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At Dallas Mayoral Forum, Trinity Toll Road Is A Hot Topic

BJ Austin
Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and challenger Marcos Ronquillo get ready for Tuesday's mayoral forum downtown.

The two top candidates for Dallas Mayor talked about potholes, poverty and the controversial Trinity toll road at a forum sponsored by the Dallas Bar Association and the League of Women Voters on Tuesday. The two agreed on a few things, but were far apart on one big issue.   

Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings is seeking a second term.  Challenger Marcos Ronquillo is running for office for the first time.

Both candidates agreed the rising poverty level in Dallas is a call to action, starting with help for single moms trying to make ends meet. They both want more money to repair and maintain Dallas streets.

The hot topic was the planned Trinity toll road inside the levees and above the planned parks and lakes.

Rawlings told the forum that Dallas needs it.

“According to the citizens of Dallas, the number two problem in the city of Dallas is traffic congestion. It has gone up eight points in the last four years," Rawlings said. "So we got a problem.”

Not a problem big enough to justify a billion-dollar toll road, Ronquillo countered.

“With the traffic patterns in the Stemmons Corridor, ladies and gentlemen traffic, is going down. It’s not increasing. Look at the hard data," Ronquillo said. "Look at the hard science.”

Rawlings announced he plans to talk with the so-called Trinity Toll Road Dream Team soon and they will likely unveil their recommendations next week. Since December, this group of urban planners, architects, and landscapers have been working on ways to better integrate the toll road and the park.

“That will drive access to the green space that we have, access to economic development and solve this huge traffic congestion, help solve it," Rawlings said.

Ronquillo is skeptical.

“They’ve been very secret in terms of their work. They’ve been no community wide meetings with this Dream Team and we still don’t know whose funding this Dream Team, Ronquillo said. 

Rawlings said there were at least eight community Dream Team meetings.  That's still not enough transparency for Ronquillo, whose remarks critical of the toll road were followed by applause, twice.

Tracy Clinton of Dallas liked what he heard from the challenger regarding the toll road.

“It just seems like a boondoggle and it seems like a distraction from more important transportation matters that we need to be focusing on,” Clinton said.

Bobby Abtahi is a lawyer and city plan commissioner. He believes Dallas has momentum that shouldn’t be interrupted.

“Dallas is finally becoming that big city we always dreamed to be, wanted to be," Abtahi said. "So I think it’s important that the mayor focus on moving the city forward, continuing the progress that’s been made."

Rawlings pointed to his Grow South initiative and told the crowd it’s no time to take your foot off the gas.

“More capital is being invested in southern Dallas today than has ever been in history and in ’13 the rate of growth was greater in southern Dallas than in North Dallas,” Rawlings said.

Ronquillo says Dallas need a tune-up: better, faster technology to communicate and deliver services and updated thinking at City Hall.

“The problem is in my humble opinion you still have some folks that are still thinking in the 1950s and 1960s that hold very critical, key decisions at City Hall,” Ronquillo said.

Undecided voter Pat Sabin says she has a big decision to make.

“They are both extremely well qualified and articulate gentlemen. And they both gave us some very clear visions of what they each see for the future of our city,” Sabin said.

At least two more mayoral forums are scheduled for April. Election Day is May 9.  Early voting begins April 27. 

Former KERA reporter BJ Austin spent more than 25 years in broadcast journalism, anchoring and reporting in Atlanta, New York, New Orleans and Dallas. Along the way, she covered Atlanta City Hall, the Georgia Legislature and the corruption trials of Louisiana Gov. Edwin Edwards.