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?

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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