Gunfight at the Trinity

The biggest shoot-out in Dallas' political history

In the meantime the Corps announced that the "Balanced Vision Plan," devised under former Mayor Laura Miller that called for the road to be built up on the sides of the levees, was not going to happen. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Corps nixed the idea of building a highway on the Dallas levees.

Hunt had already squeezed out of them an admission that no major highway had ever been built on or inside flood control levees before in the history of the United States. Post-Katrina, someone at the Corps must have decided against doing shake-and-bake experiments with a highway on top of the Dallas levees.

The city council presentation announcing the change showed that moving the road off the levees and closer to the river would shrink the downtown Trinity park from 136 to 91 acres, a reduction of one-third.

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.

The problem for Hunt was that nobody in the public seemed to know or care about any of it, as she found in talking both to neighborhood groups in her district and to her colleagues on the city council.

"When I would go talk to neighborhoods, I just bluntly asked people, 'Well, what about this toll road down between the levees?' And I got these blank stares. 'What are you talking about?'

"No one knew about it. There was total ignorance of it, but once they got over that ignorance there was disbelief. 'Why would we put a toll road down there?' And it was very fast going from ignorance to disbelief to anger. That was kind of the flow of emotion that I encountered."

What she found among fellow council members was apathy. Proving my thesis that none of them even watch the PowerPoint presentations, most of them told Hunt they thought the road was still going up on the levee.

"I asked some of the new ones, 'What do you think of this? We're putting a toll road down there.' They really didn't believe it. They thought I was mistaken. They said, 'I think you're mistaken about that. It's going to be on the levees or right outside, some other explanation, but it's not going to be in there between the levees.'"

Even more upsetting to Hunt than the park shrinkage was a slide in a PowerPoint presentation informing the council that the Corps might impose new, tougher safety standards on levees nationally and that these new standards might interfere with plans for the toll road. The slide said that the tollway authority "hopes to get a waiver or exception to prevent further modification of their current plans."

Hunt was appalled that the city would allow the toll authority to seek weakened safety standards for downtown Dallas. If the Trinity levees ever give way, the damage both in property loss and life will far outstrip Katrina in New Orleans, because the Trinity levees protect our downtown, not residential neighborhoods.

Why was this 10-mile road so important to its backers? Why did the city's wealthiest and most powerful men support the toll road from it inception, funneling cash into the pro-highway campaign at $100,000 a clip, according to the most recent campaign finance reports? The answer is money.

In 2002, a study commissioned by the city council found that the toll road had almost no economic value to the city. It would not spur economic development in downtown, Oak Cliff, or the poor, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods near the river, The Dallas Morning News reported.

But there was one neighborhood that stood to benefit enormously from the toll road. "It is the aging warehouse district where the new highway would intersect Stemmons and State Highway 183," Morning News reporter Victoria Loe Hicks wrote. "Without the tollway, that area would see little or no economic development, the study predicts. With the tollway, it would be a good candidate to sprout sleek, suburban-style office campuses."

And who exactly owned much of the land down there? Real estate tycoon Harlan Crow and oil and real estate billionaire Ray Hunt, according to the Morning News.

When Angela Hunt confronted her fellow council members on those issues, she says she ran into a brick wall. "They said, 'Look, Angela, this toll road has been planned for a long time. This is the only place it can go. It's on track. And you don't want to destroy the project. We can't really change this now. It's too late,' and 'Blah-blah-blah.'

"So I knew that if we were going to make a change it would not be through the political channels. There simply weren't eight votes to make the type of change that needed to be made.

"But I knew from reading the charter that a referendum was an option."

When Hunt started openly discussing a referendum as a possibility, some of the old Trinity crowd felt their first and last pangs. It wasn't that they thought she was reaching too far. But they wondered if this woman in her mid-30s, who didn't grow up in Dallas, really understood what was going to happen to her if she challenged the downtown power elite in so direct and serious a fashion.

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