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?

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.

"The Trinity River project is looked at as a whole, and while there may be funding that is earmarked for particular places that then is itemized, we have sold the project as an entire piece to the appropriators."

I allowed as how I did not believe this to be the case. I didn't want to get all heavy and start hitting her with the very high grade I received in my high school civics class, almost an A if memory serves, but I did tell her I believed strongly that the appropriations process is a little more careful than that.

You know, like as least as good as my checkbook. I don't write in the ledger, "About four hundred bucks, stuff I did in Chicago." They don't appropriate $1.2 billion as "that Dallas river thing."

I tried to pin her down: "Are we talking about the flood control element? Is it WRDA money? Water resources?"

"Right," she said.

Later I asked: "There is no distinction between the flood control money and the transportation money?"

And here finally she paused, making me believe Ms. Davis may have been searching back through her own memory of high school civics class. "There is," she said at last. "I can get you specifically like how it's broken down if you want me to."

I said that was exactly what I had been hoping for all along. That was a week ago. I have tried to reach her by voice and e-mail to remind her of her promise. Radio silence. Nothing. Not a word. Sessions' staff still has never agreed to explain what federal money he was talking about.

But that's not my worst case. My worst case last week was our new mayor, Tom Leppert. I called him to ask him these same questions. He gave me a more precise argument than Sessions' staff had offered. But when I tried to ask follow-up questions, Leppert asked me to e-mail those to him. He promised to give me specific answers in time for my deadline.

Later I had a detailed conversation with Becky Mayad, his spokeswoman, in which I explained what my deadlines were and offered to stretch them out through a holiday weekend to give him as much time as possible to get back to me.

I asked him to respond, if possible, to the following points: Leppert continues to assert that the North Texas Tollway Authority is going to "dig our lakes for us" in the project but that the agreement to do so would disappear if there were no toll road between the levees.

But there is no such agreement. There is no contract. No one even knows if the NTTA would be able to use excavated river silt to build a flood-proof platform for the road.

He continues to assert that putting the toll road on Industrial Boulevard would cost much more than putting it between the levees. But no one knows what it will cost to build it between the levees.

The original assumption was that the toll road could be built on the sides of the levees. Six months ago the Corps of Engineers changed its mind and told the city the road will have to be built away from the levees with its own private levee and flood wall system and that it will have to be designed in a way that does not block water from getting through the floodway.

He never answered me. He never followed through on his agreement. Maybe I unwittingly gave him an out. I said in my e-mail, "If there are points you can offer in response, I promise that I will reflect them fairly in anything I write."

I guess maybe there weren't any points he could offer.

Look. I think right now we all have those terrible sounds in our minds—the sucking roar of the towers sinking to their knees, the cries of old people drowning in their wheelchairs. But somewhere in that discordant wail we must hear the cold, strong voice of personal responsibility.

We have an obligation to think these things through. We need to listen closely to what people say. If we don't understand, we must ask them to say it again.

That's an aspect of this upcoming election that is more important than the outcome. Sooner or later, somebody is going to have to tell the truth and spell it out. Then and only then can we vote with a clear conscience.

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