Dear Congress

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

Oh, gosh, I think I sense another sneer forming out there. You're saying to yourself, "Obviously there aren't enough morons in all America to actually tear down all the freeway bridges in a major city and replace them with Spanish suspension bridges just to 'make a statement.' So there's a real reason for it, and this ain't it."

Absolutely. Now we're getting somewhere.

The Trinity River project, to rebuild the river where it runs through the center of Dallas, has been billed as a flood-control project, a parks and recreation project, even a civil rights project (to unite the city and compensate for past environmental racism). I suspect you gentlemen will be unsurprised to learn that the Trinity River project is actually a road project. You've seen a few of those in your careers, haven't you?

This is a real estate scheme dating back to the late 1950s, centered on a "development road"--in this case a limited-access highway designed to bring traffic into what is now an aging, fully amortized, obsolete industrial and warehousing district. Some of the city's oldest and most entrenched land-holding interests and families, including the family that controls the city's only major daily newspaper, have holdings in the areas that would be enhanced by this project.

What was that? I heard that. You just said to yourself, "Sounds like a fine project."

Hey, wait a minute. Remember the rules. These are, after all, your rules. Since the early 1990s, your own rule for bankrolling road projects has been "congestion mitigation." You're not supposed to put federal tax dollars into a highway unless the highway will reduce traffic congestion.

This road, now called the "Trinity River Toll Road," is, like all development roads, designed to create traffic congestion. It's designed to bring traffic into a backwater area where drivers do not now especially want to go, in order to create business for the real estate developments the landholders hope to create.

How can I prove that? In fact, there are stacks of traffic studies to show that this road does not meet congestion mitigation standards set by the federal government. But you don't have time for that, and I think we can cut to the chase a little anyway: Did you notice that you are not paying for this road? You are being asked to pay for a big chunk of the bridges over the road but not for the road itself.

The proposed Trinity River Toll Road is not a fully funded federal highway like the rest of the limited-access highways through downtown Dallas, because it doesn't meet federal traffic standards and therefore doesn't qualify for federal funds. The reason it doesn't meet those standards is because it does not reduce congestion. It creates congestion. It's a development road.

What does that have to do with suspension bridges? Everything. This road project is for a multilane limited-access highway jammed on top of the flood-control berms or levees along the Trinity River. (By the way, the project also flies in the face of federal flood-control policy calling for less construction, not more, in floodways.)

In order to crowd a highway into this narrow space, along with some eyewash parks and a mini-lake or two, the city will have to reconfigure the river itself into multiple channels. The only way to get all of that done in the space available is to tear down the pier-and-beam bridges now carrying traffic over the river and replace them with suspension bridges. Without the suspension bridges, the rest of this Rube Goldberg design collapses.

But the city can't admit that it needs new bridges in order to make the toll road project fly, because then the cost of the toll road would really go through the roof. The only way to rationalize tearing down the bridges--and perhaps provide you gentlemen with a fig leaf--is to lie and say the bridges have to come down anyway because they are decrepit.

I don't happen to think I'm totally naïve about the politics. I know there is sometimes a gap between the practical reality of public works projects and the broad pronouncements of official federal policy. But I ask this question of you: How often is the whole house of cards based on a central flat-out lie?

Those bridges are not slated for demolition. If you give Dallas this money, you are doing one of two things. One: You are paying to tear down perfectly good bridges, in order to build very expensive suspension bridges, in order to facilitate a private development scheme. Or two: Maybe you prefer the explanation that says you wanted to tear down the bridges to "make a statement."

Now: You tell me about the politics of all that.

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