Toll You So

The Trinity River Project should be floating right along. Instead it's sinking under the weight of its own folly.

On November 6, 2007, a referendum to kill the Trinity River toll road failed at the polls. I was for the referendum. The side I was on lost. I think I was fairly open about what my attitude would be from then forward. Sour grapes.

What's wrong with sour grapes? I like sour grapes. They suit my personality. Where the Trinity River Project is concerned, go ahead and put me squarely in the sour grape column.

I also said something right after the referendum that was more significant, I do believe, than my personal grapes. This road will never be built. Not the road they're talking about—a high-speed, multi-lane, limited-access throughway between the flood-control levees, right along the river. It will not happen. And other major elements of the project also will not happen.

Why? This all has to do with issues that were fully aired before the referendum. Mainly, no one has ever built a major highway between flood-control levees before anywhere in the country, because it's a stupidly dangerous idea, sort of like building an orphanage on top of a dam. Why would you do that?

Right now, at this particular juncture, I just want to point out that all of the things that have happened since the referendum are bearing me out and making fools of the political leaders pushing this project, especially our mayor, Tom Leppert.

Is it only sour grapes? Maybe it's more: I want to be sure that some kind of record is kept. A certain focus must be maintained along the way, so that when the ridiculous elements of the project do collapse into an inevitable puddle, the public will see clearly which folks are to blame.

The Trinity River Project, by now, is really a bunch of big public works projects all lumped together, some of which are absolutely wonderful. The dream is to transform the big, ugly, neglected sump along the Trinity where it flows through downtown and Southern Dallas into a vast, grand Central Park for the whole city.

Ultimately the vision is for small lakes, a white-water kayaking stream, formal and informal public gathering places, miles-long paths through forested areas, and more. Some pieces of that vision are going to come true, and they will be wonderful for the city.

The problem is that other pieces—notably the toll road down the middle but also the so-called signature bridges—are ill-conceived, dangerous and insanely expensive in ways that threaten to suck the air out of the rest of the project.

Bridges first. In all, three major bridges are to be built across the Trinity, all designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. City Hall insists it already has the money for two. The third one's a toss-up. But whether they really have the money depends on the price.

You may remember that a few weeks after the election, Mayor Leppert orchestrated a major media event to show he was pushing for speedy completion. The Dallas Morning News quoted him as saying, "None of the timetables that are sitting out there are acceptable.

"We are going to be going forward much more aggressively. For us to be successful, we have to move forward very quickly."

Fast-forward with me to August 26 when the Morning News carried a story revealing that construction of the first so-called "signature bridge" in the project has been delayed at least 10 months. That story included the following line:

"Asked whether the delay was reasonable, Mr. Leppert, a former top construction executive, simply raised his eyebrows and called it frustrating."

The Morning News story conveyed the impression that the Margaret Hunt-Hill bridge was being held up because Cimolai Costruzioni Metalliche, an Italian company hired to pre-fab some of the steel, "had difficulty creating a model of Mr. Calatrava's design."

Really? Maybe you're like me. You have to wonder how hard it can be to make a model? Ah, but it turns out the story is a bit deeper than mere model-making.

I'm not casting aspersions on the Morning News. Yet. It's a daily paper. They can't cross every t and dot every i. In fact, like most daily newspapers around the country, they've laid off so many copy editors by now, they probably can't even dot every t and cross every i. But in this case, they really got the story wrong.

I spoke at some length with Bill Hale, who is the district engineer for the Dallas district of the Texas Department of Transportation. Hale explained that the model in question is not a scale-model or a rendering or anything like that: It's a computer model to test the engineering of the entire design.

"They have to make sure it can handle the stresses," he said.

Now we have to dip back again in time to recall that the bids for building this bridge, which Calatrava had estimated would cost $57 million, came in at a low bid of $113 million.

The lesson to be drawn at that point was simple. Calatrava is notorious for low-balling the costs of his designs. The city should have seen the handwriting and realized it couldn't afford this extravagant architectural folly.

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