Pants on Fire

Looking forward to even more whoppers next year

Wow. What a year. The city's ship of state is pulling apart at the welds. Down in the engine room they're up to their necks in saltwater. Somebody threw the captain overboard. A big pirate ship from the Park Cities just hove into view. They want us to behead the remaining officers. We're thinking about it.

Speaking as a Dallas Observer columnist, this has been the second-best year of my life. The next one will be the best.

Please understand. Rascality and mayhem are to me what wheat is to a miller. And I see bumper crops ahead.

For example, recently arrived on my desk is the slickly produced special Dmagazine Trinity River edition, just out, called "The Trinity: How the river will change Dallas forever." This magazine--a collection of preposterous whoppers, fibs, prevarications, exaggerations, subterfuge, propaganda and Orwellian doublespeak--is an omen of things just ahead.

This is a town where some people think telling big fat whoppers is "leadership" and believing those whoppers is "having faith." This magazine on my desk--a "special report" by D,Dallas' quarter-century-old city magazine--is a perfect example.

The magazine is a sales pitch for the Trinity River project, Dallas' own "Big Dig," an ambitious multibillion-dollar public works project to rebuild the Trinity where it flows through the center of the city. By a very narrow vote in 1998, voters approved $246 million for parks and a sailboat lake in the center of downtown. An expensive ad campaign for the proposal assured voters that the city's $246 million would be matched with $1.2 billion in state and federal funds.

What a deal. We put $246 million on the table. They put in $1.2 billion. We turn a foul-smelling sump downtown into a mini-Mediterranean. Developers rush in with cool condo towers and waterfront restaurants. Why wouldn't we do this?

Before we pull the Dmagazine special edition apart like an over-boiled, crudely spiced freezer chicken, let me just cut to the chase on the answer to my own question: Of course, we woulddo what was promised us when we voted for the bonds. That's why we voted for the bonds, however narrowly. We did want what they showed us on TV.

The problem is that we're not getting it. Not remotely. We have been scammed. Three years ago lawyers for the city of Dallas went to district court and argued that the city should not be bound by any of the promises the city made during the bond campaign. Judge Ann Ashby agreed.

So please allow me to run it down for you in detail. The Dmagazine special edition goes on and on about the recreational amenities the Trinity River project will create: "...the Trinity River will accommodate small sailboats and paddle boats," the magazine tells its readers. "More interestingly, a reverse-flow lake is planned with a 17-foot drop where it curves back to the river, creating rapids and a perfect whitewater course for winter kayaking competitions...

"But the most visible benefit will be on the Oak Cliff side, which will have easy access to downtown, great views and--most important of all--along the levee, direct entry into the country's largest urban park."

All of this is a lie.

Dmagazine assigned a team of reporters to work on this. At some point, one or more of them had to do what I am going to urge you to do, which is go click on the city's official Trinity River project Web page at www.trinityrivercorridor.org. Once there, I want you to click on "Balanced Vision Plan" over at the left-hand side of the page. Then click on "executive summary." I hope all this stuff will still be up. It's been posted for a year, but I asked the city about it last week, and they might get clever and pull it down.

You will see a PDF document, and on the second page of that document, after the cover page, you will find a table showing what is funded and included in the project as it now exists. The same table also shows what could be included if the city found a way to come up with an additional $110 million (an increase in our total investment of 45 percent). And it also shows what could be included if someone, possibly Santa Claus, kicked in an additional $700 million. I was disappointed because I wanted to see what we could have if an anonymous donor gave us $52 kadoozerzillion. Eternal youth?

Here's the point. And remember, in months of preparation, reporting and interviews, there is no way that somebody at Dmagazine did not know this: There is no white-water kayaking, no waterfalls, none of that in this plan. The exact word in the document is "none."

And what if the city were able to come up with another $110 million and go to the "Expanded Phase 1" version of the project? Dallas Mayor Laura Miller is quoted in the magazine as saying the extra $110 million, for which she is willing to recommend a tax hike, will "put all the bells and whistles" on the project. So how much white-water kayaking will "all the bells and whistles" include?

None. We don't get white-water rafting until we come up with the additional $700 million.

Think I'm kidding? I checked with Trinity project director Rebecca Dugger to make sure this document is still operative, and she assured me it is. Believe me: The white-water rafting is the least of it.

Maybe you weren't sure a minute ago, by the way, what a "reverse-flow lake" is. Please let me explain. Right now all of the water in the Trinity River is "effluent" or doo-doo water from upriver sewage treatment plants, some of which don't meet minimal EPA standards. It's not safe to swim in. I have spoken to experts who have said it would be unsafe to go sailing on top of this water unless you were wearing a HAZMAT suit.

All of the boating ideas depend on pumping properly treated doo-doo water back upriver from the Dallas Sewage Treatment Plant and then allowing it to "reverse" or flow back down the river. So how much money is in the basic plan for doing that?

Not enough. What we are getting instead is a stagnant rainwater lake with groundwater pumps that somebody hopes will keep the lake a little bit wet during the dry season.

Boating? Well, sure, if you want to park downtown and carry your boat across the levees and down through the ticks and chiggers to the stagnant water. The levee-top roads and the park access roads shown in all the fancy graphics for this project are not in the plan.

Neither, by the way, are the recreation terraces, the amphitheater or the concession and event facilities. They're not in the basic plan. They're not in the $110 million plan. They're in your dreams. The storm-water wetlands, the headwater wetlands, the boardwalks--not there.

Why aren't they there? You'll never get a straight answer out of Miller or anybody else at City Hall about this, so I'd go with this answer: In October 2003, the city manager proposed a new version of the project plan--the one you will still see on their Web page--in which $32 million that had been dedicated to lakes and parks disappeared. But the cost of the multilane freeway they want to jam in on top of the river--not in the plan we voted on in 1998--went up by $180 million.

Think that might be where the white-water kayaking money went?

Let me point out something else that's very important. Our current mayor, Laura Miller, started out as an ardent and effective critic of "big ticket" glitz and glamour public works projects that drained money away from neighborhoods, street repairs and schools. She made her name on these issues when she was here at the Observer. She ran for the city council on these issues. She ran and was elected mayor on these issues.

She is the star of the special Trinity River edition of D,as the No. 1 public proponent of the Trinity project, promising people that they will reap benefits she knows they will never see.

In an interview titled "The conversion of Laura Miller," she gives a strange account of why she switched. She says her husband, former state representative and wealthy asbestos lawyer Steve Wolens, told her, "You are stupid." She says Wolens told her to support the project. So she did.

Could that possibly be true? Or is this some kind of bizarre psych-out designed to win the soccer-mom vote? I'm not sure I want to know.

Here is what counts. This is the end of the second most crucial year in Dallas politics in the last quarter-century. The most crucial will be next year, when we will vote on fundamental changes to the legal structure of our community.

What I want to say to you is this: Especially right now in Dallas, powerful interests are determined to spin whatever kind of voodoo doo-doo they have to in order to get their way on real estate and public works deals worth fantastic amounts of money to them. You have a tough challenge ahead in knowing whom to trust.

This town is eerie. People come along; they seem tough and spunky; next time you see them they have that body-snatchers glaze over their eyes and they're telling you to go along with the plan. All you can do is shrug and figure somebody got to somebody.

Next year? Every little chance we get, let's try to keep our eyes on the ball. If the guy next to you gets that glaze? Ooch away from him, look for the ball. It's going to be an absolutely wonderful 12 months. For me, anyway.

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