By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
The Trinity River toll road is dead. DOA. Cold. Clothespins on noses. The Trinity River toll road is no more. From here on out, it's all bad money after good and proof our city is led by fools.
Monday, the mayor of Dallas and a backup choir of politicians held a press conference in the flag room of City Hall at which they announced a "way forward" on the Trinity River project. Leppert said the city has worked with officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to overcome recently revealed problems with the city's 11-year-old plan to build a massive, multi-lane toll road through downtown.
The underlying reality—the corpse they were trying to rouge—is that the basic plan has collapsed around their ears. The Trinity plan calls for building a new highway between the flood control levees along the Trinity River in the one area of the entire city most prone to catastrophic flooding.
It's a stupid plan. It has always been a stupid plan. The Trinity River runs between downtown and Oak Cliff. The river floods in fall and spring. High mud berms along both sides of the river, called levees, keep flood water from tearing into downtown and Oak Cliff.
The area between the levees, called "the floodway" (for a reason) is like a pipe. It carries flood water off so the water won't rise too high, overtop the levees and tear up the city. A multi-lane toll road would be a huge mound of concrete dumped right out in the middle of the pipe where it would clog the pipe and push floodwaters closer to the top of the levees.
For a decade, the city has tried to deny this basic truth—that putting a road out there will push flood waters higher. In 1999, assistant city manager Jill Jordan assured the city council that the Trinity River project would provide the city with "several feet of freeboard," meaning even the biggest floods would remain several feet beneath the top of the levees.
But the Observer looked at reports produced for the city by Halff Engineering and found that a massive new highway out in the floodway would push floodwaters substantially higher, reducing the freeboard to less than a foot. Later it was decided the levees needed to be raised even higher.
On April 2 of this year, the Corps released findings showing that the levees protecting downtown Dallas are in unacceptable condition, with or without the toll road. They're broken and full of holes and tree roots. They're not as high as they're supposed to be. The soil beneath them probably includes a lot of river sand especially prone to washing away.
Very bad news. And whose fault is it? By law, the city has always been responsible for maintaining the levees. Therefore, the levees' current deplorable condition is the city's fault.
Simultaneously with the bad report from the Corps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced steps to withdraw certification of the Dallas levees—a potential catastrophe for downtown even without a flood. Then buying flood insurance downtown will become next to impossible.
The insurance issue alone is an enormous gun to the head for the city. The bigger gun, one hopes, is the very real threat of flooding, which would be worse than Katrina if the Dallas levees were to fail.
Most of the damage suffered in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 came from rising water in residential neighborhoods. A Trinity River levee break in downtown would produce a rampaging wall of water in the city's most densely developed districts.
But Monday, Mayor Tom Leppert wanted everyone to be happy and not worry. The toll road and that bridge are coming along just fine, he said. "We are here today to announce solutions, to address planning concerns and also to bring the Trinity River Corridor Project to fruition," he said.
He preached a doctrine that he has been hard-selling ever since the problems with the levees first emerged, seeking to de-couple the levee safety issue from the toll road. "Now I also want you to know there's an awful lot of false information out there," he said.
"I want to make one point very clear. We are not in this situation because of the Trinity River Corridor Project. That is simply false. The project and the condition of the levees under the new standard set by the Corps are separate and apart from each other.
"If we never had a Trinity River Corridor Project, we'd be in the same situation we are in now."
Most of that is transparently false, false on its face. First of all, the toll road and the levee issue are inextricably bound up with each other. The toll road, by blocking floodwaters, would increase the pressure on the levees. Also, the basic design of the road calls for it to cut through the levees at several points.
Cuts or penetrations of the levees are among the main concerns of the Corps. Allowing massive new penetrations for the toll road wouldn't just be problematic. It's not going to happen. There is no way under existing circumstances that the Corps of Engineers could sign off on the current design for the toll road.