An Asterisk Is All I Ask, When We Talk About the Trinity Toll Road, Loons and Liars.

Who is Pinocchio and who is Pinocchio not?
Who is Pinocchio and who is Pinocchio not?

Churlish is my middle name, so I guess I'll go ahead and complain about people who are on my own side now in the Trinity toll road debate. In an otherwise really great piece about it last week, D Magazine Publisher Wick Allison made reference again to what he agreed was the unfortunate participation in the debate early on of unnamed wacko conspiracy theorists.

Allison's reference was a back-hand return of Mayor Mike Rawlings' soft serve earlier in the week: "He characterizes opponents to the tollway," Allison writes, "as ... conspiracy theorists who think rich people are scheming to profit off of it...

"About the conspiracy types," Allison says, "he is absolutely correct, but I would have thought we all we have gotten accustomed to them by now."

Call it a quibble, but, since it involves me, I think I have a right to feel defensive.

In 2007 when City Council member Angela Hunt brought the question of a toll road along the river through the center of the city to a vote in a citywide referendum, Allison's magazine was one of several voices in the city that aggressively portrayed me, her and others not only as crazy but as liars.

Far easier for Allison now to agree implicitly with the mayor's characterization than to concede and atone for his own role in 2007. And D Magazine wasn't even the worst of the lot. Rudy Bush, now on The Dallas Morning News editorial board, was at that point a brand-new reporter at the News. As part of the hazing ritual, I guess, he was commissioned to write a sleaze-ball hatchet job on me, and he actually did a pretty good job. I know a good sleaze-ball hatchet job when I see one.

Bush sent a query email to people I had worked with and for over the years, one of whom was John Oppedahl, former publisher of both The Arizona Republic and The San Francisco Chronicle. When Oppedahl got Bush's email, he sent me this:

"Dear Jim: Here's the email I got from Rudy Bush at the Morning News. It clearly shows this reporter is biased against you. How on earth could a reputable reporter send this kind of note out to me, a potential interview subject, much less a former editor? Is he nuts? If I were his boss I'd can him. Bob Mong ought to be ashamed of this sort of thing. John Oppedahl."

The story is no longer available on-line, but here's a sampling:

Jim Schutze was born on New Year's Day 61 years ago. Or at least he thinks he was. It could be that he was born on Jan. 8. There was a mix-up on his birth certificate that his parents never quite straightened out to his satisfaction... For the Dallas Observer's star columnist and weekly thumb-in-the-eye of the city establishment, it was a fitting way to come into the world.

Dealing with murky facts and murkier motivations is his stock in trade ... Mr. Schutze's unique contribution is an air of conspiracy. It's a familiar theme in his column. Week to week he features a regular cast of ne'er-do-wells that includes Dallas' millionaires and billionaires, its politicians and developers, and the executives and editors of this newspaper ... There is a sense, however vague, that they meet in some secret and finely appointed room to plot how to divvy up the city's spoils.

Oh well, live by the sword, die by the sword. As Allison has conceded recently, I was right. But that was pretty much the mood back then. Both D Magazine and the News were monolithically partisan in favor of the road. Not a story, column or blog item could appear that failed to wave the toll road banner.

The pro-toll road side was sending out expensive mailers saying, "Don't Let Angela Hunt send a Billion Dollars Down the River," premised on the assertion that the city already had a billion dollars in funding locked down for the project but that all of that money would disappear if voters endorsed Hunt's referendum limiting the route alignment for the project.

Hunt, in other words, was portrayed as an irresponsible a'ginner who was too stupid to know that her referendum would cost the taxpayers a billion dollars. That whole ad campaign was based on a fabric of deliberate and conscious lies. We now know that they knew at the time there was no billion dollar commitment from anyone and that, even if there had been, funding of the recreational amenities in the Trinity River project was not tied to the construction or route of the road anyway.

Hunt was not sending a single dollar down the river. She in fact was the steward of the public purse, trying to stop the toll road boosters from raiding the public treasury. But from the very beginning of this agonizingly long debate, the boosters have been adept at turning reality on its head.

The billion-dollars-down-the-river lie was only one of many examples. Then Mayor Tom Leppert swore in debates that the toll road project had received full and final approval from the relevant federal agencies. Now seven years later, the project still has not received full or final approval from the relevant federal agencies.

It's important to look back now and see clearly that these differences involved deliberate deceptions, not questions of interpretation. Before the 2007 vote, for example, Mayor Leppert said on several occasions that he was "comfortable" that Dallas would never have to pay a dime more than the $84 million it had already pledged for the toll road. He said the North Texas Tollway Authority would make up the difference if more money were needed. He said he had received assurances to that effect from the NTTA.

By the way, the estimated cost of the toll road that I saw in NTTA planning documents at the time was $1.8 billion, not the $1.5 billion the Morning News now reports, certainly not the $1.29 billion it reported back then. Either way, somebody was going to have to make up a difference of $1.2 to $1.7 billion to get the thing built.

Some weeks before the 2007 election, NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman told Morning News transportation writer Michael A. Lindenberger it wasn't going to be him. He told Lindenberger the city might well be asked to help make up the difference by ponying up more tax money for the project.

That was a bombshell far beyond its story value as an update on the money. Because Leppert had been so visible and emphatic in promising that the NTTA had guaranteed him the money, the real importance of Wageman's words and Lindenberger's story was the lie revealed. The lying.

In an election where opponents of the referendum were able to vastly outspend proponents, the opponents (the people backing the road) won by 5.78 percentage points. It's entirely plausible that a story stripping away the mayor's honesty and honor on the issue a few weeks before the vote could have tipped the scales the other way.

But the story wasn't published when the News got it. The paper sat on that story and only published it the day after the election.

Beyond my own mere churlishness, to which I have already professed guilt, is there any good reason to dredge back through all of this, especially now? The Morning News' reporting on the toll road issue has been thorough and even-handed of late. Allison has experienced a Damascus-Road conversion, and, as his piece last week illustrated, has become a smart effective champion for the anti-toll road cause. So why not let bygones go by?

The reason to remember the past on this issue is for the prologue it provides for the City Hall elections next May, when there will be an attempt made to seat an anti-toll road majority on the council. In anticipation of that new show-down on the road, Mayor Rawlings is already floating two slogans -- "Road Work Ahead" and "Watch Out for Wackos."

The Road Work slogan is an attempt to tell people that this road project, after 16 years of study and design, hasn't been designed yet. Rawlings is saying people shouldn't oppose it because nobody knows yet what it will be. It's an absurd argument. The road has to be exactly what the city said it would be in the design submitted to the feds for approval years ago, or the approval process must begin again from zero. But it's a free country, and Rawlings, like Leppert, can say stuff that isn't true if he wants to.

The Watch out for Wackos argument was effective, I believe, in 2007. Basically it said, "We're not liars, and we're not conspiring. They are. And they're crazy, because they think we are."

But the verdict of history was that they were lying and conspiring, and we were not crazy. It's an important lesson to remember as we approach another chance to slay this dragon.

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