Bait and switch

According to The Dallas Morning News and its City Hall reporting staff, the news on the Trinity River project over the last three months has been quite exciting. The city, according to the News, has decided to build an even bigger and better lake downtown than previously anticipated. The toll road project along the river has been expanded. Best of all, Dallas may have an opportunity soon to build all new bridges over the river downtown.

What the News never quite says in these reports--a form of coded signals to the cognoscenti--is that 1) the dream of a lavish recreational facility downtown may already be dead, and, simultaneously, 2) the project's overall cost to the city may be escalating by the hundreds of millions of dollars.

Environmentalists and critics of the program say the Morning News' reporting on the project is an attempt to spin the following realities:

The huge $1.2 billion project to rebuild the Trinity River flood plain through downtown and southern Dallas is basically pulling apart at the seams--a disintegration that begins deep in the "design" of this enormous project. The problem, they say, is that the vision of a flood-control project with parks and amenities downtown directly conflicts with the thing the downtown power-brokers really want--a new highway to skirt downtown.

The promised 33-acre lake downtown--a centerpiece of the public-relations campaign leading up to last May's bond vote--was scrapped last month amid pronouncements that a tiny lake just wouldn't be good enough for Dallas. Mayor Ron Kirk said he thought it was worth waiting and spending more money--$70 million instead of the $12 million voters approved last May--in order to give Dallas a really first-class lake.

But the critics say the lake was scrapped because the city is beginning to realize there is no room at all for a true "lake" in the scheme. No lake at all.

The reason for that, they say, is that the toll road project is going to make flooding much worse along the river corridor. The only way the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will be able to correct that problem will be to turn the river bottom into a big, broad, straight-running tree-less ditch.

"When they talk about building a bigger and better lake or lakes," said Ned Fritz of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, "they're really talking about building what I have called 'conveyance basins.'"

English translation: "Conveyance basins" would be broad ditches designed to lower the water level, to make up for the amount the water will be raised when they build a new freeway standing in the river channel.

And what would be wrong with "conveyance basins" for lakes? Couldn't you swim and fish in a conveyance basin?

"They will have to keep them very shallow, in order to move floodwater through them," Fritz said.

To show what shallow conveyance basins will wind up looking like, Joanne Hill, a well-known recycling authority and member of Friends of the Trinity River, points to the area near the Corinth Street bridge, which she calls "Big Silt Island."

"They just cleared that part of the channel a year ago, and it's already got this huge island of silt in it with trees already growing in the silt, all of which will have to be cleared out at some point at enormous cost."

Another huge change in the picture--presented a month ago by the Morning News as if it were a minor wrinkle--is in the amount of money Dallas taxpayers will have to come up with to pay for the new toll road around downtown Dallas. When voters approved the $246 million Trinity bond program last May, they had been told that $84 million of the bond money would pay for the city's share of the toll road.

But a recent report by the North Texas Tollway Authority revealed that the city might have to come up with an additional $250 million--more than the entire Trinity River bond package, which was the largest bond package of its type in the history of the city.

The city might have to come up with that kind of money because the aesthetically pleasing causeway/boulevard sold to voters before the May election is a financial loser. No one would use it because it would be too slow and wouldn't go where people want to go. Basically, the tollway authority was telling the city someone would have to pay up front to compensate for the money the authority won't make in tolls.

If the tollway is going to cost someone an additional $250 million because no one wants to use it, that will represent an increase of more than 60 percent in the cost of the entire road project, originally slated at $394 million.  

Another solution, of course, would be to allow the Tollway Authority to build a different kind of road--a great big, roaring, multi-lane, limited-access, traditional freeway right down both sides of the river with cars and trucks and everything else. That way, the authority's study said, the city might only have to come up with an additional $160 million.

The Dallas City Council--public-policy academy that it is--has responded so far by saying it hopes the state Department of Transportation will pick up the extra cost of the toll road. Then the council said it wanted to have a very serious debate on what kinds of billboards that would be allowed along the new freeway.

Charles Tucker, director of transportation planning and development for the Dallas district of the Transportation Department, says the agency may share some of the cost of the project. He says the amount hasn't been determined yet: "TxDOT is the final rung of the ladder. After the North Texas Tollway Authority and the city have put in their share, then TxDOT will pick up whatever we can."

