Eye Candy

It's overpriced, it's gaudy and we have to put it on a credit card. Yep, that Calatrava bridge says Dallas all over.

"Those roadways are state highways," Hale said, "but the RTC is empowered to determine how they want to spend their money in that particular area."

But it did not happen. Lo and behold, the $48 million grab for the Calatrava Bridge seems to have been pulled from the RTC agenda at the last moment before the big July 13 La Quinta conclave, a little after I began making the first of what I mistakenly thought were discreet inquiries about it.

Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm, who has vowed publicly that the first Calatrava bridge is going to get built no matter what, confirmed to me that she knew about the proposal and decided against it: "There was a suggestion made that we might be able to work something through that, but it didn't turn out to be a good idea."

I asked why it was a bad idea.

"It's a bad idea because I don't want to pay that much for a bridge. It's just really not the way I want to do business."

Later I managed to buttonhole Michael Morris, director of the transportation staff at the North Central Texas Council of Governments. He confirmed that he was the one who had put the item on the agenda and then pulled it. But Morris told me repeatedly it had never been his intention to take the full $48 million out of the Mixmaster project.

"I think something less than that might have been reasonable," Morris said.

How much? Unclear, he said. In fact, I never got to the bottom of exactly how and why the $48 million got onto the agenda, who told him to put it there, or how and why it got taken off. But everybody I talked to agreed it would have been in the power of the RTC to hoist $48 million out of the Mixmaster and put it on the bridge.

It was suggested to me in very general terms that the item got pulled because somebody figured out at the last moment such a move could have uncomfortable political repercussions.

The membership of the RTC includes elected officials from Collin, Denton and Tarrant counties and all of the suburbs. How much do they care about hearing the symphony when they look at the bridge? In fact, how many of them even want to get to Ray's Sporting Goods?

"I'm not sure what the vote would have been, because I-30 and I-35 probably have more transportation significance than Woodall Rodgers going across the Trinity River right there," Hale said.

Yeah, well, I agree taking $48 million out of the Mixmaster to pay for the bridge could have had some political consequences. I know I personally would have called for legalizing the guillotine. But that's just me.

The really interesting question is how on earth these bridges could have become this important. What is the will? Where does it come from? Who is it who thinks these bridges are more important than the park in the river bottom that the people of Dallas voted for when we passed the bond money eight years ago?

Gail Thomas of the Trinity Trust told me she had started out focusing much more on the river park and didn't even understand why we needed the bridges at first. But she changed her mind when she began talking to people in the community.

"College kids would say, 'What river? Where's the river?' And people my age who had grown up in Dallas would say, 'Oh, God, no one cares anything about that old stinky river.'

"So I started realizing that one way to get people's attention was through those bridges. That's when I supported rethinking and revisiting the whole notion of the Calatrava bridges."

She said she thought, "Well, for people who have the means to help, the money to help, their attention first will come through something beautiful. So, therefore, the bridge."

Among people who have had "the means to help" so far have been descendants of H.L. Hunt. The Hunt Petroleum Corp. kicked in $12 million for the first bridge, which is to be named the Margaret Hunt Hill Bridge after the family matriarch. The second bridge is to be named the Margaret McDermott Bridge after the widow of one of the founders of Texas Instruments. Presumably someone is searching for one more rich Margaret to name the third bridge after even as we speak.

The city's nickname, when it's all in place? How about the Big Margaret. Margaretville? The City by the Margarets?

I go too far. These are people, generous with their money, who mean well. And if I were fair (a very big if), I would have to concede that iconic roadside architecture and symbolism have played major roles in creating the geography of America as we know it today.


In doing a little background for this article, I came across a wonderful book published in 1984 called The Colossus of Roads, written by Karal Ann Marling, now a professor of art history at the University of Minnesota. In the book Marling explains how Americans have used various totems and iconic structures to define their space from the early days of the nation, especially in the Upper Midwest, where I grew up. She focuses on Minnesota and talks about some of the great roadside attractions I remember from childhood trips and later young adult excursions into neighboring states (and altered states).
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