"I think that's exactly what we're looking at in the Gulf of Mexico. It's just not the right way to do things. If the exception becomes the rule, we have no rules.

"It's not the way to go about running a country."

Conrad, who deals with Congress all the time, said special-interest riders stuck onto appropriations bills at the last minute should always be viewed with suspicion:

National experts say Senator  Kay Bailey Hutchison’s actions on the Dallas Trinity toll road resemble the kind of behavior that brought
about the  Gulf oil spill.
NEWSCOM
National experts say Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison’s actions on the Dallas Trinity toll road resemble the kind of behavior that brought about the Gulf oil spill.

"I know everybody gets cynical and thinks Washington, D.C., has no rules, but as far as riders are concerned, people don't like them. Members may try to use them, but the system is supposed to kick these things out.

"The appropriations bills are not supposed to carry this kind of stuff," he said. "It is what we call legislating on an appropriations bill.

"The appropriations committees don't claim as committees to have deep expertise in these kinds of things. That's why they have authorizing committees."

The problem—and the trick here—is that once a thing is firmly stuck into the hide of a big appropriations bill, it's harder to remove than a tick on a fat dog. Appropriations bills are almost by definition too big to fail. Once Hutchison's riders were in the appropriations bill, it was too late for Senate subject matters committees to assert jurisdiction.

"The Senate Environment and Public Works Committee certainly has made no official sign-off on this," Conrad said. "And they probably didn't hold any hearings. They may not have even known this was happening."

An appropriations bill is a "must-pass" bill. It passes into law, ticks and all.

The experts I spoke with were all looking at this from varying distances from Dallas, speaking about the issues in broad brushstrokes. They all tended to talk about potential harmful consequences of the Hutchison riders in a sort of generic sense, as unintended consequences that happen when you take an axe to the tree of the law to carve yourself a toothpick.

I'm closer to it. I don't know how far I'm willing to go with the "unintended" part.

As soon as she learned of these riders, city council member Angela Hunt contacted Dallas assistant city manager Jill Jordan to ask about the intended consequences of the riders.

Jordan sent Hunt a memo, which Hunt shared with me, in which Jordan told Hunt the exemption from the requirements of a 4(f) review would eliminate scoring differences between the several proposed alignments for the toll road. Jordan told Hunt the riders "would allow for them (federal highway officials) to look at all alternatives without weighing one more heavily than the other."

And that's a good thing?

Remember: There is no chosen official route yet for the toll road, which is to run from below downtown along the general route of the river to a point northwest of downtown. Yes, the voters of Dallas have endorsed a route between the flood control levees, may God preserve their souls.

But the feds haven't chosen a route. The process of making that determination depends on a carefully calibrated scoring system. A 4(f) review would apply negative points to the levee route, because the levee route would cause several kinds of negative impacts—to park land, wildlife, wetlands, historic structures, etc.—listed in the law.

Myron Hess, the environmental lawyer in Austin, spotted the effect of exempting the toll road from 4(f) right away: By exempting the levee route from the negative scoring points that the route would otherwise accrue, the riders have the effect of greatly improving the relative score of the levee route.

"That is one of the chief effects," he said. "It is dramatically changing what existing law is in terms of how that scoring system applies."

So the riders have the effect of giving a big boost to building a major expressway out between the flood control levees where floods happen. Isn't that special?

Hutchison's staff told the Morning News that Hutchison introduced the riders because "this is first and foremost a public safety issue."

I attempted for two weeks to get Hutchison's office to comment, at one point e-mailing them the entire gist of this column. They did not respond. Mayor Leppert did reply, confirming he had requested Hutchison's help.

But, yes. It is a public safety issue. An enormously important public safety issue. The Trinity River levee system, badly neglected by the city over the years and in dangerous disrepair, is all that stands between downtown and West Dallas and disastrous flooding during the region's biannual flash flood seasons.

That is precisely why Hutchison's riders are so wildly irresponsible. This is not a moment for us to reduce our caution or take shortcuts.

Conrad pointed out that science is providing new reasons every day for us to take more precautions, not fewer.

"In the U.S. climate report in 2008, they made the statement, at least for the upper Midwest, that events they thought had a return frequency of once in 100 years were, in the not very distant future, going to be more like 20-to-30-year events.

"In other words, they would be four to five times as common."

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