The Trinity Toll Road Just Keeps Rolling on the River

The highway between the levees is the Christopher Lee of bad ideas.

The Trinity toll road is undead. It walks in the night. Forget garlic. It is coming. It's a fundamentally crazy idea. But it lives.

If anything, the idea is protected by its basic craziness. It's so crazy, it never quite comes together in people's heads, and that's how the powers behind it want it.

They want to build a high-speed multi-lane toll road hugging the Trinity River through downtown, out between the 23-mile-long, 50-foot-high earthen embankments called levees that keep the river from flooding the city. They want to put the road out where it floods.

This is about water. Water can be extremely complicated, or it can be very simple. This ought to be simple. In fact, as I've suggested before, you can model the basic engineering problem in the safety of your own bathroom.

Take some toy cars made out of metal or something that won't float. Or, tell you what, who has toy cars made out of metal? Just do this. Get some rocks. Say to yourself, "These are toy cars made out of metal." Now put the make-believe toy-car rocks on the bottom of your bathtub. If you don't have a bathtub, use your sink.

Now plug the drain. This is the key part. Turn on the taps. Watch the water come out. Comes out, comes out, comes out. Wait. Now observe what has happened to the toy cars. OMG! They're under water!

That's it. That's the main thing wrong with putting a highway out between the flood control levees. Twice a year our monsoon seasons turn the Trinity River levee system into a 23-mile-long, quarter- to half-mile-wide lake up to 50 feet deep.

The proponents will tell you that the bathtub hardly ever gets that full. They will say in recent memory it got that full maybe once or twice, but most of the time it's way less full and would not put the toy cars underwater or at most it might just get their tires wet.

And what is the rebuttal to that? It's the damn bottom of the bathtub. Why would you put your toy cars on the bottom of your bathtub? Isn't one total flooding of the toy cars one too many, seeing as how in real life they would be real cars with real people in them?

Why not keep the cars entirely out of the bathtub? Why not put the road outside the levees? Levees protect the land outside of them, away from the river, not the land inside of them. That's the point of levees. Why ... what ... how can you even ... what on earth is the matter with you?

See, that's where we always wind up. And let's do this. Let us not go trailing back through the entire history explaining why the powers that be want to put the toy cars on the bottom of the bathtub. We could do that, but it's very saddening and in the end changes nothing. They just do. It's what they want. They want to make money on the land outside the levees. They think they have to have a road to make money. But they don't want the road on their land.

Yes, it's stupid. But the idea has been around in one form or another for a good 50 years, and it cannot be killed even with a stake through its heart. It just keeps crawling back out of the crypt.

So how does it do it? How can something so manifestly crazy manage to stay alive so long? It survives because it is crazy. Listen to me. That's how it is.

You got your cars. You got your tub. You got your drain plug and your faucets. But according to City Hall, you have to check them all out separately. You never actually put your toy cars into the tub and turn the water on.

Last week the U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers put on a meeting in the basement of Dallas City Hall to update interested parties on the entire Trinity River project, a massive campaign of public works OK'd by voters in a bond election in 1998. I went. The cars were not in the tub.

If you had attended last week's meeting — I don't think I saw you there, did I? — you might have gone in thinking, "OK, I've had enough of this foolishness. It's time for some hard answers on this toy cars in the bathtub thing."

You would have been sooo wrong. It was not time. It will never be time. You would not even have been allowed to ask the question at this meeting, because this meeting was not about that part of the whole Trinity River project.

In fact this meeting was about only half of the project, because the project was passed by Congress as two projects, one that runs from up around the old Texas Stadium site in Irving down to the DART tracks just south of downtown and a second project that runs from the DART tracks down almost to the city's southern border. This meeting was about the upstream part, so you couldn't ask about the downstream part.

But even if it had been about both parts, you would not have been allowed to ask about the toll road, because that's another project. After they finish figuring out the upstream part and the downstream part, then you can ask about sticking a big fat honking highway down the middle of the whole thing.

But can it really work that way? Can different parts of the same river operate independently of each other? Well, let me ask you a question: Can one end of your bathtub operate independently of the other end? Yeah, see what I mean? The answer should be familiar to us by now and comes in two parts. 1)No, and 2) What is the matter with you?

Don't look at me like that. I'm just doing my job. Hey, I asked a question at the thing last week. If this starts to sound technical, I promise you it's not. It goes right back to the what-is-the-matter-with-you thing.

