Update on the Dallas Trinity Toll Road Controversy

By: Bob Meckfessel, FAIA

In 1998, Dallas voters approved a $246 million bond program to revitalize the Trinity River Corridor, a 20-mile swath of neglected floodway cutting through the city. The successful referendum promised many enhancements to the floodway in five key areas: recreation, flood protection, environment, economic development, and transportation. This last aspect — transportation — consisting mostly of the “Trinity Parkway,” was pitched to voters with renderings of a context-sensitive road happily coexisting with lakes, trails, promenades, and signature bridges. The bond program was endorsed by AIA Dallas.

However, in 1999, as designs began to be made public, AIA Dallas leadership became alarmed, as the promised parkway had turned into a high-speed tollway of eight or more lanes. This concern led to an intense multiyear involvement with the Trinity, culminating with the 2003 Balanced Vision Plan (BVP). This complex plan (recognized by AIA National with an Honor Award for Urban and Regional Design) successfully balanced the various components of the Trinity project, including a more context-sensitive design for the toll road.

The project moved ahead with wide community support, supposedly under the guiding vision of the BVP. As it did so, other initiatives explored how best to connect the expected amenities of the Trinity to the surrounding city. These included the influential Connected City Competition (see "Traffic in Reverse Engineering" by Kevin Sloan, Mar/Apr 2015 Texas Architect).

In April of 2014, engineering drawings for the road, now labeled Alternative 3C, were released prior to a public hearing for the Trinity Parkway EIS process. After examining these documents, many in the community, including the author, were stunned to find that Alternative 3C in no way resembled the parkway of the BVP but was, instead, once more a high-speed toll road with ramps and flyovers soaring as high as 60 feet above the hoped-for lakes, trails, promenades, and parks.

Rendering of Alternative 3C flyovers – courtesy North Texas Tollway Authority

A grassroots movement immediately arose in opposition to Alternative 3C and now includes a wide cross-section of Dallas — elected state and local officials, former Mayor Laura Miller, neighborhood and civic organizations, community activists, the Dallas Morning News, D Magazine and the Dallas Observer, and professionals, including AIA Dallas, the Ten Presidents (an informal collaboration of former AIA Dallas leaders), and many individual architects. On the opposite side of the controversy, supporters of Alternative 3C include established civic organizations such as the Trinity Commons Foundation, the Dallas Citizens Council, the Dallas Business Journal, and former Mayor Ron Kirk. 

In response to a firestorm of criticism of the toll road, current Mayor Mike Rawlings (a toll road supporter) organized a team of out-of-town professionals (aka the Dream Team) to develop “new” designs for it. The results of this process were released on April 14 at the Trinity Commons Foundation annual luncheon. The Dream Team report was pointedly critical of Alternative 3C and outlined a new vision for a low-speed parkway without the width, ramps, and flyovers of Alternative 3C. The Dream Team vision immediately received wide acclaim from both opponents and proponents of the toll road.

The Dream Team's proposal includes a four-lane, meandering 9-mile parkway with access to planned parks. – rendering published in the Trinity Parkway Design Charrette Report

On April 16, the City Council voted to instruct city staff to move ahead to develop a plan for implementation of the Dream Team vision but failed — despite motions to do so — to repudiate Alternative 3C, leaving the possibility of a high-speed toll road very much on the table. The increasingly heated debate will thus continue across the city, perhaps ultimately decided by an upcoming city council election on May 9, in which the Trinity toll road has become a primary issue. If four of six open seats go to anti-toll road candidates, a majority of the Council will be opposed to Alternative 3C.

Despite some reason for optimism, the Trinity Toll Road remains an open issue, one in which architects, individually and through the AIA, are playing pivotal roles in advocating for a more sustainable and innovative approach to planning our urban infrastructure. Stay tuned.

To learn more about the Trinity Toll Road controversy, see the following resources:

AIA Dallas Releases Statement on the Trinity

NTTC Alternative 3C Versus the Balanced Vision Plan, Prepared by the Ten Presidents

The Trinity Toll Road is an Obsolete Idea, by Robert Meckfessel, FAIA

Trinity Parkway Design Charrette Report