By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
By Eric Nicholson
I think I just saw it. Caught a glimpse anyway. The Trinity River Project knuckle-under.
I could be wrong. But I do consider myself a world-class expert. I believe I just saw Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson do it.
Listen. I've been covering this project for 12 years. I'm so familiar with the Trinity River knuckle-under, I could invent a dance based on it. If I could dance.
EBJ, as she is known by insiders, just knuckled under on some very important federal legislation governing our 12-year-old multi-billion dollar public works project to create manmade lakes and a superhighway along the Trinity River through the center of the city.
So, before we get into all that, what's my point? You mean a duly elected member of the Congress of the United States isn't allowed to change her mind? Of course she is allowed.
But I'm talking about the way she did it. People don't just change their minds about the Trinity River Project. They kind of do their feet like this and their hips like that, then they hit themselves in the forehead with their knuckles. Former Mayor Laura Miller got out there on the dance floor and did a mean Trinity River Knuckle-Under.
I'll give you another example. Ten years ago I had lunch with Dallas businessman Albert Black, who was being mentioned as a possible establishment candidate for mayor to succeed Ron Kirk. Black told me he thought it was time to reexamine fundamental aspects of the Trinity River Project.
Black was new to public politics. I can't quote myself this many years later, but I said something to the effect of, "You can't say that."
He laughed at me. He said he was a free man and could say whatever he wanted.
Ooooh-kay then. I quoted him.
My column came out on a city council meeting day. Albert Black went to the council chamber at City Hall that very day and hand-delivered a letter to the council swearing he had not said any of the stuff that Jim Schutze quoted in his column and that he had not even had lunch with said Schutze.
By now I've seen it so many times by so many people, I could invite them all over and make a party out of it. Get a good band. Everybody grab a cold drink, go out in the back yard and do the Knuckle-Under!
On July 1, I wrote about "riders" that U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison—at the urging of Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert—had stuck onto an appropriations bill, exempting the Trinity River Toll Road from an entire program of important federal environmental examination called the "4(f)" review.
The 4(f) review measures harm a federal road project may do to wildlife, wetlands, public parks or historical structures. I interviewed national environmental experts in Washington and elsewhere who told me they found Hutchison's big end-run around federal law alarming, in part because the riders expose downtown Dallas to greater risk of flooding.
The Federal Highway Administration has not yet signed off on a specific route for the toll road Dallas wants to build along the river. One idea—the one favored by Leppert —is to put the road out between the flood control levees where the road itself will be subject to flooding and where it also will cause stress on the city's dangerously decrepit levee system. Other possible routes are outside the levees where flood risk is less. It's all decided by a scoring system for the routes.
If we obeyed the law the way everybody else does, the 4(f) review probably would cause the inside-the-levees route to receive a worse score than the outside-the-levees routes. The effect of Hutchison's riders is to protect the inside-the-levees from getting a negative score.
In defending the riders, Hutchison's staff offered a deceptive version of their effect. Lisette Mondello, her spokesperson, told The Dallas Morning News: "This is first and foremost a public safety issue. If there were to be additional delays...the residents and business around downtown Dallas would be forced to acquire flood insurance at a cost of millions annually."
The Hutchison statement was the opposite of the truth, as Morning News reporter Michael A. Lindenberger exposed in his June 16 story. The Hutchison people were claiming the only effect of the riders would be to stop the federal government from declaring the levee system historic—a determination that could hold up repairs of the failing levees by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers. Mondello connected more dots to claim that slowing down the levee repairs might expose Dallas property owners to federal requirements that they buy flood insurance.
But the Corps of Engineers isn't subject to federal protections for historic sites the same way other agencies are. It has much more freedom of movement. The Corps told Lindenberger that historic designation would not slow down the levee repairs.
Hutchison obviously knows that. The only thing that could be slowed down by historic protection is the toll road. So the statement about flood insurance was straight-up 100 percent deceptive—a con.