Mayor Mudhole

Maybe the Trinity project will sort out these mayoral candidates

Wait, wait: I know you have more important fish to fry. But hang with me here for one second, because I say this is not just about the Trinity. It's about the caliber and nature of the leadership we're going to put in charge at City Hall in the May election.

The road, as council member Hunt has been pointing out, is horribly in the red. In terms of what it will cost to build, the road just keeps opening its big scary jaws wider and wider. In my column last week, "Hunt for Truth," I quoted Hunt as telling city staff at a briefing: "In February 2005, the toll road cost $690 million. It morphed into $930 million. That's a 35 percent increase."

I reported in a column late last year ("My Brain on Crack," December 7) that the city was hoping to raise $461 million in state and federal highway funds to pay for the unfunded part of the road. But since then the cost has gone up to nearly a billion dollars, so the road project is another $461 million in the hole.

Former airline CEO and turnaround artist Sam Coats, who is running for mayor, is one of several candidates concerned about the Trinity River project.
Brian Harkin
Former airline CEO and turnaround artist Sam Coats, who is running for mayor, is one of several candidates concerned about the Trinity River project.

Wait a minute. This thing is somewhere around half a billion or more in the red, and it's the big profit center? It's paying for what again?

And get this: Now the city says it doesn't have the money even with the road project to finish any of the lakes. All it can do is dig the holes and try to pump them full of groundwater.

No pavilions. No trails. No whitewater. Mudholes.

Then you have the fact that the Corps of Engineers has told the city it can't build its highway on top of the mud levees that protect downtown—duh!—so the city must move the freeway even farther out into the middle of Dallas Mudhole Park.

The responses Willey got to her questions last week were pretty damned interesting. Candidate Sam Coats, a former airline CEO and corporate turnaround artist, said: "The road thing concerns me greatly. The more I learn about it, the more I talk to people like Angela Hunt, the more concerned I am that we are sacrificing enhancing those levees. We are sacrificing parks. We are sacrificing all the environmental amenities that were sold to the public.

"I haven't made a final decision on it yet," he said, "but I am very uncomfortable seeing that roadway inside the levees. It's going to take a lot more convincing for me to support that."

Lawyer Darrell Jordan, a runner-up for mayor in 1995, said: "If required to choose in favor of the parks or the roadway as the option, without any doubt I would favor the park. Without any doubt that's what I voted for in '98. I think most people did."

Candidate and council member Gary Griffith gave a nuanced response that was a little hard to read. Oakley came out four-square for the road, as did candidate Tom Leppert, who comes from the public works construction industry.

Leppert, a personally engaging candidate with lots of energy and charisma, was the most rah-rah in his support of the road, even more than Oakley. Leppert said we just gotta get it done, no time now for nitpicking, full speed ahead, just do it.

Because these guys are talking about it, the question of whether the road pays for the parks will get a definitive answer, sooner rather than later. I have been down this path myself, but rather than bore everybody by repeating myself, I'm going to let the candidates work this one out as best they can on their own.

The answer is going to be that the road is absolutely unrelated to the cost of the park and lakes. In fact, if we take the road out of the project the rest of the project will be better off financially.

When that information gets out there, then this issue takes on a whole new life in the mayor's race. The Trinity project itself is not visible enough on the radar to become an important mayoral issue on its own. But the answer to the money question will draw a new line in the sand on issues of integrity and leadership.

Which candidates will be willing to look at the facts and consider pulling the road out in the public interest? And which ones are going to keep talking blarney in order to get the road done no matter what?

Put another way: Which candidates are there for the taxpayers and the voters? And which ones are there to do the bidding of the old gang, the public works, Citizens Council, big-ticket project boys?

Now that's a good issue for a mayor's race.

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