By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
You just never know. You go to these incredibly boring City Hall meetings in a back room with people mumbling about fill dirt, and you think it is never...ever...EVVVer going to end. And then BAM! The big bomb goes off.
Last week I attended a meeting of the Dallas City Council Trinity River Committee. Why? Because it is my destiny to be bored. Normally I need a quadruple jolt of Starbucks to make it through one of these things. Even then, I have to do things like think about my last visit to the Great Trinity Forest in order to scare myself awake.
But just when I was afraid I might fall asleep and never again achieve consciousness, city council member Angela Hunt took the microphone and ripped the top right off the whole Trinity River Project. Sparks were geysering all over the place.
Go ahead. Tell me I just liked it because she said things I agreed with, but look, Hunt was scoring points way out ahead of anything I have ever said.
Here's the thing about her. Of the entire city council, including past councils with the exception of former member Sandy Greyson, Hunt is the only one who has ever dug deep into these facts on her own hook.
The rest of the council know nada! Including the mayor. Because they want to know nada. Hunt knows todo.
She told the committee the project that voters approved in a bond election nine years ago has been completely hijacked. What was supposed to be a beautiful downtown lake has become a plan for an ugly mud puddle beneath a cloud of exhaust from an expressway that nobody voted for.
"I just want to be very clear," Hunt said. "We are cutting our park that we sold to Dallas residents with sailboats and promenades and trails by one-third to accommodate this toll road."
She grilled city staff on the metastasizing costs: "In February 2005, the toll road cost $690 million. It morphed into $930 million. That's a 35 percent increase."
Now the entire road has to be redesigned because of post-Katrina concerns about damage it might do to the levees that protect downtown from flooding.
"I don't see anything in this briefing about how much the re-engineering will increase the cost of this project," she said. She asked Trinity Project director Rebecca Dugger, "Do we know when we're going to know?"
Dugger, who is always honest, said, "I haven't talked to them yet about cost."
And then Hunt pretty much took their heads off over an issue nobody in the public even knows about yet: Our wonderful City Hall, led by our supposedly environmentally conscious mayor, is secretly hoping that FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will give Dallas a "variance" allowing it to stick with old pre-Katrina regulations—you know, the level of protection that wiped out New Orleans.
You got it. Goes like this: The feds study New Orleans. They figure out what happened. They tell everybody else in America how to avoid it. But they let us stick with the old mistakes. And that's a good thing?
Hunt went after that one with a ball bat. I was totally awake.
"My question is, number one, has this come before the council or is this going to come before the council, because I think we as a city should say whether or not we support having the pre-Katrina guidelines. I sure want the post-Katrina guidelines for a levee."
"It looks like they're covering their butts," he said.
Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan had suggested maybe some of the feds just aren't too bright. "The Corps doesn't seem to understand," she said. Picking up Oakley's theme, she suggested the dumb feds are trying to make Dallas pay for something that happened way far away in whole 'nother state.
"It's an interesting kind of a situation," Jordan told the committee, "in which the Corps is trying to respond to something that happened elsewhere [New Orleans], and we're trying to do something completely different here."
We don't think of Dallas as flood-prone like New Orleans. But it is. The Trinity River drains an immense area, and it is aimed straight at downtown like a gun.
"I think we as a city should speak loudly and clearly," Hunt said, "on the fact that we do not want to use pre-Katrina safety regulations. We want to use post-Katrina guidelines. Why would we set ourselves up for anything like that? It doesn't make sense."
And at this point, I'm guessing a lot of this doesn't make sense to you either. What's with the road? What does the road have to do with floods? Or having a lake down there? I'll get to that. But first let me make one tiny observation:
In these small meetings, when the council members are all eyeball-to-eyeball and toe-to-toe and hardly anyone from the public is watching, it's really hard for one of them to stand up that way. The ruling etiquette is from high school. The minute Hunt started to talk, Oakley scrunched up his shoulders and rolled his eyes at the others, doing his "Angela is SOOO uncool!" thing. The rest of them sort of ducked and smiled back at him.
It takes a lot of guts. Hunt fortifies herself with the kind of back-breaking research that only a lawyer like herself can do. But it's still hard to stand up to the group that way.
If this were about politics and personal ambition, I don't think she would ever do this. The costs are too high. This is genuine concern verging on alarm over a fantastically stupid mistake that the city seems determined to make. These are really serious issues.
The park and lakes that voters thought they were voting for are just about gone, eaten alive by an expressway the city wants to build right inside the park area. Why do they want an expressway there? I could go on all day, but mainly it's because the business interests along Industrial Boulevard don't want to have it on their street.
Their guy is at every one of these meetings. His mission is to make sure the new "reliever route" for the downtown freeways doesn't come down Industrial.
We are sacrificing the river front, the one natural resource we thought we were saving, in order to protect beautiful Industrial Boulevard. Go figure. Industrial Boulevard has a lobbyist. The river has only you and me, and we're just voters.
Ever since New Orleans got wiped out by defective levees, the Corps of Engineers has been trying to tell Dallas that it cannot dig its freeway roadbed into the side of the mud levees that protect downtown. Now the Corps has told the city in no uncertain terms that it must move the design of the proposed expressway 70 feet away from the levees and deeper into the park area.
Oops. There goes more park. And that's just the latest mouthful. Hunt pointed out that two years ago we already lost 53 percent of the park to the toll road in an earlier "realignment." Now we're losing another 15 to 37 percent of what's left, depending on how you measure.
I happen to think things are much worse than the city lets on. City staff told the committee the toll road will be about 120 feet wide. I have reviewed engineer's renderings that show the road at a width of 500 feet in some places, with entrance and exit ramps that will completely cover one half of one of the lakes they're supposed to build.
The lake we're supposed to be able to sail on? My measurements of the latest available renderings show it at about 60 acres, plus or minus a few. White Rock Lake, for comparison, is more than 1,100 acres.
The really priceless response to Hunt's criticisms came from Craig Holcomb, a former city council member who is executive director of "Trinity Commons," a private lobby group pushing for the toll road. Holcomb, a member of the sparse audience that day, was incensed when Hunt brought up brochures and television spots before the bond election in 1998 that promised voters a big lake with sailboats.
"Some of the material showed sailboats," he conceded. "There may not be a sailboat. But that's the way it is."
It is? It is? Well, Mr. Holcomb, do you think maybe it's time to go back to the voters and tell them that's the way it is? No sailboats? A mud puddle? And a great big ripping, roaring freeway jammed right up against the bank of one lake and actually out over the middle of the other one? Do the voters really know that?
The last issue Hunt brought up may actually turn out to be the silver bullet that kills this thing. It's a bit much to explain here, but basically the Corps of Engineers has told the tollway authority it will retain the right to tear down sections of the highway in order to do future work on the levees. The tollway authority will be on the hook to fix the road afterward.
The tollway authority has to raise money from private investors. They're saying it's going to be hard to get people to invest if they have to say to them, "Every once in a while the Army Corps of Engineers may have to tear this sucker down, and then we'll have to pay to rebuild it."
The toll road and park issues are serious enough. But the thought that city council members would consciously grin and shuck us into the same shape New Orleans was in before Katrina is unbelievable.
In all this talk of pre-Katrina and post-Katrina, you know what we have that New Orleans did not? Angela Hunt.