Dallas Highway Revolt Might Actually Defeat the Trinity Toll Road

A successful highway revolt in Dallas? It’s looking like a distinct possibility as supporters of the Trinity Toll Road project continue to defect, leaving a lonely few against a growing coalition opposed to the highway.

The $1.5 billion Trinity Toll road, given the watercolor treatment. Image: Army Corps of Engineers via Dallas Morning News
The $1.5 billion Trinity Toll road, given the gauzy watercolor treatment. Image: Army Corps of Engineers via Dallas Morning News

The last few months have dealt a number of setbacks to the proposed $1.5 billion road, which would slice through the city from West Dallas to Oak Cliff, severing downtown from the Trinity River. In mid-November, Dallas area leaders gave up on trying to appeal to the state for financial support for the project. A week later, the Dallas Morning News wondered whether the embattled project would need to take a “time out.”

“In politics when you start asking everybody to stop for a second and let’s take a breather and nobody get too worked up and can’t we just talk about this for a little while — you’re losing,” wrote the paper’s Rudolph Bush, who noted the only high profile supporter remaining is city Mayor Mike Rawlings, and that may not be enough to carry it forward, since Dallas has a weak mayor system.

The project is still supported by some of the deep-pocketed shot-callers in the city’s business and development elite, but they have tended not to be very vocal. That’s not the case with the opposition, which seems to have the momentum. People living in nearby areas like Oak Cliff don’t want to see the quality of life in their neighborhoods subordinated to suburban driving convenience. And so, what used to feel like a total longshot might actually happen — Dallas might shelve a highway to retain the strength and cohesion of its neighborhoods.

Yesterday, the two sides of the debate squared off in a forum at a school in Oak Cliff. “Toll road debate draws hundreds of opponents, but few supporters,” went the headline in the Morning News. Today, former mayor Laura Miller came out against the highway in the paper, saying the road “should not be built at all.”

I spoke to Patrick Kennedy, a local planner who’s played a leading role in the highway opposition. He said his group is focused on organizing around what could be the deciding factor: City Council elections coming up in May. Right now highway opponents only have four votes out of 14 on the council, and they need eight if they hope to decisively kill the project. But with six council members who support the Trinity Toll Road being term-limited out of office, the elections to replace them could seal the highway’s fate.

In the meantime, the Army Corps of the Engineers is set to release its environmental analysis of the proposal. That could also be bad news for the project, which would consist of a highway as wide as six lanes in a floodplain.

“A lot of the business interests are starting to see the light,” said Kennedy. “We’re setting up a powerful bloc.”

“Nobody understands why this thing still lives,” he said.

Even though the road has been in the pipeline for more than a decade, regional planners still haven’t identified a viable funding source. The billions in rainy day funds Texas voters just approved for transportation spending cannot be used on toll roads, so they won’t help. Traffic projections are low enough that the North Texas Tolling Authority isn’t all that interested in the project, Kennedy said. Even the big media outfits in town have taken to calling it a “zombie toll road.”

But as we’ve seen, once planners draw a highway on the map, the road can be nearly impossible to kill. Dallas power brokers also tend to get their way, as the Morning News pointed out. If these younger activists are able to overcome everything aligned against them, it will truly be a historic victory for Dallas.

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