By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
Back in 1998 we began to report on an issue that is perhaps closer to the heart of the whole debate than any other—the arcane question of "valley storage." The term actually refers to watersheds, not valleys. It should be called watershed storage. Valley storage is the amount of rainfall that the whole watershed can hold before it runs off into the river.
Valley storage is everything. It's the reason this project was ever launched. Valley storage has greatly decreased in our watershed, we are told, which means more water in the river and greater flood danger for downtown. And that's why, we are told, the levees downtown need to be raised higher.
In 1998 the Observer reported that a study by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found that the Trinity River project, when completed, will make the valley storage problem worse, not better. In a subsequent story the Observer reported verbatim an exchange between city council members and a top member of the city staff in which the staff member lied to the faces of the council members on this issue.
The council members wanted to know if what they had read in the Observer was true—that the city, in order to do the project, was seeking a special exemption from a federal court order on valley storage. The staff member said, "No." Later the staff sought and won the exemption.
The News has written about this issue, but here we get to the heart of the matter. The News has never set forth in plain terms that this multibillion-dollar flood-control project may actually make flooding worse. In the name of Rodrigue's "objectivity," the News typically reports what Person A has said, and then it reports what Person B said back. But it never says what they're talking about.
The News does what I call "technically correct" coverage. So much the better if a story doesn't make sense to the average person. Less trouble from the Great Unwashed that way.
And sometimes the News just doesn't tell us anything. Former Mayor Ron Kirk sold this project in black Dallas as environmental reparation—flood protection that previously had been denied to black South Dallas. But when maps were published showing precisely what areas the project will protect, I drove those streets and found very few black residential areas protected. Instead, what the new levee will protect is mainly commercial property prime for redevelopment.
From the News on that little matter? Radio silence.
When promoters of the project decided to add on a series of enormously expensive make-believe suspension bridges by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the council was informed that all of the existing bridges over the Trinity were slated for demolition anyway and would have to be replaced soon.
They're sort of old. Might as well toss them. It just didn't sound right.
It took the Observer months of legal demands for documents and calling around, but finally the truth was found. Michelle Releford, a spokeswoman for the Dallas region of the Texas Department of Transportation, said flatly that the bridges in question are "not on any kind of maintenance replacement list."
The News never covered that story.
In fact I could go on with this list. The stunning lack of transportation data to back up any of the extravagant claims made for the toll road; the many sleights of hand with money; the soaring costs for the inside-the-levee route for the toll road. On each of these stories Sam Merten, myself and other Observer staffers have worked hard to get to the truth.
That means digging, pushing, fighting for it. George Rodrigue would have you believe that the News has a more dignified approach. Maybe it is more dignified. But it amounts to waiting until a story bumps you in the head so hard it can no longer be ignored.
And sometimes it amounts to sitting on the story even then. The worst case, in my opinion, was one that might have turned the 2007 referendum on the project and saved us all a lot of time, money and misery.
Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert and council member Mitchell Rasansky had been promising voters that Dallas taxpayers would never be asked to pay another nickel for the toll road. Weeks before the election, the chairman of the board of the toll road authority told News reporter Michael Lindenberger that the road might cost more than the authority could pay and the city might have to chip in.
Even though the News had that story weeks before the election and even though that story might have been a deal-breaker in the election, the News did not publish that story until the day after the votes had been counted and the toll road saved.
The biggest loser in this project is always the toll road. Even if the Corps buckles to pressure and gives the city permission to build unsafe levees, the toll road is still a billion bucks in the red.
That it got this far is not the fault of the community. Not yet. For 10 long years the community has been massively and deliberately misled by its dominant news source.
This only becomes the community's fault and sin to live with forever if the community keeps believing the News.