Flood money

The Trinity River Plan's billion-dollar vision of levees, parks, and ponds has Mayor Ron Kirk--and most of Dallas--spellbound. But engineers warn it could lead to a flooding catastrophe and destroy the same poor neighborhoods it's designed to help.

The levees make protection downtown worse by some measure, anyway. Therefore, Fritz reasons, they're dead. Levees have to make things better, or the Corps can't build them.

But Bill Fickel and his colleagues at the conference table in Fort Worth wag long index fingers in the air and shake their heads no. They have a little list, they say. A system. A formula.

"When the positive effect of the new levees on the property next to them is balanced against their negative effect on property downtown," Fickel says, "we still come out ahead."

Hmmm. So they come out ahead. But do we?

If the plan has trouble holding together as an adventure in engineering, it nevertheless works like a Swiss watch as an exercise in leveraging public money. None of the parts quite meets its own test, dollar-wise, but each one helps to pay for the next in sometimes ingenious ways.

The toll-road project, for example, requires all kinds of fill dirt for use in building up new embankments for the road along the existing levees upriver from downtown--sort of like terraces on the sides of the levees.

The toll people can go dig that dirt out of the bottom of the riverbed, in effect creating the swale or big ditch along the riverbed, at no cost to the city or the Corps.

The whole deal, in fact, is totally dependent on road projects to be carried out by both the Texas Department of Highways and Transportation (TxDot) and the North Texas Tollway Authority (NTTA), which will bring $916 million in road money to the table. Without the road money, the river plan doesn't work financially.

The city hopes to be able to put in a mere $118 million in bond money in order to leverage the $916 million in road money. But that means, in what was originally a flood-control deal, that roads have become the tail that wags the dog.

The toll-road design is for a road that will link the Stemmons Freeway with 175, the C.F. Hawn Freeway. (Don't know where the Hawn Freeway is? That's why the highway department didn't want to spend a lot of money building a way to get to it.)

At a conference table in the regional headquarters of TxDot, planner Sandra Wesch-Schulze concedes that the Lamar Street levee is an important element in making the highway component work financially.

She should know: Wesch-Schulze is often credited with being the genius who figured out how to spin all of these roads and flood projects together into a viable package in the first place.

In order to get state highway money into the deal, she explains, it must be shown that the deal will alleviate traffic congestion in the downtown "mixmaster" and "canyon"--the big snarl where some idiot thought of having all of the region's major freeways meet in the middle of downtown Dallas. The only way to show any improvement there in the projections is by proposing a link--of tollway or highway--between the Stemmons and Hawn Freeways.

Hawn, again?
Wesch-Schulze says the projections assume that 20 years from now, a lot more people will be traveling between the general area of D/FW International Airport and the Balch Springs-Seagoville area.

Well, who knows? Twenty years is a long time. Maybe they'll be expanding that prison in Seagoville a lot.

It's a very thin projection. One of the problems with the plan is that both TxDot and NTTA have said they can't really justify doing much of this stuff much sooner than 23 years from now, unless the city or someone else kicks in a lot of the money, either in the form of cash or land or...

How about a big long levee to carry a new highway over four to five miles of wetlands along the river's eastern bank, in order to get the road down toward that Hawn Freeway?

How important is it for that piece of road to get done?
"If you eliminate the piece from 35E to 175 [the Hawn]," Wesch-Schulze says, "then you get no improvement in the canyon and mixmaster."

No improvement in the canyon-mixmaster interchange downtown means no state highway money. No deal.

And how important is it to give the state that new levee to build its road on? All of a sudden, Wesch-Schulze and a conference-table-full of assistants, all of whom had been firing off numbers like AK-47 bullets up to that point, fall into a mood of gentle imprecision.

"If you don't have the levee, we would have to build a bridge," she says.
A long bridge?
How much would that cost?
No idea.
But a lot more than without it, right?
"It would be more expensive," Wesch-Schulze says with a shrug.
Oh, that. The "more expensive" thing.

But the entire massive billion-dollar-plus thing--the levees, the lakes, the wetlands, the highways, the toll roads, even the hike 'n' bike trail, the whole thing--it barely hangs together by a financial thread, anyway.

The NTTA has informed the city that it can't build the proposed Trinity River Parkway--that shortcut from D/FW to Balch Springs--unless the city kicks in $84 million of the total $394 million cost.

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