All through last week’s City Council briefing on the city’s ancient and unresolved Trinity toll road controversy, I kept thinking I sniffed the unpleasant scent of burning human hair that you get when someone is being thrown under a bus.
Kept looking around the council chamber, sniffing. Couldn’t find it. And then I spotted it! Oh, there it was! Right next to me. A guy was getting thrown under the bus repeatedly. The Canadian!
He was sitting right next to me the whole time. No wonder I caught a whiff. He’s Larry Beasley, the planner from Vancouver who was brought in a year ago to cast oil upon the troubled waters and soothe the anxious beast, which I believe would be us.
At the briefing last week the Canadian was getting heaved under the wheels by beasts on both sides of the bus. This was all about which is more important — the six-lane, high-speed, limited access expressway that the pro-toll-roaders want to see built along the Trinity River downtown or the vast urban park that the anti-toll-roaders want.
People keep describing this as an “18-year-old controversy” because of an election in 1998, but last week after the hearing, in rereading a federal document called “The ROD” or “Record of Decision” (more on that in a moment), I came across a most-amazing factoid: according to the ROD, “The concept of the Trinity Parkway project has been included in long-range regional transportation plans dating to the mid-1960s.”
Do you see what that means? The Trinity toll road debate in Dallas is at least a half-century old. Do you know, there is a historic marker in a park in my neighborhood for something that happened only 43 years ago. So by that measuring stick we could erect a historic marker, in theory at least, for the Trinity toll road debate, just the debate itself, whether there’s ever a toll road or not.
Should we be proud? Or should we see a doctor?
The thing is, when you look at the so-called debate closely enough, you begin to understand how it could have gone on this long. It’s not really a debate in the strictest sense of that word. It’s more of an enchantment or spell, like the impenetrable wall of thorns that grew up around Sleeping Beauty’s castle.
Last year when the Canadian came to town, he invented a phrase, “The park is the client.” That was supposed to make the pro-park people feel that their lives mattered. Then he said that “3-C,” a bureaucratic code-word for the expressway, was “not needed.”
Now, here is where the magical part comes in. Beasley said that 3-C, the highway, isn’t needed, but he said Dallas does need to continue building 3-C. The money for 3-C is supposed to come from two sources — the federal government and the regional toll road agency. And we still want the money. Apparently. I guess. He said. So maybe.
The money, especially the federal money, comes from something called the “Record of Decision” or “ROD” for short, which is our contract with the Federal Highway Administration. We want to keep the ROD, he said, so we can keep the money. But we don’t want to really build 3-C, as in ever completing it. So we should just sort of putter along on it but not really build it. And get the money.
The amazing thing — I really thought this part was absolute genius — we don’t go to prison. No hard time.
Here is what you may be wondering, if I may anticipate: If we don’t build 3-C (the highway) but we do keep the ROD (the money), why don’t we go to prison?
We don’t all get sent up the river because we’re going to fool the feds and the toll road agency by using the ROD to build some kind of a road, which we tell them is 3-C, but actually the road will be a charming winding English country lane that won’t perturb the park at all, and that’s very important because the park … the park is … come on, you know this one, I already told you … the park is the client! Yes!
Park is client. Yes to ROD. No to 3-C. No to prison.
At the meeting last week, Beasley said: “I think it will be a gracious and elegant and gentle parkway when you have finished. You are now into the details on how gracious and how elegant and how gentle as you go through the rest of this presentation.”
But the words were barely out of his mouth when the anti-toll-roaders heaved him right under the bus! City Councilman Scott Griggs led off:
“We’re either lying to the citizens of Dallas when we say we’re going to build this small road, or we’re lying to the feds when we say we’re going to build this big road.”
Well, sure. If you just go and tell everybody.
Griggs said: “The park is not actually the client. The ROD is. 3-C is still alive.”
Beasley was sort of figuratively crawling out from under the other side of the bus, and I was hoping maybe the pro-toll-roaders would pick him up and dust him off, but, man! Watch out! They heaved him right back under worse than the other side had. They said the park was never the client and never should have been. They wanted the ROD to be the client, and they wanted a big fat highway.
Former Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson, now chancellor of the University of North Texas System, an ardent champion of the expressway for 20 years that I know of but maybe since adolescence, said if the road was supposed to be just a little winding lane then the people of Dallas would have been paying for it themselves all along without the ROD:
“Money would have been placed on a bond election,” Jackson said. “This was never proposed purely as a local park access road.”
I’m thinking, “Yeah, but, Judge Jackson, if you just go and say all this stuff out loud, won’t we have to go to prison?”
Former Mayor Ron Kirk, a former Obama cabinet member, said he didn’t understand why we were talking about it at all: “I cannot imagine any project that has been more exhaustively studied, talked about, visited, revisited, revisited again, retalked about, than this project.”
Kirk said making it a little winding slow-speed road “is a way to basically kill the road,” and he said, “Now is not the time to start over again.”
Beasley still sort of had his bangs and one hand sticking partway out from under the bus, but then city Councilman Ricky Callahan came over and kicked him the rest of the way under by saying all Beasley had ever wanted was a big fat expressway in the first place and the park was stupid.
I’m mentally sticking out both wrists together, thinking, “Just slap the cuffs on me, marshal, we’ll all go peaceably.” But then Councilman Lee Kleinman, who is chairman of the committee holding the hearing, makes a speech about what a wonderful briefing it has been, and I am frankly taken aback if not a bit dazed.
“People should recognize that everybody on this advisory committee has dedicated much of their life to this city,” he says. “If you look at the folks that are sitting facing us, years and years and years of dedication … I want to thank you all.
“Overall,” he says, “I’m really excited about what I see here. I’m excited that we have come to a point of compromise and consensus on a plan.”
I’m looking under the bus. I can’t see Beasley’s bangs.
“I was very excited,” Kleinman says, “to see the potential for grass shoulders.”
Grass shoulders? Grass shoulders? Oh, he means along 3-C. I was still fixated on Beasley. I thought maybe he was going to have grass shoulders. But Kleinman means that 3-C will have grass shoulders. OK, that’s one thing. I guess.
He says something about the flood wall. The design for part of the flood wall is good, but other parts of the flood wall “need work.”
Grass shoulders. Flood wall. I am very confused. I feel like I just heard a debate in which both sides said that every single thing under consideration at this hearing was a pack of lies. The one side said that the winding English lane is a mockery and that the reason the other side wants to keep the ROD alive is so they can build 3-C.
The other side said damn right. They said the whole thing about the park being the client is stupid, the park can go to hell and they want an expressway.
Nobody on either side believes one word of the story the Canadian came to town to tell us last year about a winding English lane. No one. Not one word.
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One side heaves him under the bus. He barely crawls out. The other side heaves him under again. It’s painful to watch, frankly. I am mentally cupping my hands around my mouth whispering hoarsely to him, “Stay under the bus! This meeting can’t last forever.”
This is what I mean about an enchantment or a spell, maybe a curse. Every time we think we have come to an ultimate point of decision, an inescapable fork in the road, a yes-no moment, I hear flutes and someone says, “Grass shoulders.” Or, “We don’t need 3-C, but we must continue to build it.” And that’s enough to keep it going for another 10 years.
I have an idea. Kill the ROD. Take out a gun. Shoot the ROD. Dead. Bury the ROD. Invite Kleinman to do the eulogy. “I come to bury the ROD, not to praise it.”
Give us an ending to this story. No prison, please. Just, “The End.”