Gunfight at the Trinity

The biggest shoot-out in Dallas' political history

"At that point I put the brakes on the idea of griping about this ridiculous toll road, because I thought, 'I can't ruin this project. The lakes are the key to it.' It was an unfortunate compromise that had to be made."

But in fact she did not put on the brakes. Not the full brakes. She put the brakes on her mouth. For a while she stopped bringing it up to colleagues. But she didn't put the brakes on her curiosity.

It was at this time that Hunt made her first contact with the group I had talked to for 10 years about the Trinity. She called Jeanie Fritz, wife of Ned Fritz, a man often described as the dean of the Texas environmental community.

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.

Ned, now 91, has a list of environmental victories as long as both arms, including saving the Big Thicket Wilderness in deep East Texas. But these days he leaves the day-to-day to Jeanie, who is considered a force in her own right in the environmental community.

Hunt called her and said, "Jeanie, could you maybe get together some people that know about this and who could educate me a little bit?" She said sure. But there wasn't much enthusiasm.

"Here I came in, I was graduating law school in 1998. I came in kind of wide-eyed and bushy-tailed saying, 'What can we do about this?' There was a real malaise in this group and skepticism. It was like, 'We've tried everything.'"

In fact, looking back now, I'm not sure Hunt was entirely correct in her appraisal of my old source group. I have talked to them since about it. Some agree that they were dispirited before Hunt came along, but not by her, and they had been watching her even before she called them.

"She had been writing about it on her blog," Jeanie Fritz told me. "I didn't see it, but some of the other people did. We thought she was wonderful. She was asking all the right questions."

Hunt also had been discussing the issue with the-young-and-the-bright crowd who frequent "Dallas Metropolis," an online discussion group (http://forum.dallasmetropolis.com).

Gray told me the group's initial reaction to her was of pleasant astonishment. "We thought, 'Angela, oh, she gets it.' Finally here was somebody that really understands what we've been saying."

It didn't take long for Hunt to discover two things: 1) It was not true that the city needed the toll authority to build its lakes, and 2) it was not true that the road was going to go up on the side of the levees, away from the park.

Levees are big dirt berms, parallel but distant from the banks of a river, sloped on both sides. They are dirt walls designed to hold the water in when the river floods. Most of the year the Trinity River downtown is a trickle in a ditch way out in the middle of its levees, which are about half a mile apart through downtown. But during the fall and spring monsoons, the water jumps up out of the river banks and floods from levee to levee, as it has done already several times this year.

"At some point I talked to Gene Rice [Trinity project manager for the Corps of Engineers]," Hunt told me, "and I learned what their plans are. They were raising the levees, and they were going to extend the levees.

"I asked, 'How much dirt do you need to raise the levees? How much do you need to extend them?'"

At this point I won't blame you, dear reader, if you worry that Angela Hunt is starting to sound like some kind of obsessive-compulsive Super Wonkette. I, too, have had my concerns about her interest in dirt, as on the day she called me after tromping out onto the rain-soaked levees and questioning a work crew that was trying to patch a mudslide. For 15 minutes she provided me with a detailed description of the method by which tarps and layers of soil may be used to patch leaky levees.

I thought, "Angela and Paul need to get on their bikes, go down to the Meyerson and listen to some concerts."

But in fact Hunt's interest in dirt is all about getting to the central knot of the problem. We want the lakes. They say we have to accept the toll road inside the levees in order to get the lakes. And it's all about digging the dirt.

Hunt told me: "I kept thinking, 'Why can't we extricate these different issues?' People kept saying, 'Don't look too closely, but all of these issues are completely interwoven, and you cannot extricate them. But we can't really say why.'"

Finally one day Hunt asked Rice of the Corps: "How much dirt do you need to raise the levees? How much dirt do you need to extend them?"

Rice told her they needed a lot of dirt. Hunt thought, "Why can't the Corps dig our lakes?"

Aha! The Gordian knot is untied. We don't need the toll road in order to dig our lakes. The Corps and the Congress both have said repeatedly that the levee work along the Trinity is going to proceed on schedule and fully funded no matter what happens with the toll road. So the Corps can dig the lakes no matter what.

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