By Jim Schutze
By Rachel Watts
By Lauren Drewes Daniels
By Anna Merlan
By Lee Escobedo
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.
In working on my column about this two weeks ago, I tried, of course, to reach Dallas Congresswoman Johnson, who has always been both an important champion and a diligent regulator of the Trinity River Project.
Hutchison's riders were attached to the Senate version of an unrelated appropriations bill. In order to become law, the riders would have to be accepted by House members of a conference committee, whose job would be to get the House version and the Senate version on the same page so both can become one law.
I was really curious how Johnson would react to the Hutchison riders. Johnson has supported the Trinity project over the years with a ton of earmark money—the only way it can be paid for since neither White House, not Bush nor Obama, has ever supported the project.
Johnson has always vowed that her main interest is flood control. The Hutchison riders were the equivalent of giving a great big one-fingered bird to flood control. I thought maybe Johnson would balk at that.
And I think she did. Briefly.
Neither she nor her staff would return or respond to my calls or e-mails over a two-week period. It happens. I think they're probably still mad at me for some stuff I outted them on last year concerning Dallas' Inland Port project.
Actually, I'm accustomed to people refusing to acknowledge me. I assume the time will come when I will have to pay somebody else to call my dog. I try working around it.
Without going into too much detail and divulging important proprietary reporting techniques (patents pending), it so happened that I found myself on the other end of the line last week when Johnson conducted a teleconference "town hall meeting."
You know: These are the mass call-in telephone things the pols, especially Democrats, are doing now so they won't have to hold real town hall meetings and expose themselves to the Tea Party crazies. I don't blame them.
I was "Jim" from Dallas. Look, that's how it works. When it came my turn to ask a question, Congresswoman Johnson said, "Go ahead, Jim." She didn't say, "...as long as you're not that guy from the Observer we've been ducking all week."
So I went ahead. By the way, I intend to be on the horn for a lot of these things in the future. It's fun— democracy in action. Sort of.
I asked Johnson about the Hutchison riders. She said, "From what I understand, there was some consideration about the levees becoming historical."
That wasn't not true, of course, but the more important thing I heard her say was that Hutchison might have approached the problem—whatever the problem might be—the wrong way legally and legislatively, both in terms of the wording of the riders and the way they were introduced:
"It's on the appropriations bill," she said of Hutchison's riders. "I am not on the appropriations committee, but I have tried to look into it to see if the language needs to be straightened out.
"It is not in the jurisdiction of the appropriations committee, because it's law and it's authorization, and it should come through a committee. As a matter of fact it should come through the committee that I chair." (EBJ is chair of the House subcommittee on water resources and environment.)
"I don't know whether that will pass," she said. "We are working on the appropriations package now, and I know it has been questioned whether it would be an appropriate vehicle to write an authorizing law. I have not been consulted by the committee as of yet, but I know that will happen in the next couple of days or so."
So I heard her saying she was aware of problems with the way the riders were worded and had reservations about the basic approach. She said she was looking into it. And if she and her staff even scratched the surface, they would find that Hutchison's story about flood insurance was a deception.
We spoke on July 3, a Saturday. The following Wednesday, EBJ came out in favor of the Hutchison riders. Her staff issued a statement saying, "Included in the bill are key provisions such as protecting an existing Senate amendment that exempts the Corps of Engineering and the Federal Highway Administration from having to determine if the Trinity River Levees are historic.
"Without these exemptions, Dallas residents would almost certainly be burdened with having to purchase flood insurance."
EBJ bought it. The whole thing. Even the con job about insurance. She had to know better.
Between Saturday and Wednesday, I believe Johnson must have received the call from Dallas. The Trinity River Project call. I imagine that she stood up from the phone, did her feet like this and her hips like that, bent forward and knocked herself in the forehead with her knuckles.
The Trinity River Project Knuckle-Under.
EBJ was the only person in Congress who had enough clout to slow this thing down. I think she was headed in that direction. But she turned. Now those riders are going to become law.
Hutchison and EBJ, arm in arm, are going to tell people they have protected them from flooding, when in fact they have done exactly the opposite.
You know what I need right now? I need a good tune to go with it. The Knuckle-Under tune. It just gets louder and louder.