Put Out

If Dallas doesn't give the boys their road, they want the jewelry back

The nightmare anniversaries of both 9/11 and Katrina are upon us—again the dream-warped tracking shots of corpses and tangled rot, outstretched arms imploring helicopters from hopeless rooftops.

A basic element in both horror stories was the failure of engineering or politics to protect us. Especially in the Katrina story, what we took for an act of God two years ago we now know was an act of man. It wasn't the storm. It was the levees.

Someone, some group, some combination of interests, somebody told New Orleans that the Ninth Ward was safe from flooding. Even if we are never able to get a name, what do we call those people now?

Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans are central to the debate on the Trinity River toll road.
Charlie Varley/Sipa Press/NEWSCOM
Katrina and the devastation of New Orleans are central to the debate on the Trinity River toll road.

Are they bastards? Did they lie? Are they traitors? Are they killers? Maybe they're just fools. Or is it none of the above? Are we all a little bit stupid, a little less smart than we think we are? Is this what we get for thinking we can rule nature?

These are the same questions that underlie the upcoming referendum on the Trinity River toll road. The Trinity River project is about flood control. Flood control through downtown Dallas is entirely a matter of dirt berms or levees along the river and electric pumps—exactly what failed in New Orleans.

Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt has repeatedly challenged the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is in charge of flood control, to come up with another single instance anywhere in the United States where people have done what they propose here—a major highway inside flood control levees.

The Corps concedes it cannot. We are the test case, the roll of the dice. Since 1994, the national policy of the Corps of Engineers supposedly has been to avoid placing new structures in floodways. The Trinity River toll road, if built, will fly in the face of that policy.

Why? Why would we take that chance? Why in the wake of 9/11 and Katrina would we passively accept the vague assurances of the road boosters that all problems will be solved. Solved how? Solved by whom?

And here, I think, is the really telling point. What are the road boosters telling us about why we need to build this road?

They're saying it's very complicated. The suggestion is that maybe it's a little too complicated for us to understand, a little too complicated for them to explain. They say if we don't hurry up and sign on the dotted line, we'll lose a lot of money.

For one thing, they're threatening to take away the proposed Calatrava suspension bridges over the river, which supposedly never had any relationship with the toll road project in the first place. Those bridges were strictly "public art," a grand municipal statement, remember? It was the boosters who said the motive for the Calatrava bridges had nothing to do with the toll road.

This threat says everything about the underlying mentality. Strip away the pretense, and what they are saying is simple: "Listen, sweetheart, if you don't put out for me I'm going to have to have all that jewelry back."

I think they can make that one stick, mainly because the bridges really are baubles. The threat that requires the straight-up lying is the repeated vow that taking the toll road out from between the flood control levees will make all of the federal funding for the serious parts of the project go away.

Two weeks ago at a Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce function, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert, who is leading the pro-toll road effort, rose from the audience and asked Dallas Congressman Pete Sessions a question. If the move-the-toll road forces win next November and force it out from between the flood control levees, will federal funding for the rest of the project be threatened? Sessions said yes.

I called Sessions to ask what federal funding he could possibly be talking about. The "Pegasus" project to rebuild the existing freeways through downtown is already fully studied and fully authorized. The Trinity Floodway extension project, the Trinity levee raises and the related projects on the Elm Fork of the Trinity are already studied and authorized.

The single most powerful person in the United States on these issues—arguably more powerful than the president—is Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, who represents the district where the Trinity project is being built, who is chair of the House Water Resources and Environment Subcommittee and who is the lead delegate of the House to the conference committee now working on revisions to the Water Resources Development Act.

Johnson has said adamantly and clearly in statements and press releases that nobody is going to yank the flood control money from the Trinity River project.

Therefore I wanted to know what money specifically Sessions thinks might dry up as a result of a vote to get the toll road out from between the flood control levees. I hope you will be as appalled as I was by the answer his office gave me.

Emily Davis, Sessions' communications director, told me at first that in Washington they don't really keep track of the money according to the specific purposes for which it will be spent: "We do not necessarily itemize, 'Here's a toll road, here's a levee system, here's a park,'" she said.

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