KETR

Dallas media roundup: Northeast Gateway

Sep 30, 2014

For about a year and a half, Dallas-area media didn't pay a whole lot of attention to the North Central Texas Council of Governments transportation study of the "Blacklands Corridor" between Greenville and northeastern Dallas County. There was a bit of a rumble in early 2013 when it seemed developers might try to put in a toll road along the old Blacklands Railroad right-of-way, but when the Council of Governments shot down that plan, the whole story went onto the back burner for a while.

Not that Dallas media don't pay attention to transportation issues. On the contrary - despite the fact that public-policy stories are sometimes snoozers that don't have the click-bait power of crime and political topics, area media have made sure that even in these years of limited editorial resources, transportation gets covered. The Dallas Morning News and Dallas Observer each have their own transportation blog to supplement their regular coverage. Understandably, both outlets are focused on transportation stories within Dallas itself.

But when a public meeting in Lavon had to be stopped halfway through due to an overflow crowd, area media began to take notice. And when about 1,300 crowded into Rockwall's performing arts center - almost unanimous in their opposition to a toll road - that made even more take notice.

Activists collect petition signatures and distribute literature at a Sept. 22 public meeting in Rockwall on the Blacklands Corridor feasibility study, which includes preliminary recommendations for a toll road between Greenville and the President George Bush Turnpike in far northeastern Dallas County.
Credit Mark Haslett / KETR

Back in 2013, when some Dallas-based developers started acting like they were ready to break ground on a toll road along the old rail route, the North Central Texas Council of Governments said, "Whoa, pardner." By federal law, any new highways must be part of an overall regional transportation plan designed through a public process. So the Council of Governments told the developers to back off and await the results of a feasibility study to include the entire corridor.

And so the study began, with public meetings along the way. Council of Governments set up a web page for the study and began distributing information through a quarterly newsletter and email lists. 

Fears in Hunt County waned a bit when the study ruled early on that a road of any kind along the railroad path was a bad idea for many reasons - not wide enough, too close to too many commercial and residential areas (after all, that's where the train used to go). The Council's study recommended that the old right-of-way be left alone for the time being, maybe in the decades to come developed as a light rail and/or bicycle path. 

However, closer to Dallas, the study did find that the area around Wylie and Lavon is a mess, and even with recent improvements to State Highway 78, another east-west thoroughfare in the area could be justified. East of the Collin County-Hunt County line, traffic projections dropped off, leading to talk that even if a toll road were built in the suburbs, that such a road need not run all the way out to Greenville.

Only about 50 people showed up at a Tuesday evening public meeting in Garland on the topic in May of this year. Perhaps that led Council of Governments planners to think that a Sept. 4 public meeting at NeSmith Elementary School in Lavon would go off without a hitch. In July 2013, the school's facilities had been adequate for a meeting on the topic, even though the house had been full.

Such comfortable presumptions ended up punching the Council of Governments a one-way ticket to Meltdownistan. About 500 people showed up for a meeting in a room with a hosting capacity of about 200. Overflow guests were moved to a gym and offered a video feed of the proceedings. A failed sound system added to the circus-like environment before a local fire marshal shut the event down

That got people paying attention. And then the huge turnout in Rockwall two and a half weeks later attracted even more notice. Over the past week, here's a sampling of what's been in Dallas-area media outlets in the topic:

  • WFAA-TV highlighted the fact that Texas Turnpike Corp. is a private business - not named Dallas Cowboys - that has power of eminent domain. WFAA's John McCaa finds that disturbing
  • The Dallas Morning News points out that the North Central Texas Council of Governments' traffic projections are significantly, sometimes wildly higher than that of the Texas Department of Transportation. 
  • Taking a big-picture view, D Magazine noted that the controversy underscores how public transportation policy is in large part designed by engineers and other number-crunchers who work for or with public agencies. D Magazine doesn't suggest an alternative, but does suggest that the current model doesn't look good when public opinion stands in opposition to the recommendations of public agencies.
  • Dallas Observer staff have, of necessity, been more focused on the Trinity Toll Road, a local proposal already being decried as a boondoggle. But, the Blacklands Corridor situation is on their radar.

Meanwhile, Texas Turnpike Corp. continues its series of public meetings along the corridor with a 6 p.m. event tonight at the Hampton Inn, 3001 Kari Lane in Greenville.

Other Texas Turnpike Corp.-hosted meetings set for October:

Wed., Oct. 1, 7-9 a.m., Holiday Inn Express, 1001 Pullen St., Royse City

Thu., Oct. 2, 7-9 a.m., Comfort Suites Lake Ray Hubbard, 8701 E. I-30, Rowlett

Thu., Oct. 2, 6-9 p.m., Comfort Suites Lake Ray Hubbard, 8701 E. I-30, Rowlett

Tue., Oct. 7, 7-9 a.m., Best Western Plus, 2011 Texas Highway 78, Wylie

Tue., Oct. 7, 6-9 p.m., Best Western Plus, 2011 Texas Highway 78, Wylie

Wed., Oct. 8, 7-9 a.m., Holiday Inn Express, 1001 Pullen St., Royse City