Dear Congress

Dallas is telling a big, fat fib about the Trinity River project

This is an open letter to U.S. Senators James M. Inhofe of Oklahoma, John McCain of Arizona, Richard C. Shelby of Alabama and Christopher S. Bond of Missouri, and to U.S. Representative Don Young of Alaska and anyone else in Congress with an interest in the stalled surface transportation bill:

You are the targets of a fraud. You may think I'm naïve to bring it up. Maybe. But I still want to make sure you know.

The fraud I'm talking about is being perpetrated by my hometown, Dallas. It's probably not a fraud in the criminal legal sense. But clearly and obviously it is a political fraud involving a lot more money than most criminal frauds.

Buried in the money the Dallas delegation is seeking for the transportation improvements along the Trinity River in Dallas is $90 million to subsidize the replacement of three federal highway bridges over the Trinity. You have been told--and we taxpayers and citizens of Dallas have been told--that these bridges are officially slated for replacement because of their age and condition.

The official Web site of the city of Dallas Trinity River project tells the public here that the Texas Department of Transportation "identified the need to replace (the bridges) approximately four years ago, through their Bridge Inventory Inspection and Appraisal Program."

That is a lie.

The bridges are not slated for replacement.

I spent several weeks last August trying to get the Texas Department of Transportation to tell me whether any of these bridges was on its inventory of bridges needing replacement. The answer was long in coming. I don't know if that was because TxDOT knew this was going to be a sensitive issue in Dallas or if the public relations people helping me just had trouble getting a definitive answer from staff.

The answer came eventually: No. None of these bridges is slated for replacement. One bridge, over Interstate 30, was recently rehabilitated and is in fine shape for the future. Two others, over Interstate 35, are nearing the point where they will need restoration--not replacement--after which they will be in great shape, too.

You in the Congress know how this works because you wrote the rules. People can't pull down federally funded bridges willy-nilly. There are criteria and procedures, measurements and calculations, all prescribed by law. If a bridge needs to be replaced, it goes on the legally required list of federal bridges needing replacement. If it doesn't need to be replaced, it doesn't go on the list. To say a bridge is on the list when it's not is to lie.

I hate that word and use it reluctantly. Once an untruth has been promulgated as official policy, good people are bound by it. I raised the question again recently with Rebecca Dugger, the city employee who is director of the Trinity River Corridor Project.

I said: "I went through this with TxDOT a month ago. It took forever. I said, 'Show me the bridge inventories that say these bridges have to be replaced.' And they finally came back and said, 'They're not on the inventory for replacement.'"

Dugger said, "Right."

I said: "They're on for maintenance."

She said: "Right. I mean, that's the same thing they've told me."

But then Dugger offered me a tortured logic about how it might be a lot of maintenance, and anyway, the bridges might not be big enough. Those are different issues. The city tells its citizens and tells you that the bridges are on the list for replacement.

That's a lie.

Ah, I sense a sneer. Already. You are saying to yourself, "This clodhopper thinks things go by the rules. He doesn't get that the only rule is politics."

But I do get that, in my own crudely parochial way. And I'm going to describe what I think the politics might be. Please let me finish first on the rules, however, because the rules will take us to the politics.

The money you are being asked to give to Dallas is not to build any sort of normal or regular federal freeway bridges but for a series of so-called signature bridges over the Trinity River to be designed by the acclaimed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. These will be dramatic suspension bridges.

Somebody who works for you must have asked at some point why Dallas needed a series of dramatic suspension bridges over a narrow muddy span many casual visitors might not even recognize as a river. When the question was raised, I assume the answer was the same we have heard here in Dallas--that these bridges will "make a statement."

Had you heard that? Did anybody inform you that Dallas wants to tear down all of the major freeway bridges downtown and replace them with suspension bridges--at two to three times the cost of normal pier-and-beam bridges--in order to make a statement?

And here's my first hint at what I think the politics might be: Exactly what kind of a statement would it make to tear down perfectly serviceable freeway bridges in a major American downtown and replace them with much more expensive decorative bridges? Do you personally want to be associated with that statement?

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