Trinity River Project gains approval from Army Corps of Engineers
|April 27, 2015 - As with the LA River and the Arroyo Seco, Dallas has been the site of a big US Army Corps of Engineers project that has not received the Corps stamp of approval.|
|By ELIZABETH FINDELL AND BRANDON FORMBY|
|Dallas Morning News|
The city’s plans for the Trinity River corridor include enhanced flood protection, a reliever road for downtown highways and recreational amenities along the river’s path. The Corps of Engineers’ approval of the plans does not directly affect the fate of the Trinity Parkway. G.J. McCarthy/Staff Photographer
The city’s long-standing plans for parks, improved levees and a road in the Trinity River corridor got the green light Monday from the Army Corps of Engineers, clearing the way for Dallas to pursue federal funding for the project.
The city has envisioned a transformation of the river corridor for decades. Since the mid-1990s, it has worked to secure approval — and money — for a $572 million comprehensive plan that would enhance flood protection, provide a reliever road for downtown highways and create recreational amenities along the river’s path.
Monday’s “record of decision” from the Army engineers does not in itself advance those plans. But by concluding that no environmental or hydrological concerns should preclude the project, the corps essentially authorized the city to move forward, while providing the required clearance for Congress to appropriate money for the Trinity project.
“I don’t think we were particularly worried about it, but it’s extremely significant,” said Dallas City Council member Lee Kleinman, vice chair of the council’s Transportation and Trinity River Project Committee.
“This enables us to build the parks and the lakes … all of this.”
The approval is “a significant milestone,” said James Frisinger, a spokesman for the Fort Worth regional office of the Corps of Engineers. The agency, he noted, has spent years evaluating whether the city’s plans have economic value and whether they can be carried out in a way that is environmentally sound.
“We’ve now done that to the satisfaction of our people,” Frisinger said.
The decision does not directly affect the fate of the much-debated Trinity Parkway, a proposed toll road within the Trinity levees. According to the corps, the Trinity project passes environmental muster with the toll road as a component or if the road’s shelf is built with no road atop it.
Dallas’ vision for the Trinity corridor — now little more than an uninviting ditch in places — calls for lakes, plazas, green spaces, athletic fields, trails, an amphitheater and other attractions.
It also contemplates improvements to the river levees, which were rated “minimally acceptable” last year. The levees were built in the early 1930s, then expanded 30 years later. Severe flooding in 1989 and 1990 in neighborhoods downstream from downtown — past where the original levees end — prompted the city to refocus on flood protection.
As the city has awaited federal approval of the corridor project, it has moved forward with several amenities and improvements in and around the floodplain. These include the Sante Fe Trestle Trail, the Elm Fork Athletic Complex, the Trinity River Audubon Center, the Texas Horse Park at the Trinity, the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge and the Continental Avenue pedestrian and bicycling bridge.
The Texas Department of Transportation is currently constructing a second signature highway bridge, the double-arched Margaret McDermott Bridge, where Interstate 30 crosses the floodplain. It also plans to open a boat launch next month off the Sylvan Avenue bridge over the river.
For the corridor project, the cost-sharing arrangement is 65 percent federal money and 35 percent city money. The federal portion must come through congressional appropriations.
Kleinman said Dallas has already sunk the bulk of its share into remediation efforts and small projects. The city has some money left over from past bond issues. It will look to future bonds or private partnerships for additional funds, said Sarah Standifer, interim director of the city’s Trinity Watershed Management office.
Frisinger, the Corps of Engineers spokesman, said raising the levees is a priority for the federal agency. It also wants to remove embankments and piers from the abandoned Santa Fe Railway trestle, which has been retrofitted into a bridge for the Santa Fe Trestle Trail.
“That’s causing floodwaters to back up,” Frisinger said.
An interior drainage plan calls for expanding and improving five pump stations and building one new one.
About eight miles of the river will be restored to a meandering path with vegetation, creating habitat that was lost when the river was moved and straightened into a channel in the 1920s. Also planned is an 80-acre wetlands area between the Corinth Street Bridge and the Santa Fe Trestle Trail.
By far, the most talked-about component of the Trinity project has been the Trinity Parkway.
The city just got approval from federal highway authorities to move forward with the largest version of the roadway, the option known as “Alternative 3C,” though most City Council members said they would like to consider building fewer lanes initially.
The corps didn’t look at the road itself, just at how the earthen shelf that would support it would affect flooding. From the agency’s perspective, it’s fine if the road gets built, and fine if it doesn’t. But the corps expects the earthen shelf to be built; plans call for creating that shelf using dirt that’s excavated in the construction of the lakes.
The City Council earlier instructed City Manager A.C. Gonzalez to put together a task force to determine if a smaller version of the Trinity Parkway could be built on the full-scale version’s shelf until future leaders decide to finish expanding the road.
Kleinman, a proponent of that, said he was excited to see that the corps’ decision did not affect the road’s size.
“The corps is neutral as to whether we build a bike trail on top of the bench … or the whole blown-out 3C,” he said. “That gives us the most options.”
It remains unclear whether potential design changes to the road could affect the overall corridor project, or the corps’ approval of it. Frisinger said that couldn’t be determined unless and until the city formally recommended changes to the Trinity Parkway.
In general, some refinement of a plan already on the table is permissible, but major design changes could require a complete re-evaluation at the federal level.
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