Tone Deaf

On the Trinity, Laura Miller sounds a lot like any other old-time Dallas pol: bad

"So what?" she asked. "It's not a pony ride. It is fixing a flooding problem over there that is a matter of life, death and property."

I said, "No, no, that's dishonest. It is fixing a problem, but it is also spending money specifically for the Trinity River Project."

She never got it. Would not get it. Never once agreed in any way that she had an obligation to tell voters they were being asked to pay for $73 million more in new local tax money for the Trinity project.

A month ago when I started writing about all this money in the bond program, Miller fired off an angry letter to the Observer accusing me of "gross distortion of the facts." Please read what she said in just one paragraph of that letter:

"We have 1998 bond money for Phase One, which includes the two downtown lakes, four large wetlands, six gateway parks, trails, a soccer complex, and an Audubon Center and an Equestrian Center in the Great Trinity Forest. A lot of that is currently under design or construction."

OK, do a reality check on me, will you? Is it your impression she is saying all of this stuff is going to get done and will be paid for with the 1998 bond money? If it is, then allow me to present you with some facts:

After Miller's big "redesign" of the project three years ago, the city is now short $5.87 million for the water source for the lakes alone. It's short $6.68 million for all the stuff that's supposed to go around the lakes such as boardwalks and pavilions and so on. It's short $4.83 million for construction of the second lake. It's short $5 million for the wetlands and $18.83 million for the trails. It's short $1.84 million for the gateway parks. The Audubon Center, believe it or not, is paid for.

Gosh, mayor, we're sorry, but your debit card is overdrawn a total of $43.05 million on that one paragraph alone. Don't you think you should have mentioned that?

When you ask her that question, she has a remarkably let-them-eat-cake reply. At one point in our discussion last week, she told me that the basic numbers for her "expanded vision plan" have always been available to the public.

She said: "I always say, 'It's a lot more ambitious plan now, and in the future we're going to have to figure out how we're going to pay for this thing.'"

I said: "Well, I haven't heard the numbers."

"Well, I haven't had the numbers," she said, "because I don't know..."

I'm afraid I did interrupt at that point, according to the recording. I said: "But the numbers have been right here, you just finished telling me."

"I know," she said, "but we weren't hiding them."

Umm...did you follow that? No, me neither. I tried for an hour and 45 minutes to follow her, and I couldn't.

And here is the ultimate and final irony for me in all this. This kind of square, fusty, Park Cities shopping spree approach to public policy is how things have always been done in Dallas, because the old guard here labors under the belief that sophistication is fanciness.

But Miller came to politics as the no-nonsense champion of common sense. She was going to force City Hall to go cold turkey on pretentious "big-ticket" projects and get us back to the basic bones of the city. Remember all that?

I believe she meant it. I even believe it's where her true heart lies. She tells me—she tells everybody—that it was her husband, lawyer and politician Steve Wolens, who convinced her she was "stupid" and should go for the big ticket on the Trinity.

What a shame. A shame she didn't have the guts or the backbone to resist that very bad advice. A shame she didn't have the focus or the attention span to keep tabs on the price tags. A shame she thinks this is good.

One writer in town, Scott Bennett at dallasblog.com, recently said this debate about the river is a case of "small ball" versus "long ball." The big, fancy river project with the bridges and the huge unfunded local burden, he suggested, is the long-ball vision, and focusing on streets and curbs back in the neighborhoods is what he called small ball.

But that thing on the river with the unneeded highway and the Calatrava bridges, that's just goofball. It's not cool. It's not sophisticated. It's not what will draw people to live downtown.

So I'm not confused about her anymore. She wasn't up to the job. The Trinity project is a fiscal nightmare. And its ultimate failure will be her legacy.

Too bad.

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