The Opposite of True

How The Dallas Morning News spins the Trinity River project

If this job craters, I have a fallback skill. I can work for the CIA! I'm qualified to read the official newspapers of authoritarian regimes and ferret out what's really happening, because I spend a lot of time reading The Dallas Morning News.

Latest good example: On October 3, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget under the White House sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers telling them that the Trinity River project in Dallas--which involves rebuilding the river where it runs through downtown--is a big mess and needs to be rethought.

Here's what happened next: The Dallas backers of the plan mounted a big lobbying effort to get Congress to pass a law saying that the project is legal no matter what. The specific kind of provision Congress would have used is called "sufficiency language." Basically, it says, "We make the laws, and we deem this project to be legal no matter what."

Robot tunnel trains--please don't laugh--are serious technology. This is an illustration of one currently under study in the Netherlands.
Element, Amsterdam, the Netherlands
Robot tunnel trains--please don't laugh--are serious technology. This is an illustration of one currently under study in the Netherlands.

They're the Congress, and they can do it.

But Congress declined to give the backers of the project the sufficiency language. A conference committee of the House and Senate did leave untouched a $10 million annual appropriation, an installment payment on the full $135 million federal share of the river project, but nobody expected them to mess with that. It was already in both the House and Senate bills.

In spite of very intensive lobbying by Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the lawmakers refused to add the sufficiency language. That means the OMB criticism still stands; there is a split within the Bush Administration about the project; and the Trinity River project is still in big trouble.

So here is what the Morning News told its readers in a lead editorial after the conference report came out:

"Overturning a recommendation from the Office of Management and Budget is not something that should be done lightly. This office provides an important checks and balance [sic] against wasteful or inappropriate spending. But the decision by Congress to do so came after serious questions were raised about many of the statements made in the Oct. 3 letter."

Naughty, naughty Morning News! You gave the comrades out there an impression that was contrary to the truthski.

Yes, Congress did authorize the money. But given the timing, no one expected the OMB letter to affect this year's appropriation anyway. And, no, no, no, Congress did not overturn the OMB's basic criticism of the project.

Here is an editorial viewpoint the Morning News might have wanted to consider: This is a time when there is great faith in the Bush Administration, at least on logistical and military issues. And here is a key branch of the Bush Administration warning the Army that the Dallas river project needs to go back to the drawing board. Does anybody here think we should take this seriously?

But you know what? In my career of Belo-watching (Belology, actually), I find that the tricky stuff the Morning News prints in the paper is way less interesting than the stuff it leaves out.

Example: For the last five years, whenever I talk to people about the Trinity River project, everybody asks why in the world the backers are so adamantly determined to cram an eight- to 10-lane freeway inside the levees. Everybody sees that putting a highway in there will wreck the river bottom as a place for a park or a lake or any other kind of urban amenity.

The road doesn't make sense even from a transit point of view. It can't generate enough traffic to qualify for normal federal highway support. Even if you build it as a toll road, it can't collect enough tolls to pay for its bonds. So what's the big deal? Who is it that wants this road so badly?

I'm still not sure myself, but I do know that the public might have been able to guess a little better about what's really going on if the city's only major daily newspaper had elected to fill people in a little more fully on the background.

One of the things the News might have elucidated, for example, given the amount of staff and resources the paper has devoted to this river project over the years, is the level of planning and speculation going on in the region right now about NAFTA and so-called "intermodal shipping."

Hillwood Development, controlled by the Perot family, is probably at the apex of this state-of-the-art form of freight handling from its center at Alliance Airport, the privately owned freight airport the Perots operate north of Fort Worth. Intermodal shipping is streamlined, containerized, computerized shipping in which freight can be shifted seamlessly from airplanes to trains to trucks and ships and vice versa. The Perots have been especially good at putting this technology together with various kinds of "freeport" and trade zone arrangements that cut out local taxes and make the customs process less onerous.

Far from anything wrong with this stuff, it's got to be the wave of the future. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad has built one of the world's largest state-of-the-art intermodal shipping facilities at Alliance. Also at Alliance are major intermodal trucking facilities. By the way, this is not a conspiracy theory. Yet. But we'll get there.

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