By BJ AUSTIN / KERA News
There is new discussion about Trinity River development in Dallas - but without the controversial toll road. In KERA's continuing series Banking on the River , BJ Austin looks at how the toll road and economics have delayed another important piece of the project. What's going on with the parks and lakes we've been promised?
Donny Hutchinson and Bret Bolton arrive at the Sylvan boat ramp in Dallas. They've kayaked the Trinity from downtown Fort Worth, camping two nights on the riverbank.
The pair talk back and forth about the reasons for their trek.
"Wildlife is everywhere." "Both of these cities are built on the river." "We should probably use it."
That's the wilder version of recreation on the Trinity. Dallas wants to create something a little tamer that will bring crowds to the river: Kayaking on three Trinity lakes, soccer fields, picnicking, promenades and an amphitheatre for events. But final federal approval has kept those plans on the drawing board for more than a decade.
Last year, the Dallas levees failed to meet new, post-Katrina flood protection standards. In addition, approval of a controversial toll road inside the levees is still up in the air. Trinity Commons Director Craig Holcomb said the plan is to use dirt excavated for the lakes for the road.
"One of the reasons we can afford the lakes is because we're just putting the dirt right next to the levee to build a shelf for the road," Holcomb said. "If we don't do that, then we can't afford lakes the way we have it planned now."
Holcomb said another hurdle to the toll road has surfaced. The Corps of Engineers is considering whether Dallas' dirt levees are historic, and worthy of special protection.
"If that goes through, that really adds a huge layer of complication on the whole problem," he said. "If you are endangering a historic structure, basically, federal money goes away."
At City Hall, project director Rebecca Rasor acknowledges what some city officials have been a bit reluctant to talk about. She said the parks and lakes could be built without the Trinity Parkway toll road. She said the dirt excavated might be used to raise and fatten the levees, or elevate planned soccer fields.
"Personally, I think the Parkway is important for traffic congestion and air quality," Rasor said. "If for some reason it can't happen, it's not going to shut us down. We'll continue to go."
City Council member Angela Hunt said after a decade of waiting, it's time for Plan B: Get people over the levees and into the Trinity greenbelt to enjoy what we have now.
"Creating bike trail connections (and) parking lots out of a few of the many properties that have been purchased outside of the levee system for the toll road, using the funds that we have from the '98 bonds to make that possible ... I think that's the smartest use of money for the parks," Hunt said.
The recession tightened city and federal budgets. And, members of the Dallas Congressional delegation have warned city officials that future federal funding is iffy. Hunt wants to use $46 million in toll road bond money to help pay for the levees. She said the North Texas Tollway Authority cannot consider building the road for at least five years because of its own money problems. Furthermore, she believes a toll road within the levees will never get final federal approval anyway.
Rebecca Rasor said construction between the levees won't start for at least three more years. It'll take that long for the Corps of Engineers to determine what Dallas must do to fix the levees, the impact of the proposed toll road on flood protection, and perhaps historic status.
Rasor said the Audubon Center - outside the levee system in the Great Trinity Forest - is a successful beginning, with five miles of hiking trails, bird watching and a river otter nesting nearby. She and Craig Holcomb said there's recreation to enjoy elsewhere along the river.
"A few weeks ago, we had the Trinity Levee Run, and there were 500 people down there having a lot of fun," Holcomb said.
"We actually have laid out a trail," Rasor said. "It's our Levee Top Trail - a 6.5-mile trail along top of the levees."
Next month work begins on the "Standing Wave," a whitewater area for kayakers on the river south of downtown. The project was originally slated for completion last summer. It will now cost $4 million, or about $300,000 more than first thought, and should open in October or November.
Council member Hunt said citizens need to see that, as well as dirt flying to fix the levees. She said that progress will help restore confidence that Dallas can deliver on its promise of fun on the river.
(This story originally aired on KERA-FM on April 14, 2010.)