Gunfight at the Trinity

The biggest shoot-out in Dallas' political history

As of a year ago, I had been writing critical stories and columns about the Trinity River project for a decade. I went to work for the Dallas Observer in 1998 in part because I knew it was the one place in Dallas where I could write honestly about the Trinity. And by last year, I have to tell you, I was sick of the whole thing.

Worse than sick. Heart-sick.

So were all of the people who had served as my best sources. Two dark angels hovered over them named Defeat and Despair.

Trinity Vote leader Angela Hunt couldn't put the brakes on curiosity.
BRANDON THIBODEAUX
Trinity Vote leader Angela Hunt couldn't put the brakes on curiosity.
One of the more incredible aspects of the Trinity toll road debate has been its abilityto stir the passions of people not ordinarily interested in civic issues.  It is, after all,just a toll road. Why would so many people care so passionately? But they do.This piece of art—deeply felt and painstakingly drawn—came to the Observer from Richard D. Townsend, Jr., who is incarcerated in a state jail. It is but one of countless expressions, pro and con, that have come our way from surprising sources.
One of the more incredible aspects of the Trinity toll road debate has been its abilityto stir the passions of people not ordinarily interested in civic issues. It is, after all,just a toll road. Why would so many people care so passionately? But they do.This piece of art—deeply felt and painstakingly drawn—came to the Observer from Richard D. Townsend, Jr., who is incarcerated in a state jail. It is but one of countless expressions, pro and con, that have come our way from surprising sources.

I hated calling my Trinity sources. The sigh in their voices when they heard me on the other end made me feel like a guy on an 800 number calling during the dinner hour to sell identity theft insurance.

Jeanie Fritz, one of the stalwarts in the anti-toll road campaign, agreed with me recently that things a year ago were at a low ebb. "We weren't exactly giving up," she said, "but the spark wasn't there. We didn't have many good ideas."

David Gray, a computer engineer who was at the center of all the big Trinity River fights from the late 1990s, told me: "We were all in a state of despair. 'This thing's coming. Is there any hope of a lawsuit? Are they going to get the money? Can we keep them from getting the money? Probably not.'

"We were still meeting, but no one really felt like there was much we could do to stop that freight train."

The Trinity River toll road, a multi-lane high-speed highway and truck route between the flood control levees downtown where the voters had been told a park was to be built in 1998, did indeed feel like a head-on freight train with whistles blowing.

And then all of a sudden in the fall of 2006, everything changed. The opposition to the toll road caught a spark again, ignited into flames and roared back to life, bigger than ever.

Two weeks from now, depending on what happens in the Trinity toll road referendum, that movement may achieve deep permanent change in the fundamental political nature of the city.

If the anti-toll road forces win on November 6, their victory will constitute the single biggest electoral victory of a grassroots coalition—and the single most devastating defeat of the old downtown power elite—that I have seen in my 30 years covering Dallas politics.

The Trinity project, whichever way it goes, will be one of the largest public works projects in Dallas history. Whether it's a 10-mile high-speed toll road jammed with 18-wheelers and suburban commuters, or the river park voters approved in 1998, the project will change the face of the downtown area for generations to come.

On one side of the fight are the city's biggest power brokers—including oilman Ray Hunt, real estate magnate Harlan Crow and Dallas Morning News publisher Robert Decherd. This group—toll-road supporters from the beginning—have lined up almost every single officeholder from City Hall to the Congress on their side.

And yet, for all their wealth and power, they have been stymied by a coalition of environmentalists, fiscal conservatives and urban activists who want to get the toll road out of the planned river park downtown. Their de facto leader is a young, relatively inexperienced councilwoman named Angela Hunt. Somehow, this group has turned the tide in the city, gathering 91,000 signatures in just 60 days to call for the coming referendum vote, a remarkable display of the power of civic engagement.

This is the story of how it happened.

Late in 2006 I was invited to a secret planning session for a group of activists interested in stopping the Trinity River toll road. I can't tell you how badly I did not want to go. First of all, it was going to ruin half of a lovely weekend day. In the second place, under the terms of the invitation I would not be able to write about it for months. I suspected I would not want to write about it ever.

And finally, and most guiltily, I didn't want to face the faces. I expected this to be the same small cadre of people who had explained to me what was wrong with the Trinity project 10 years earlier when I was the Dallas reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

They had fought the good fight. And lost. Several times. Originally Ned Fritz, founder of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, fought the Trinity River project because he believed it was a dangerous, destructive plan that flew in the face of national flood control policy and would one day cost lives.

When I was still at the Chronicle, Fritz steered me to the "Galloway Report," a study of national and global flood control knowledge commissioned by the White House after disastrous floods on the Upper Mississippi in the early 1990s. I wrote a story for the Chronicle in which I quoted flood control experts around the country saying that the Trinity plan in Dallas, building new structures in a floodway, was unsafe and irresponsible.

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