Gunfight at the Trinity

The biggest shoot-out in Dallas' political history

Eventually the Bush White House took the Trinity project out of the president's budget, agreeing that it was not a worthy project. But Dallas leaders succeeded in pushing the local congressional delegation to stick it back into the congressional budget as an earmark. So the battle to kill it at the level of national flood control policy was lost.

In the meantime, another battle was lost in the bond election to fund the Trinity project. Fritz and a coalition of community activists were hugely out-spent by proponents of the project, and they were defeated, albeit narrowly, at the polls.

After the election, another loose alliance of environmentalists and citizen watchdog groups brought two suits against the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one in federal court on environmental grounds and the other in state court arguing the city had done a "bait and switch" on voters, promising to use the 1998 bond money for parks but diverting it instead to a toll road and other uses.

Mary Vogelson warned that Angela Hunt didn't know how mean things would get.
BRANDON THIBODEAUX
Mary Vogelson warned that Angela Hunt didn't know how mean things would get.
Ned and Jeanie Fritz were there at the beginning.
Ned and Jeanie Fritz were there at the beginning.

The federal judge refused to look at evidence that the Corps had faked its justifications for the project, even though that was precisely why the Bush White House had tossed it out of the presidential budget. So the antis lost that suit.

The state judge ruled against the antis, agreeing with lawyers for the city that the city was not bound by promises it had made in any of its own pamphlets, publications or public utterances.

These were bitter defeats for the antis, because both rulings seemed to be based on narrow, technical readings of the law and not on fairness or common sense. It knocked the wind out of them. The fight to stop the toll road was comatose, if not dead.

I was feeling pretty comatose myself. In my column for the Observer, I had taken a strong advocacy position in support of the people fighting the road. Over 10 years, the toll road foes had lost so many bitter battles that by last year I was starting to feel like Custer's drummer boy.

So of course I went to their damned secret meeting.

The minute I stepped into the large, sun-washed living room of the house in North Dallas where the meeting was taking place, it was clear that something entirely new and different was afoot. Most of my regular sources were there, but so were many new and unfamiliar faces.

At center stage was Angela Hunt, a sitting member of the Dallas City Council from District 14, which boxes the Park Cities on three sides. At her side was recent former city council member Sandy Greyson from District 12 in Nosebleed Almost-Oklahoma North Dallas.

Greyson is very popular in conservative mainstream North Dallas. At City Hall she was respected as the city council's expert on transportation issues.

Mary Vogelson, the meeting's hostess, had become one of the city's reigning technical experts on the Trinity and clean air issues when she studied them for the League of Women Voters.

Around the room were young, energetic and very undefeated-looking types whom I did not recognize. In the course of the meeting, some of them came across as greenies, but others clearly were fiscal conservatives.

They were all talking seriously and with great animation about a referendum. They intended to stop the city from building a high-speed multi-lane toll road where they had been promised a park. They were talking about fund-raising and hiring a consultant. They were talking about action, and they were speaking of it in terms of winning.

Jeanie Fritz winked at me across the room as if to say, "Bet you can't believe it."

More than that, I was completely dumbfounded. Where in the hell had all this come from? What were two city council members doing here? No elected official had ever been willing to give critics of the toll road more than a bored nod.

No member of the city council, in my opinion, had ever understood the project beyond the deliberately shallow level of the PowerPoint presentations given them by city staff. And yet here were Hunt and Greyson talking about the project at a level of deep detail and sophistication. Frankly, I, with my 10 years invested, found it ego-challenging. How were they grasping so quickly what had taken me 10 years of investigation and reporting to understand?

Part of the secret, I have learned since, is in knowing a few things about Angela Hunt. She's 35 years old. She went to Rice on a full-ride scholarship and UT law school on a full scholarship. She and her husband, Paul, 37, have been boyfriend and girlfriend since she was 15 in blue-collar Pasadena, near Houston. Their violins, which they no longer play, hang side by side on the living room wall of their M Streets home. He designs back-end Web pages—the extremely technical user-specific software that businesses use to run their operations.

Think of them as really smart band kids who, in their 30s, still ride bikes together and act like boyfriend and girlfriend. All of that is important to me now because it helps me understand how Hunt cracked the code at City Hall.

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