Forget Brooklyn -- Dallas' own Trinity River boosters aim to con you out of tax dollars for seven silly bridges

In the recent election for mayor and city council, all of the rhetoric was about streets, potholes, and basic repairs for neighborhoods. But hold on to your wallets. Our shop-till-you-drop city council has just seen something shiny it wants to buy.

The Dallas City Council is about to commit the city to an addition to the Trinity River project that could cost Dallas taxpayers upward of $130 million -- more than half the amount the voters already agreed to last year in what was then the largest bond issue ever authorized in the city's history.

In a worst-case scenario, the additional cost, for seven new bridges across the river, could be much more, in the range of half a billion dollars.

The new plan for the Trinity River is a far cry from the original images of a lake covered with sailboats and a park filled with picnickers, but the bridges would be snazzy. According to this designerís view looking northeast toward downtown, the new Trinity would be split into two narrow channels (1) of polluted water flowing parallel to a narrow, shallow lake (2) filled with water pumped from a treatment plant, the ground, and cleaner surface water sources. The public could enjoy the vista, and presumably the smell, from concrete platforms (3) intended as gathering places. The sights they would take in would include eight lanes of tollways (4)<\m>four on each side of the river<\m>and, if the city council and engineers get their way, seven impressive new suspension bridges like this butterfly design for Interstate 30 (5) by famed bridge architect Santiago Calatrava. Narrow pathways between the lake and the sewage canals are all that would be left of what was once billed as Dallasí ďCentral ParkĒ (6), though the designers envision the project spurring residential and commercial development along the riverís levees (7).

Even though Dallas is more than $3 billion in the hole on deferred basic maintenance of streets, sewers, and other basic infrastructure, promoters of the new, enhanced Trinity River project say it is a once-in-history opportunity to change the city forever.

Critics say that sales pitch is a deliberate and enormous public deception. They say that the new program is a hugely expensive patch on the already exorbitant river project and that it was designed to compensate for stunning mistakes in the original hydraulic design.

The project's backers -- especially the Dallas engineering firm of Halff and Associates, which designed the river plan -- say the critics don't understand the complexities of a vast, multipurpose public-works campaign designed to alter the face and the heart of the city.

At its June 23 meeting, the mayor and every council member except Donna Blumer voted their hearty endorsement of the plan. At a briefing the week before, they had said they wanted the new bridges no matter what they cost, no matter where the money comes from. Swept away by the romantic vision of a renowned Spanish architect, thrilled by the prospect of leaving its mark on posterity, and assured by Halff and Associates that four of the major bridges across the Trinity River downtown are worn out or obsolete and must be replaced soon anyway, the council is plunging ahead to create seven "signature" bridges -- avant-garde steel suspension bridges across the Trinity, where new lakes are planned as part of the river project.

One would be a new bridge to carry the Woodall-Rodgers Freeway across the river. Two more new bridges, at either end of a new toll road along the river, will also become part of the plan if the cost of the exotic designs does not exceed what the North Texas Tollway Authority is willing to spend.

Four of the seven would be replacements of existing bridges -- the Interstate 30 and I-35E freeway bridges, the Hampton Road bridge, and the Corinth Street Viaduct, all of which Halff and Associates told the city council at a June 16 briefing are about to be replaced one way or another.

The council was especially pleased by the repeated assurances from Halff spokesman Jim Carillo that much or all of the cost of replacing the old bridges with fancy new suspension bridges may be absorbed by the state and federal governments. At the recent briefing, the council members seemed not even to hear their own assistant city manager, Jill Jordan, when she interrupted to say that if the city thinks it will get the money for the new bridges from the state or federal governments, "I think we would be fooling ourselves."

Apparently, it did not even occur to the council to wonder how such an incredible coincidence could have occurred -- that four major bridges across the river, including two multilane freeway bridges, could all have come up for routine replacement exactly at the same moment the Halff-designed river reclamation project was to be built.

As if irritated with Jordan for throwing cold water, they turned instead with rapt attention to Carillo. He urged the council to move quickly, even suggesting it might divert money away from trails and other amenities planned for the project to ensure that the city won't get stuck with a bunch of "plain vanilla" bridges in the next few years.

Speaking to the council face-to-face in the council's main briefing room, Carillo counted down the list of bridges that now cross the Trinity. Of the I-35E freeway bridge into southern Dallas, he said, "TxDOT [the Texas Department of Transportation] is looking to replace that within a very short time frame. It's in the cycle to be replaced." The I-30 freeway bridge, he said, "is scheduled for replacement within a very short time frame."

Referring to all four bridges, Carillo said, "These bridges will be replaced no matter what happens with other aspects of the Trinity River project."

Is that right?

Halff and Associates' assertion that these bridges are already scheduled for replacement is directly at odds with what spokesmen for the Texas Department of Transportation say.

Michelle Releford, a spokeswoman for the Dallas region of TxDOT, said flatly that the bridges in question are "not on any kind of maintenance replacement list." The two freeway bridges, she added, would be considered for replacement at some point because they are overloaded at rush hour. "The reason they need to be replaced is because they're not wide enough," she says.

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