now we get to the bad part. The bad part is the delays. Because we have got to go through the exercise of purchasing the land, relocating the businesses, dealing with litigations.

And Leppert's team claims Industrial might not qualify as a toll road, which means state and federal money would not be available and city taxpayers would have to pick up millions more of the cost.

Can Project Pegasus and the mixmaster be improved without the Trinity tollroad? Mayor Leppert doesn't think so.

Leppert: You haven't heard the alternative plan because there isn't one.

Texas' top road official, Texas Transportation Chairman Ric Williamson agrees there would be delays, but he says he cannot imagine a scenario where Project Pegasus would be scrapped.

Williamson: If the tollroad as invisioned now is radically changed Project Pegasus will have to be redesigned. I'm not taking a position it's just a logical conclusion. Project Pegasus is so important to the clean air plan and congestion relief for North Texas I can't imagine a circumstance where it wouldn't be redesigned and moved forward. It's just that important.

Flying high over Dallas traffic pilot Ken Montgomery knows what he sees below is job security.

Montgomery: "Just more congestion heavier traffic as you try to get across town" (sound fades)
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Sam Baker: So it sounds like Commissioner Williamson is saying they'd have to go back to the drawing board, but Project Pegasus would not be eliminated.

Shelley: That's correct. He can't imagine not rebuilding the Mixmaster, though not building the toll road would certainly delay the mix master improvements though it's unclear for how long.

We'll hear more from Commissioner Williamson later in the week as we talk more about who would build the toll road, the financing and the cost might affect other road projects in the region.

Tomorrow Bill Zeeble takes a closer look at Industrial Boulevard, the economic impact of a road there and the effect on land values.
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