Tucker says the state agency has to get a certain amount of bang for its buck in order to put money into a project. It can't spend tax dollars for roads if the roads don't relieve congestion. Both he and Dallas district engineer Jay Nelson declined to speculate on what the state might be willing to kick in for a road that gets relatively little use.

One of the stranger, therefore more intriguing, Morning News reports on the river in recent months was a Sunday piece November 29 by City Hall reporter Robert Ingrassia, under the headline, "Thinking big for their bridges." The gist of the story was that the Trinity River project was providing the city with a marvelous opportunity to rebuild all of the major spans across the river near downtown.

The article opened with references to the Brooklyn Bridge and the Golden Gate and included bubbly quotes from people in the bridge-building industry about the wonderful new bridges that Dallas now has a chance to build across the Trinity. Nowhere did the story explain why the river project should require the city to take on even more hundreds of millions in unanticipated debt for new bridges.

According to Fritz, that story is the best evidence yet that the city has been forced to jettison the whole idea of lakes in favor of a series of shallow silt-catching basins to keep the water down below the existing levees.

"They had started out by saying they were talking about lakes between the bridges that wouldn't affect the bridges themselves," Fritz said. "But if the conveyance basins go under the bridges, they will undermine the standing strength of the bridge pillars, and all of that will have to be rebuilt or replaced."

Hundreds of millions of dollars more.
Based on the pronouncements so far from City Hall, and in strict accordance with the party line first floated in Ingrassia's Morning News story, this enormous new cost will be marketed to the public as a beautification project. Specifically, the public will be told Dallas needs a "signature" bridge downtown--that is, a decorated bridge, made to look like a modern version of the Ponte Vechio in Florence or the Tower Bridge in London.

The animosity between proponents and critics of the project remains personal and intense. Some of the project's toughest critics, including Mary Vogelson of the League of Women Voters, are cautiously hopeful that the arrival on the scene of new City Manager Ted Benavides may help.

"I think he has more skills at dealing with people than [former City Manager John] Ware did, and that at least will be better," Vogelson said, "although it may be bad for people like me. It may just mean he'll be better able to help the mayor get his way than Ware was."

But the basic conviction of people who have opposed the project from the beginning is that the entire scheme is based on a carefully manipulated, deliberate lie. It's not about parks, they say. It's not even about flood control. It's all for the road, and the rest is there to fool the suckers. The best proof it's a lie, the critics say, has been the unwillingness of the Corps of Engineers to even look at what building a highway in the river bottom does to flood control.

The justification for the Trinity River project has been that it will improve flood control in downtown Dallas. The agency primarily charged with that job is the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.

After the bond election last May, when the corps finally released its environmental impact study of the project and asked for public comment, the central objection critics raised was that the corps had not even looked at the flood-control implications of building a freeway in the river. Since then, foes of the river project have made it clear they intend to sue the corps if the impact statement is not altered to take the toll road into account when a final version is released.  

The corps had promised its final impact statement this month. Corps spokesman Ron Ruffennach now says, "It looks as if the report will not likely be available to the public until mid- to late January."

Ruffennach concedes that questions raised by the critics are the reason the corps is having such a hard time getting its final impact statement published. "It seems a lot of questions were raised during the comment phase, and we're having to do some work to get them all answered."

Fritz says the failure of the Corps to study the impact of building a highway in the river is the central flaw causing the whole project to split at the seams now.

What is really going on now behind the scenes, critics claim, is a hurry-up redesign of the whole project to make it work in terms of flood-protection, along with a massive PR campaign, led by the News, to prepare the public for a doubling or tripling of the local cost of the whole project.

City Manager Ted Benavides says neither of those things is happening. Asked if there was any re-engineering of the project under way to accommodate the toll road, Benavides said, "I'm not aware of that."

But the critics do believe there is a re-design taking place, made necessary by the earlier duplicity of the Corps of Engineers on the subject of putting the toll road in the river.

"This is my opinion," Fritz says, "but what it comes down to is that we were misled. There was no mention in the Corps' draft environmental impact statement of the effect the tollway project would have between the existing levees. This amounts to an absolute misleading of the public by the Corps of Engineers.

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