By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
OK, confess. You voted for the river thing. You saw the computer graphics on TV with the sailboats on a lake in downtown Dallas.
And I know you also have a life. You have to earn a living and all that stuff. You're not hugely fascinated by hydrology, like, "Oh boy, let's all go to Borders and get a cappuccino and read about hydrology in the Dallas Observer."
Trust me, this doesn't make you a bad person.
But you do have some inkling, right? You have this itchy feeling that things may not be totally right with the Trinity River project. There's something fishy about it; keeps changing too much.
You're just not sure whom to believe. So I'm going to make this simple.
Let's take one little example of the things the mayor and the city council and the city staff have been telling you about the river project, check it out, and see what it tells us about their integrity. When we're all done, I'll leave it to you to decide.
Last year, more or less out of nowhere, city leaders came up with a plan to tear down all of the bridges over the Trinity River and replace them with hugely expensive "designer" bridges by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava.
Tearing down all the major downtown bridges over the Trinity and replacing them with "signature" bridges could add from $120 million to $130 million to the cost of the river project, but city leaders said not to worry because the bridges would be almost free.
Free bridges? Really?
Sure. In fact, city leaders said you ("the public") will end up making a killing on them. The installation of these dramatic bridges, which are sort of make-believe Golden Gate bridges, will cause so much excitement and spawn so much tourism and nearby real estate development that the public will come out way ahead on the new taxes the public will be able to collect.
So these bridges are beyond beautiful and cool. They are magic. They not only don't cost anything: These bridges create wealth.
I know. It's a lot to believe. We're like Jack, with the tether to the family cow in one hand, and the man is telling us about the magic beans. We want to believe, but it's kind of scary.
To help us with our doubts, the city staff hired a local company called Insight Research, which operates out of a suite up on LBJ Freeway, to do a study of the financial impact of the first proposed Calatrava bridge, the one that would carry the extension of the Woodall Rodgers Freeway across the river. For $14,375, Insight Research was to find out definitively whether building a fancier bridge would really cause more tourism and real estate development and thereby generate new taxes.
Great idea. That way we would know whether these bridges are really magic. It's as if a smarter Jack had said, "Would you mind having one of the beans do a little trick or something first, please, sir, before I turn over the family cow?"
Last June 21, the staff presented the council an overview of the findings by Insight Research but not the actual report. Wow! Insight Research had found that the fancier bridge would be better than free! That is, it would cost an extra $22 million to build, but Dallas would earn $27 million from it in extra tax revenues over the next 30 years, figured in 1999 dollars. And then, if you figured in all the extra taxes the bridge would produce for the school district, county, transit agency, and the State of Texas, "the public" would come out ahead by about $100 million.
Spend $22 million, get a beautiful bridge, then make $100 million back. Magic!
I asked to see the actual report. There were the usual delays. Finally, Assistant City Attorney Tracy Pounders called me and said he had found the report and would be faxing it posthaste. Minor, minor, minor detail: He said there was one little measly word they needed to cross out of the report.
Now, at this point I'm going to jump ahead a little in my story and tell you that, even before Pounders sent me the report, I was pretty sure I knew what word he was talking about.
When I got the report, I was absolutely sure. The word -- it's really two words -- occurred throughout the report. Whoever did the cross-outs, or redactions, was supposed to cross them out all the way through. Instead, the crosser-outer went over all of the instances on the first five pages of the report but neglected to go on to the back of the report, where that word occurred again, giving away the big secret.
I called people who had seen the report, who spoke to me off the record. They confirmed that I was right. I did know what the two words were. And I'm going to tell you what the words were. But I wanted to see first how far the city would go in trying to keep me from seeing the two words. Just curious.
I protested the cross-outs. Pounders refused to un-cross them. By law, that threw the matter on appeal to the Texas Attorney General.
Pounders composed a brief for the attorney general telling him why I should not be allowed to read the crossed-out word. I thought it was a very well-written brief. The crossed-out word, you see, identified an extremely major real estate client who was interested in building a large office tower next to or under or somehow in conjunction with the bridge.
Almost everything in the report was about this client. If the city went ahead with the plain old vanilla bridge, Insight Research said, the crossed-out client was interested in building only a 400,000-square-foot building next to it. But if the city built a Calatrava bridge instead, the crossed-out client was going to triple the deal. He -- or she, or they -- would put in 1,200,000 square feet, based just on being next to a genuine Calatrava bridge.
In his brief to the attorney general, Pounders cited Texas law, which says a government doesn't have to reveal the name of someone who is in the middle of doing a land deal with that government.
I sent Attorney General John Cornyn a letter saying I did not believe the crossed-out word needed to be crossed out. We went back and forth a little bit. Pounders wrote more briefs, I wrote more letters. But I don't think my letters were anywhere near as good as Pounders' briefs.
Neither did the AG. He shot me down and said the city of Dallas did not have to show me the crossed-out word.
And you can see the logic. If the deal isn't consummated yet, and if the Dallas Observer publishes the name of the party doing the deal, it could scare the party off and screw up the deal. And since I do know the name of this party, I have to say this does happen to be a party who sometimes has a very foul temper.
Furthermore, it has been my experience that this party, whose name I am going to reveal in a moment, is sometimes very cheap and doesn't always behave well. I've even seen this party drinking too much beer at the ballpark. I have seen this party at the airport in unseemly dress. In fact, you name it, I've seen this party do it: the good, the bad, and the ugly.
Hey, if it's not true, the party can just sue me.
Here's the point of the whole thing: Pounders had to cross out the word from the report, and then he had to write multiple briefs for the Texas Attorney General on your ticket, because it was so very important that this party's name not be revealed to you.
To you. The public. It's not really about me. I'm not what counts. I'm just the blabbermouth. It's you who can't know. The argument here was that if you knew who this guy was, it might just scotch the whole deal.
Why am I going to tell you? Because I'm a blabbermouth. It's legal for them to try to keep it a secret. It's legal for me to blab if I find out.
And now, the big moment. The crossed-out client whose secret identity you must not be told is...envelope, please...the client is...
Yeah, you. The public. The crossed-out word was "public." The other word was "government."
They both mean you. You're who's going to build a building next to the bridge. You're going to build 400,000 square feet of public office building if there's just a plain old vanilla bridge. But here's the magic thing: If there's a Calatrava bridge, you're going to build three times that much government office space.
Why would you build a government office building three times bigger just because it's next to a Calatrava bridge? So the government can look at the bridge, dummy.
That's what all that fight was about. That was why I couldn't see the word. Most of Insight Research's predicted tax windfall from the bridge was based on the assumption that some branch of government -- city, county, state, federal, who knows? -- would come in and put an office tower next to the bridge.
That's not what we call genuine private-sector interest, is it?
But, wait: If it's public, doesn't that make it tax-exempt? I tried several times to reach Elizabeth Morris, president and CEO of Insight Research, and I left a long message on her voice mail telling her what I wanted to ask about, but a person in her office finally told me she was really busy and would never be calling me back.
So, anyway, here's the drill: You are going to make money by building a bridge that will be so attractive that you will not be able to resist building a big office tower next to it. The tragedy is that, later on, you are going to find out that your office tower is tax-exempt, so you won't be able to tax yourself to pay yourself back for your bridge.
I wish we had a minaret right next to the river, from which we could broadcast the weary voice of Jack's mother, chanting over and over like a call to prayer, "Jack, where is the money for the cow?"