By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The first major public political unraveling of the Trinity River expressway project took place last week in direct response to criticisms raised by Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt. Thanks to Hunt, the Trinity has become an issue in the mayor's race.
I'm talking about the multibillion-dollar public works project to build a new freeway in the middle of that big park we were supposed to get along the Trinity River downtown.
Serious top contenders for the mayor's job in the upcoming May election—not dingbats, not wing nuts, not Dallas Observer columnists—raised serious concerns about the direction the project seems to be taking away from parks and toward roads.
At a forum sponsored by the political action committee of the MetroTex Association of Realtors, moderator Keven Ann Willey of The Dallas Morning News said, "What I am interested in hearing, what I think members of the audience would be interested in hearing, is each of your perspectives on whether you view this project more as a road project or as a park project.
"In other words, which priority would you pursue if you had to choose—giving up park land for the road to assure transportation goals, or would you realign the road, if necessary, to achieve recreational goals?"
Ring-ring, ring-ring. The bell. Please let me point out what is so surprising about that question, especially coming from somebody who works for the Morning News, which has long been a ham-fisted pusher of this project: That one question threatens to let a very big cat out of a very big bag.
For years the game has been never to admit there could even be a conflict between building lakes and parks next to the river and building a highway. Most people probably still think the project is OK. Why rock the boat, unless you happen to be in the boat-rocking business like me?
The vast majority of people in the city still think the Trinity River project consists of what they voted for in 1998—a beautiful lake downtown with sailboats and whitewater kayaking, surrounded by lovely parks and pavilions, very much like Town Lake in Austin.
But there is also an apathy about this project. When city council member Mitchell Rasansky was considering a run for mayor, he paid a pricey New York consultant to measure the importance or value of the Trinity project as a campaign issue. Rasansky showed me the results.
The Trinity project is just not very high on very many people's priority lists. It's not that people don't care. It's that people in this city have too many other concerns to care about first—crime, streets, schools, all the stuff we elected Laura Miller to take care of that she didn't. People just don't have time for the Trinity.
Plus, the Trinity project is impossibly complicated. The project has always been a set of clever public lies that fit one inside another like matryoshka, those little Russian nesting dolls. One is that the main purpose of the project is flood control. Another is that the project somehow achieves racial justice by linking north with south.
Another lie is that the expressway inside the park is necessary to relieve congestion in the "Mixmaster" freeway interchange downtown. A major lie is that the whole project, lakes and all, is paid for with federal and state highway dollars for the six-lane expressway in the park. In other words, the story is that the road pays for the lakes.
But the biggest lie is that it all nests together. Everything works. We can have the expressway, and we can have lakes, and we can have flood control, and we can have parks. Not a problem.
The backers of the project are morbidly sensitive to criticism of any kind, for good reason. They know full well that if people start to poke this thing at any point on its surface, the whole contraption of deceits falls apart in shambles.
An irony at the mayoral forum last week was that Councilman Ed Oakley, one of the project's biggest cheerleaders, said basically what I just said. But he thought he was defending it:
"If you start pulling out one of the threads, it's just like a suit," Oakley said. "It will unravel. You cannot pull out one piece or the other."
Pretty cheap suit, Ed.
These are decisions that will determine the future of the single biggest most important natural asset in the city after White Rock Lake—the river. These decisions will determine the nature of downtown for the foreseeable future.
Look how important this is, and then think about what Oakley is telling us. "You cannot pull out one piece or the other."
Why the hell not? Whose river does he think this is, anyway? The river does not belong to individual landholders. It's our river. The city's river. If we want to pull pieces out of the program, we damn well can.
But here is where they want to pull you back into the nesting lies: Oakley et.al. will tell you that you have to have the road, because it's money from the road that pays for the lakes and parks.
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.
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.