They said they may have to add some expensive underground walls to protect certain parts of the levee system because of "recreational aspects" of the project. My question, not in so many words, was, "Say what?"

Rob Newman, an engineer who is director of the project for the Fort Worth District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, explained that one of the "recreational aspects" of the project involves moving the river channel closer to the levees on the downtown side of the river. Because there is loose sand beneath the levees, having the river that close might cause the sand to turn to mush, in which case the levees might collapse, bringing about a Katrina-like catastrophe in downtown Dallas.

The corps also revealed that it must raise the levees even higher than previously thought in order to achieve the needed level of flood protection. So here was my thought: If you know in advance that you are going to route a major highway right through there, and you know that putting all that concrete out there will choke the river and make the flood waters go higher, isn't that the real reason you are raising the levees and building even more underground walls beneath them?

Well, you see, you can't ask that question yet, because the cars aren't in the bathtub yet. There is no final design or set route for the road, we are told, because we're still just working on Part I. Then we have to do Part II, downriver. Then maybe we can talk about the road.

Look, I have been all the way around this block more times than I can even remember. I know what answers I can get and what answers I cannot get. But I'm sitting there looking at them and wondering, "Can you be serious? Is it even possible that you would do all this work on different parts of the bathtub and have no idea what will happen when you put the cars in it? Why would you do it that way? What is the matter with you?"

The other thing is this. I also learned last week that, even as we speak, the corps and all of the regional cities are completing a study aimed at determining how much worse flooding has become in the entire region in recent decades because of development. So that's your basic overall bathtub study right there. How much water can it hold? How much water is going to get poured into it in the monsoon seasons?

It's not like they don't know this stuff. Of course they know it. They are building the levee walls higher and higher. They're putting concrete barriers beneath them. They're telling us it has nothing to do with the road. They're saying they don't even know about the road. What road? But we know that's all crazy. Right?

This is how it is done. The same thing will be done with the money for the road. This chess piece will be moved over here, that piece over there, until, lo and behold, the money for the road will appear.

In fact, it's a huge mistake to even try to deal with them at that level. Whenever they are talking about specific aspects of the engineering plan and how this part has nothing to do with that part and so on, it's their game. They own all the parts. They can show them or keep them in their pockets as they choose. Same with the money.

That's how this thing can be so crazy and yet still be alive. There's only one way you and I can get ahead of them. Put the rocks in the tub. Plug the drain. Turn on the taps. And say, "What is the matter with you people?"

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7 comments
WylieH
WylieH

This is beyond sad.  Mary Suhm is killing this City, starving it of the money it needs to function properly.... and to what end.... a crappy toll road?

marvin
marvin

Plastic toy cars ought to work fine.  That's the problem with cars and rivers.  A surprisingly low level of water can float your car off a road, then you sink later on.  You just need more turbulence in your analogy, like plastic cars in a jacuzzi.

markzero
markzero

I'm waiting for Jim to run for office (could be any of them) on the "What is the matter with you?" ticket.

baker24
baker24

Of course, if they ever build this beast, and they certainly are setting up the conditions to build it eventually, that will pretty much kill chances for whatever park amenities the folks voted for in the bond election so many years ago. The road will have to be elevated, though how they will get it past the MHH bridge and the other lower bridges and stay above the maximum flood stage level I don't know (maybe they don't either), and an elevated road will spoil any chance of having a natural appearing park installation in the river area. It will be like the poorer folks who live in houses under the approaches to large bridges, where all the people in the cars can look down into their backyards. Then there is the question of pollution, especially on cool humid days when the auto fumes will settle in the river between the levees.....nice. No, if they build this , it will pretty much ruin the value of the Trinity bottoms as a recreational area and they will have thrown away their single most valuable water feature, one that could have been a really nice attraction and a city landmark.

mcdallas
mcdallas

They're not rocks.  They're not toy cars.  They're not even cars.  They are solar-powered water taxis.  Solar-powered water taxis float, I believe.  I figured being a reporter and all, you'd know this by now.  

drtz
drtz

@baker24

"The road will have to be elevated, though how they will get it past the MHH bridge..."

I'm imagining a massive High-5-like interchange nicely draped over the top of our wonderful new bridge.

baker24
baker24

@drtz @baker24  Thi is probably what they would like to do, but remember that the Corps of Engineers would be extremely reluctant to allow any pilings or footings for the interchanges to touch the levees, so one wonders how they would get any interchanges built without cutting into the levees. There would be HUGE spans involved, and they would not be cheap. They think money is tight now, hoo boy.....

 
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