Diggin' dirt

The Deep Throat secret of the Trinity River Plan is, "Follow the fill dirt"

The Trinity River Plan is starting to take on an almost zany quality, like a Marx Brothers movie. The city staff has told at least one council member that they can't be accused of going back on the original plans for the $2 billion river project because there are none.

Oh, what a relief!

A key city staffer has informed Council-woman Laura Miller that the 1998 Trinity River bond issue was based on a few thin what-if scenarios and a lot of ad-agency puffery.

The staff shows the city council pretty pictures, like this one, of things that can't be built.
The staff shows the city council pretty pictures, like this one, of things that can't be built.
As if: the "Reunion Gateway"
As if: the "Reunion Gateway"

The staff's behind-the-scenes "confession" happened in the weeks following a city council briefing on the river plan last month. In the briefing, Miller noticed that large portions of the river plan no longer have any funding, even though the staff continues to show the council big watercolor posters depicting those things as part of the plan.

At the briefing, the staff put ooh-and-ah renderings of the project on the wall, but also provided the council with a kind of coloring book to accompany the pictures. When she was supposed to be looking at the pictures, Miller cheated and looked instead at the fine print in her coloring book.

She noticed that the "levee-top promenades" -- the places in the pictures where people were shown jogging and chatting and staring off into the beautiful blue expanse of water -- were "unfunded."

Unfunded? The promenades will cost $30.4 million to build, according to the coloring book. When he first ran for office, Mayor Ron Kirk promised that the Trinity River would be turned into a "Central Park" like the one in New York. Then, when the development interests insisted on squeezing a new freeway into the plan, our "Central Park" shrank down into "promenades," or fancy sidewalks on top of the levees. And now we don't get the promenades?

There's a lot more we don't get. Miller's coloring book revealed a laundry list of don't-gets: Levee-top trails, the Loop 12 Gateway park along the river, an athletic complex, even access ramps from the bridges over the river (you know, so you can get your body into the park), the big "Reunion gathering place" that was supposed to bring us all together so we could feel warm and fuzzy, the small "community lakes" that were supposed to make West Dallas feel better.

That's $120 million right there. Unfunded.

So Miller flips the pages in her coloring book to where it talks about the "gateway" connector park for her own part of town, Oak Cliff.

Uh-oh. Clear the decks.

Nothing was touted or promised more explicitly in the bond package sold to voters than the "gateways," which were to be open spaces and linkages to tie the rebuilt green space along the river to the adjacent neighborhoods.

We were supposed to authorize $246 million in city bonded indebtedness to pay for our share of the project. The rest of the $2 billion would come from state and federal coffers.

A brochure published by the city before the May 2, 1998, election, titled "1998 Capital Bond Program Summary in-Brief," said, "trail linkages for transportation and recreational use will connect neighborhoods and high employment areas in Oak Cliff, West Dallas, and the Central Business District."

The language of the bond proposition itself said the money would pay for "open space [and] recreational facilities."

In a February 19, 1998, letter asking the Texas Attorney General to approve the city's proposed $246 million bond program, Ray Hutchison, the city's bond lawyer, argued that the parks and trails were such an integral part of the overall plan that taking them out would require a "major redesign of the entire project."

And as recently as June 8 of last year, the city staff was still showing council members color slides promising that all of the community "gateways" would be paid for from the 1998 bond program, including the Oak Cliff Gateway at about $800,000.

But as Miller continues reading the fine print, she finds that the money picture has changed since June. Big-time. The city's share of money for the "Old Meanders Restoration," a kind of mini-riverwalk in West Dallas along the original winding course of the river, for example, was described in the city council briefing last summer as coming from the 1998 Dallas bond program. Now the coloring book says, "funds not yet identified."

As for the Oak Cliff Gateway, the one in Miller's neighborhood identified in the June 8 briefing as paid for by "'98 bonds"? Unfunded.

Miller looked up from her coloring book and said to the staff: "Show me one picture in the room which is of what we can afford to do now with the $246 million the voters have approved for this project."

A reasonable request.

But there's no such picture. Not one. With the exception of Miller and Donna Blumer, the rest of the council, most of whom get the bulk of their campaign money from the interests pushing for this project, were going to vote for the plan based on the pretty watercolors.

Now, thanks to Miller, there is supposed to be a new briefing in the future, probably in April, at which the staff will tell what we're really getting for the money we've already approved.

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