Prediction for 2009: Trinity Toll Road Finally Crashes and Burns for Good

Here's hoping that the next year brings us a big, stinking failure on the Trinity

Year after year, that record was extended and endorsed when the Bush White House continued to refuse to put this project back into the president's budget.

Now jump ahead with me to 2004-2005, when the original design for the project went through a major morph and came to include a limited-access high-speed expressway next to the river, which, if built, will be the first highway of its kind ever built inside a major flood-control levee system in America.

This is the second thing to know about the levees: Designing an expressway that will go inside the levees has required the Corps to revisit the plan for raising the levees. Because the presence of the highway between the levees will choke the floodway and cause floodwater to rise higher on the sides of the levees, the levees will have to be raised even higher than originally planned.

When the rains come down, the river fills up. Perhaps we forgot this important scientific principle when we voted to build an expressway next to the river.
When the rains come down, the river fills up. Perhaps we forgot this important scientific principle when we voted to build an expressway next to the river.

So now you've got a flood-control project that was dicey in the first place. And you've got public officials, elected and non-, making discretionary decisions that make it even dicier.

That National Committee on Levee Safety has been hearing a drumbeat of opinion from legal experts telling them that their chances of getting sued are much higher since Katrina. Especially risky for officials, in terms of litigation, are decisions they make to divert or plug up floodplains with construction.

In a survey of trends in case law, Jon Kusler, executive director of The Association of State Wetland Managers, told the committee: "Most of the successful suits based upon flooding or erosion occur when governments interfere with flood flows or drainage."

Edward A. Thomas, a lawyer who writes about flood control and litigation, has cautioned the committee that, in the wake of Katrina, traditional standards of acceptable practice no longer apply. And think about it. What did Katrina teach us, we hope, about the traditional standards? Ah...they don't work. Big time.

What I like best about the presentation Thomas gave the committee is his list of mistakes government officials can make that will get them sued, glued and tattooed. The very first item on the list speaks quite directly to our Trinity River toll road project here in Dallas.

His list is called, "Examples of situations where governments may be held liable." The first example is "Construction of a road blocks drainage."

Did I can't remember...did I mention that if you are a plaintiff's attorney, and if maybe lately you have not been getting enough colorful, concertina-playing itinerant clients who tragically slipped and fell in the supermarket, and if maybe you're looking for a little bit of new action, and if maybe your jaw just dropped to the floor at the notion of getting the U.S. Army Corps of (Deep Pockets) Engineers in the dock, you might want to take some notes here?

Talk about Christmas! It could happen to you!

Our local officials—the bureaucrats anyway—are quite aware of the National Committee on How Not to Get Sued. The city of Dallas even has a nonvoting member on the committee, although I don't believe anyone has briefed the city council yet on the litigation thing.

Lots of bizarre stuff is popping up elsewhere around this project. You may remember that Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert made a big deal of putting the toll road on a fast track for completion after last year's referendum. Since then it seems only to have bogged deeper and deeper into delay.

My own favorite toll-related event recently was the December 5 departure of Jorge Figueredo, who had been executive director of the North Texas Tollway Authority for just more than a year. Figueredo attended a 12:30 p.m. executive session of the NTTA board of directors, walked out of the meeting and out of the building, never to return. He was replaced immediately by an NTTA staffer acting as interim director.

NTTA issued a statement that included this quote, supposedly from Figueredo: "The difficulties encountered over this period as a result of being separated from my family in Florida have been more of a burden on me than I ever anticipated."

Yikes. One hopes they hadn't been holding the man against his will.

Then you may have seen Jack Fink's stories on Channel 11 revealing that Figueredo's severance package, compared with what was called for in his contract, didn't seem to add up to a voluntary departure.

Figueredo has maintained radio silence since leaving. I called his cell phone but received no reply. All in all, it's not what we here in the industrialized Western world would call an orderly succession.

In this incident and in the body language around City Hall whenever the toll road comes up, I think I see hot steam hissing up out of the rocks. Even if Dallas City Hall is too stupid to understand the risks, the Corps of Engineers must know this toll road will take them all to lawsuit perdition.

The Trinity toll road is not going to happen. That is my prediction for the year ahead. The Corps is going to find a way out of it. And then we can build the biggest urban linear wilderness park in the world and finally put this burg on the map.

That's why I'm so happy. I'm dreaming of a green new year.

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