Puppet Samba

By pulling strings, road hustlers can make the city council dance

How cool would it be to have a beautiful urban lake downtown, surrounded by pocket parks and amphitheaters, where a person could carry a bag lunch on a cool day and maybe even rent a canoe? That's what we voted for in 1998 when we narrowly approved the Trinity River bond issue.

So why is it that the Dallas City Council two weeks from now will vote instead to approve an eight-lane freeway and a mud hole?

I've got numbers to prove once and for all that this road is not needed. It fails every test of necessity, and yet it will not die.

There are two pieces of really bad logic that keep getting quoted to justify building a gigantic freeway in the river bed where we were told we were going to get a beautiful "central park." One is that the new freeway will provide a detour during the upcoming reconstruction of the old tangle of freeways downtown called the "mixmaster."

Nope. Not true.

At a city council briefing in May 2001, state highway engineers surprised the city council by telling them that the massive rebuilding planned for the mixmaster would not be helped by constructing a new highway along the river. The two things are separate and practically unrelated. When they work on the mixmaster, the state will provide temporary detours, as it has done at the "high five interchange" at Central Expressway and Interstate 635. Generally speaking, no one ever builds a new freeway to act as a temporary detour, especially this one, which will ruin forever the city's ability to develop the river as a unique recreational destination.

So after the detour argument became inoperative, the road boosters backed off to a more nebulous assertion that this new highway will be a "reliever." It will relieve things. Ask them what it will relieve, and you'll never get a straight answer. It's just a "reliever," almost as if it will relieve everything from traffic congestion to sinus pressure.

Let's cut to the chase here and go to some basic black-and-white numbers that really tell the tale on this deal--the traffic volume "warrants" for federally supported freeways. The road the council is going to approve along the Trinity won't come close to meeting the federal and state standards.

The feds maintain a specific set of standards to decide which proposed road projects deserve federal subsidies and which ones don't. A bit of background: Since the early 1990s, it has been federal law that the only good reason to build a freeway in an urban area is to reduce traffic congestion and cut down on pollution. Want federal and state money for a new freeway? Prove it will siphon off X amount of traffic from older roads. Then you can get the money.

But to do that, you have to put the road between places people already want to go, from this crowded place to that crowded place. That's how you get traffic volumes. And that rules out the old-fashioned use of road money, which was to act as a can opener for developers: Developers always want to use roads to generate new traffic to an empty place nobody even knew about before the road was built but where they own land.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) publishes a table of traffic volume warrants in effect for this region to determine how much traffic you have to have in order to qualify for a certain size of freeway built with federal and state highway money. In order to qualify for the eight-lane freeway the road hustlers want to plunk down where you and I thought we were going to have a park, they would have to show that the Trinity River highway will attract between 138,000 and 184,000 car trips a day.

But NCTCOG's numbers for the eight-lane Trinity highway show its projected daily volume down around 103,000--substantially out of range for the road planned for the Trinity. In fact, when you put a sharp pencil to these numbers, the Trinity road starts to look seriously out of place. At eight lanes, with the amount of traffic the engineers hope for, the Trinity road will be carrying fewer than 13,000 trips per lane, which will put it beneath the range of a rural freeway.

Why would we build a rural freeway in downtown Dallas, especially when it is soaking up most of the money we thought they were going to spend on our lakes and parks? And right here is where we will run up against the next piece of seriously slippery logic in this deal: The road backers will be quick to say, "Ah, but this isn't really a freeway. It's a toll road. And toll roads don't have to meet the federal traffic volume warrants."

Mmmm...let's think about that. True: This road will charge tolls. True: It will be operated by the North Texas Tollway Authority. But the plan the council is going to approve two weeks from now calls for toll-road funding to cover only 60 percent of the cost of the highway. The other 40 percent--$248 million--will come from state and federal highway money.

Question: If it's a toll road, why doesn't the toll authority pay for the whole deal? Isn't that what toll roads are supposed to do--pay for themselves? But it can't. There won't be enough traffic on the road to remotely pay the tolls needed to build an eight-lane toll road. Hence the need for the public subsidy.

So it's not a "freeway," because it won't be free. It can't meet the standards for an eight-lane freeway. And it's not a true toll road, because it can't pay its own way with tolls. It needs a major tax subsidy.

So what is it? What is it for? What test does it meet? What end does it serve?

It's a development road. It's an old-fashioned can opener, heavily lobbied by the public works contracting companies that brought us Ron Kirk as mayor, and by the Stemmons corridor landholding interests, who have played a major role in the political financing of key city council members. North Dallas member and Trinity road booster Lois Finkelman, for example, probably wouldn't even be on the council had it not been for the assistance she has received over the years from her campaign treasurer, George Shafer, a key figure in the Stemmons corridor group.

The close-in supporters of the road hope it will spawn the redevelopment of the worn-out warehouse district between the Stemmons freeway and the river. I'm convinced the Trinity toll road is also important to more far-flung interests associated with the secretive "Trans-Texas Corridor" project--a plan to build a new rail and rubber-tired freight route from Laredo to Ross Perot's airport in Tarrant County.

The Texas Department of Transportation told me last week that the full list of bidders on that project and their detailed proposals are still secret and cannot be released. I couldn't get Dean International, the Dallas lobbying firm heading up the project, to return my calls. But some of the bits and pieces of design I have been able to gather here and there make me think the diagonal northwest-to-southeast route offered by the Trinity highway could be important to this plan.

City council people never pay attention to this kind of stuff. I guess they don't have time. They tend to laugh at people who do pay attention and call them "wonks." Especially at Dallas City Hall, where the pressure from voters is distant and diffuse, politicians worry about the last biggest dude who leaned on them.

It's never you or I.

In fact, this Trinity highway business is the most powerful example I can offer you to illustrate what the Dallas City Council really is--a puppet show. That's why you and I do not get our lake, and the Stemmons corridor people and the freight haulers do get their road. They pull the puppets' strings. We do not.

I had a conversation about all this recently with Mayor Laura Miller and Mary Suhm, the chief assistant city manager. I asked them why we had to put off building the downtown lake as it was promised in the 1998 bond campaign and why we couldn't put off the highway instead. I asked why City Hall couldn't say, "We have to put the road off. There's not that much demand for it, and we're going to put all our eggs in that lake basket."

The mayor said quietly, "We're not going to do that. We need a road."

Later in the same conversation, I said, "Whenever I ask anybody how come the road cannot be put off, the answer is always, 'That's not going to happen.' But I don't get why. It's not like the Texas Department of Transportation is begging for this. It's not like the North Texas Tollway Authority is begging for it, or they'd put more money in it."

Mary Suhm said: "But we have to have a reliever route, Jim. What do you want to do? Do you want the air completely polluted and traffic at a dead stop in downtown Dallas?"

But this is not a reliever route. It's not a congestion buster. There are standards for those. This road doesn't meet those standards. You're not a giraffe. I'm not a llama. You can't call it by a name just to get your way. Reality is what it is.

I'll tell you what this road is: It's a straight-up scam. That's what all that slippery talk means. That's why the council members herk and jerk and scuffle about when you try to pin them down on it. It's why two weeks from now they will lift their wooden hands to vote for it. They're puppets. And you and I ain't the puppeteers.

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