Cash Money

When we least expected it, a real opportunity in southern Dallas

History has this way of throwing bean balls at us. Just about now, the city finally has escaped its South Dallas guilt complex. People no longer feel obligated to sluice money into boondoggle rip-off scams that do nothing to relieve poverty and only benefit the same six people. For a heart-rending example, read the item that ran last week on Unfair Park, our blog, titled, "Build It...and They Won't Come."

City Councilman Ed Oakley has been showing off a recent poll which found that zero percent of voters in Dallas--I repeat, zero percent--are interested in developing southern Dallas. I'm a tad skeptical of his poll, but I do believe that people--even people deeply troubled by the divisions in our city and society--are sick of getting blackmailed into spending tax money on stuff that plainly will not do any good.

So, forget about spending tax money to develop southern Dallas, right? Yeah, but here's the bean ball:

A South Korean shipping firm named its new ship the "Hanjin Dallas" because so much of its cargo comes here.
A South Korean shipping firm named its new ship the "Hanjin Dallas" because so much of its cargo comes here.

A huge economic opportunity for the whole city, maybe the biggest thing to happen to Dallas in this century--and the previous one, too--has just come our way.

We didn't do squat to bring it here. It may be the best shot at a prosperous future that we're ever going to see. But making it happen will require major investment. And guess where it is: square in the middle of southern Dallas.

I'm talking about this whole weird "inland port," "river of trade," NAFTA, "intermodal," gobbledygook thing that nobody knows what it is. I've done my best for the last year to totally ignore it. "Intermodal," for me, is a buzz word for "boring." And I always assumed those inland ports would never work because it would be too hard to drag the ships to them.

But last week I got it. I sat down with several people, notably Dallas City Councilman Bill Blaydes, who has been a point person in all this, and I forced myself to stay awake and concentrate no matter how many times they said intermodal.

Why did I do it? Strange little tale. My wife and I spent a few days recently in Marfa, down by the Big Bend country. We did not see the famous and mysteriously unexplained Marfa lights, by the way, but I figure that was our fault for failing to do the drugs.

But one day we were way the heck out in the middle of the desert on a rise, and miles away from us on the far horizon was a train, the longest train I think I have ever seen in my life, like a snake sliding around the edge of the earth. Later that day in town I watched while more of these monster trains swept through dusty little downtown Marfa, all of them double-decked with containers, all of the containers marked either "Hanjin" or "China."

All bound for southern Dallas.

Why in the world?

The words Union Pacific Wilmer Intermodal Terminal actually escaped my pen, to my own surprise, a year ago when I wrote a column about the Dallas school district agreeing to take over the failed Wilmer-Hutchins suburban school system ("Hope Chest," July 21, 2005). I had been calling people up, asking them why the Dallas school system, already hump-backed and foot-dragging beneath its burdens, would agree to take responsibility for an even more screwed-up school system.

A smarter-than-I friend in a position to know the answer said, "Drive down I-45, genius, and figure it out."

I did. And there it was--this enormous new rail facility, then still under construction, now open, designed to load and off-load as many as five monster trains at a time, with a parking lot that's the square-footage equivalent of 25 miles of freeway.

Obviously the Dallas school system was eager to ingest the Wilmer-Hutchins territory because it was looking at this facility, a big juicy turkey already on the platter, carved, dressed and ready to tax.

But I still sort of didn't know what the industry was. Train unloading? Where I grew up, we made cars. We loaded them up on trains and ships and trucks, and off they went. But is this a real industry? Unloading and re-loading other people's stuff?

To find out, I had to boost myself up out of my parochialism another inch or so and go sit like a second-grader on a little chair in front of the desk of Councilman Bill Blaydes. And don't you know that hurt? Blaydes is somebody I like to beat up on over unfair cemetery condemnations and stuff like that. Now I have to go take notes while he teaches me World Trade 101.

Not only that, but when Blaydes, a large man, speaks to me about it, he gets up out of his chair and comes over and watches me take notes, and when he thinks I'm missing something he repeats himself.

"If you look at a map of the United States..." he says. He stops. He is holding the requisite map. I was not looking at the map. Oh, yes, I am now. He continues. "If you look at a map of the United States and you look at the trade patterns of the United States..."

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