Culture Wars

The toll road referendum will squash the big-hairs

I waited two weeks. Maybe in that time, I thought, the city's big-hair media (The Dallas Morning News editorial page, D magazine, PaperCity) might acknowledge that they were totally wrong.

At the end of last month TrinityVote, the group seeking a referendum on building a toll road in the river park downtown, turned in way more than enough signatures to call a referendum on the road. The big-hairs had said it could not be done.

So I thought maybe they might spend some time noodling that around and speculating on what it means that they were so upside-down inside-out totally mistaken about everything.

But as the French say, non! Radio silence from Hair-do City. So as your speculator du jour, I must speculate for them.

Next week (on the 15th) both sides in the referendum battle turn in campaign finance reports, and we will begin to see the shape of things ahead.

This is a culture war, and I can tell you right now which side is going to win: not the big-hair money-buckets who want the highway, no matter how much money they pour out of their buckets. First of all, I don't think they will have the advantage they may assume. The TrinityVote campaign finance report will offer some surprises.

I can't get anybody to give me a precise number, maybe because they're still figuring out what it is, but I think the TrinityVote folks raised between $100,000 and $200,000 just for the petition effort. If you figure that the real enthusiasm for their campaign really only begins now, it's a very respectable number.

If they can do that much for the petition drive alone, they may be able to do 10 times that for the full-fledged campaign.

But the second factor here is even more important: The only reason anybody ever even got this close to building an expressway right next to the river, right in the middle of the new river park, right between the flood control levees we depend on to protect us from becoming New Orleans, is because for a long time the public didn't know about it.

What the TrinityVote people have found is that people in the public tend to move quickly from almost no awareness of the issue to outrage, as soon as they understand what's really being proposed.

Already with the petition drive alone, I think TrinityVote has confirmed something I have always devoutly hoped was true about Dallas—that the city itself is much smarter and hipper than the big-hairs who still run it, and the only reason the big-hairs run it is because people in the city have lives. They don't pay attention on a day-to-day basis to very much of what goes on at City Hall, because most of it is not compelling, to put it mildly. It's stuff that sounds like plumbing problems.

Give the city something worth caring about, and the newer, more sophisticated city will start popping big-hairs like human balloons.

City council member Angela Hunt, who led the petition effort, told me at the end of last week that her group's original hurdle was not the army of so-called "blockers" hired by the other side to talk people out of signing the petitions. The problem was that very few people had any idea what the toll road was.

In 1998 when voters passed a $246 million bond issue to launch a multibillion-dollar reclamation project along the Trinity River in downtown Dallas, Angela Hunt was still in law school. Later like most people she assumed the project was what its promoters had promised in television ads—a glitzy parks project.

She told me about the period in her life a year or more ago when, as a new city council person, she was beginning to see the bait-and-switch: The promised program of parks had been squeezed down to a pathetic remnant, making way instead for a high-speed limited access highway nobody ever voted for.

She didn't vote for it or know about it. She found that her constituents didn't know about it. She found that her colleagues on the city council didn't know about it. But worse, they didn't care.

"When I would go talk to neighborhoods," she said, "I would just frankly ask people, 'What do y'all think of this toll road being built down where the Trinity park is going to go, down between the levees?' And I got these blank stares.

"And then people said, 'What are you talking about?' It was so obvious to me that no one knew.

"But once they got over that, there was disbelief. They would say to me, 'Why would we put a toll road down there?' It was very fast, going from not knowing to disbelief to anger. That was kind of the flow of emotion."

I have always suspected that most council people have only the sketchiest notions how the Trinity project really works. Some do. Some are smart and motivated like former member Sandy Greyson (who also had smart, motivated constituents pushing her). And some, like former member Ed Oakley, may have personal wealth riding on the outcomes through real estate investments, which tends to help them overcome their attention deficit disorder.

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