Bait and switch

The Trinity Project hits some expensive setbacks, but leave it to the News to look on the bright side

Charles Tucker, director of transportation planning and development for the Dallas district of the Transportation Department, says the agency may share some of the cost of the project. He says the amount hasn't been determined yet: "TxDOT is the final rung of the ladder. After the North Texas Tollway Authority and the city have put in their share, then TxDOT will pick up whatever we can."

Tucker says the state agency has to get a certain amount of bang for its buck in order to put money into a project. It can't spend tax dollars for roads if the roads don't relieve congestion. Both he and Dallas district engineer Jay Nelson declined to speculate on what the state might be willing to kick in for a road that gets relatively little use.

One of the stranger, therefore more intriguing, Morning News reports on the river in recent months was a Sunday piece November 29 by City Hall reporter Robert Ingrassia, under the headline, "Thinking big for their bridges." The gist of the story was that the Trinity River project was providing the city with a marvelous opportunity to rebuild all of the major spans across the river near downtown.

The article opened with references to the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate and included bubbly quotes from people in the bridge-building industry about the wonderful new bridges that Dallas now has a chance to build across the Trinity. Nowhere did the story explain why the river project should require the city to take on even more hundreds of millions in unanticipated debt for new bridges.

According to Fritz, that story is the best evidence yet that the city has been forced to jettison the whole idea of lakes in favor of a series of shallow silt-catching basins to keep the water down below the existing levees.

"They had started out by saying they were talking about lakes between the bridges that wouldn't affect the bridges themselves," Fritz said. "But if the conveyance basins go under the bridges, they will undermine the standing strength of the bridge pillars, and all of that will have to be rebuilt or replaced."

Hundreds of millions of dollars more.
Based on the pronouncements so far from City Hall, and in strict accordance with the party line first floated in Ingrassia's Morning News story, this enormous new cost will be marketed to the public as a beautification project. Specifically, the public will be told Dallas needs a "signature" bridge downtown--that is, a decorated bridge, made to look like a modern version of the Ponte Vechio in Florence or the Tower Bridge in London.

The animosity between proponents and critics of the project remains personal and intense. Some of the project's toughest critics, including Mary Vogelson of the League of Women Voters, are cautiously hopeful that the arrival on the scene of new City Manager Ted Benavides may help.

"I think he has more skills at dealing with people than [former City Manager John] Ware did, and that at least will be better," Vogelson said, "although it may be bad for people like me. It may just mean he'll be better able to help the mayor get his way than Ware was."

But the basic conviction of people who have opposed the project from the beginning is that the entire scheme is based on a carefully manipulated, deliberate lie. It's not about parks, they say. It's not even about flood control. It's all for the road, and the rest is there to fool the suckers. The best proof it's a lie, the critics say, has been the unwillingness of the Corps of Engineers to even look at what building a highway in the river bottom does to flood control.

The justification for the Trinity River project has been that it will improve flood control in downtown Dallas. The agency primarily charged with that job is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

After the bond election last May, when the corps finally released its environmental impact study of the project and asked for public comment, the central objection critics raised was that the corps had not even looked at the flood-control implications of building a freeway in the river. Since then, foes of the river project have made it clear they intend to sue the corps if the impact statement is not altered to take the toll road into account when a final version is released.

The corps had promised its final impact statement this month. Corps spokesman Ron Ruffennach now says, "It looks as if the report will not likely be available to the public until mid- to late January."

Ruffennach concedes that questions raised by the critics are the reason the corps is having such a hard time getting its final impact statement published. "It seems a lot of questions were raised during the comment phase, and we're having to do some work to get them all answered."

Fritz says the failure of the Corps to study the impact of building a highway in the river is the central flaw causing the whole project to split at the seams now.

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