Diggin' dirt

The staff shows the city council pretty pictures, like this one, of things that can't be built.

The Trinity River Plan is starting to take on an almost zany quality, like a Marx Brothers movie. The city staff has told at least one council member that they can't be accused of going back on the original plans for the $2 billion river project because there are none.

Oh, what a relief!

A key city staffer has informed Council-woman Laura Miller that the 1998 Trinity River bond issue was based on a few thin what-if scenarios and a lot of ad-agency puffery.

The staff's behind-the-scenes "confession" happened in the weeks following a city council briefing on the river plan last month. In the briefing, Miller noticed that large portions of the river plan no longer have any funding, even though the staff continues to show the council big watercolor posters depicting those things as part of the plan.

At the briefing, the staff put ooh-and-ah renderings of the project on the wall, but also provided the council with a kind of coloring book to accompany the pictures. When she was supposed to be looking at the pictures, Miller cheated and looked instead at the fine print in her coloring book.

She noticed that the "levee-top promenades" -- the places in the pictures where people were shown jogging and chatting and staring off into the beautiful blue expanse of water -- were "unfunded."

Unfunded? The promenades will cost $30.4 million to build, according to the coloring book. When he first ran for office, Mayor Ron Kirk promised that the Trinity River would be turned into a "Central Park" like the one in New York. Then, when the development interests insisted on squeezing a new freeway into the plan, our "Central Park" shrank down into "promenades," or fancy sidewalks on top of the levees. And now we don't get the promenades?

There's a lot more we don't get. Miller's coloring book revealed a laundry list of don't-gets: Levee-top trails, the Loop 12 Gateway park along the river, an athletic complex, even access ramps from the bridges over the river (you know, so you can get your body into the park), the big "Reunion gathering place" that was supposed to bring us all together so we could feel warm and fuzzy, the small "community lakes" that were supposed to make West Dallas feel better.

That's $120 million right there. Unfunded.

So Miller flips the pages in her coloring book to where it talks about the "gateway" connector park for her own part of town, Oak Cliff.

Uh-oh. Clear the decks.

Nothing was touted or promised more explicitly in the bond package sold to voters than the "gateways," which were to be open spaces and linkages to tie the rebuilt green space along the river to the adjacent neighborhoods.

We were supposed to authorize $246 million in city bonded indebtedness to pay for our share of the project. The rest of the $2 billion would come from state and federal coffers.

A brochure published by the city before the May 2, 1998, election, titled "1998 Capital Bond Program Summary in-Brief," said, "trail linkages for transportation and recreational use will connect neighborhoods and high employment areas in Oak Cliff, West Dallas, and the Central Business District."

The language of the bond proposition itself said the money would pay for "open space [and] recreational facilities."

In a February 19, 1998, letter asking the Texas Attorney General to approve the city's proposed $246 million bond program, Ray Hutchison, the city's bond lawyer, argued that the parks and trails were such an integral part of the overall plan that taking them out would require a "major redesign of the entire project."

And as recently as June 8 of last year, the city staff was still showing council members color slides promising that all of the community "gateways" would be paid for from the 1998 bond program, including the Oak Cliff Gateway at about $800,000.

But as Miller continues reading the fine print, she finds that the money picture has changed since June. Big-time. The city's share of money for the "Old Meanders Restoration," a kind of mini-riverwalk in West Dallas along the original winding course of the river, for example, was described in the city council briefing last summer as coming from the 1998 Dallas bond program. Now the coloring book says, "funds not yet identified."

As for the Oak Cliff Gateway, the one in Miller's neighborhood identified in the June 8 briefing as paid for by "'98 bonds"? Unfunded.

Miller looked up from her coloring book and said to the staff: "Show me one picture in the room which is of what we can afford to do now with the $246 million the voters have approved for this project."  

A reasonable request.

But there's no such picture. Not one. With the exception of Miller and Donna Blumer, the rest of the council, most of whom get the bulk of their campaign money from the interests pushing for this project, were going to vote for the plan based on the pretty watercolors.

Now, thanks to Miller, there is supposed to be a new briefing in the future, probably in April, at which the staff will tell what we're really getting for the money we've already approved.

In the meantime, however, the staff is trying to tell Miller that no promises have been broken -- now get this: because they say they never had a real plan for the project in the first place.

They're not going back on the plan, in other words, because they didn't have a plan when they asked voters to authorize the $246 million.

This is a good thing?

Miller told me she went to Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, because Jordan has a reputation for honesty, and asked for a private briefing on everything the city has on file from before the 1998 bond election showing what the bond money would pay for.

"She comes in with this April 3, 1998, stuff, and mostly it's [political public relations person] Rob Allyn's PR stuff. I said, 'I want the math,' and she said, 'We don't have any.'"

Miller believes Jordan. And Jordan confirmed the basics of Miller's account to me. Seems remarkable: going off on a $2 billion public works adventure with no real engineering work-up to tell you whether it can be done or what it will cost.

But let's take up another obvious question: If the money they said they were going to get from the bond campaign for gateways and other amenities is no longer in the plan, then where, might we ask, did it go?

The costs go up. The costs go down. The gateway parks are in. The gateway parks are out. Except for Blumer and Miller, the rest of them never ask why. But if they did ask, if they probed, if they even looked at their own briefing materials, they would see that there has always been one number in the river project that never changes.

Three million cubic yards.

The staff may be telling Miller now that they never had any numbers, but it's just not true. There have always been numbers; I have them in my own files; the environmental opponents of the river plan have them in theirs; and three million cubic yards is in everyone's file, over and over again. It is, in fact, the golden mean, the number that never changes.

Three million, give or take a few hundred thousand, is the number of cubic yards of dirt that builders need for the new highway the development interests want to build along the length of the river project. That's what this has always been about.

Follow the fill dirt.

The land-holding interests along the river, especially the major players in the north Stemmons Industrial Corridor (between the Trade Mart on Stemmons Freeway and the river), have been pushing for a highway along the river for years. The old warehouse zone next to the river is worn out. There are plans to turn that area into an ultra-high-end district like Turtle Creek. But to make it happen, they think they need the highway.

In their early briefings to the council going back to January 1998, the engineers said they would need 3.7 million cubic yards of dirt in order to build a highway on dirt platforms along the insides of the levees on both sides of the river. That was specific. They had that number down.

Since then, the mayor and his handlers have been willing to promise us anything and show us any picture, as long as they get that dirt. The various lakes they have promised, in fact, are dirt quarries.

In 1998, the staff described to the council in some detail a number of different lake scenarios. One of them was an "on-channel" lake that would have been full of that good ol' Trinity River water straight out of the up-river sewage treatment plants. That lake, the engineers said, would have required a hole 80 acres by eight to 10 feet deep. The on-channel lake, heavily lobbied by the Trinity River Improvement Association, the old-line private land-holding group that has sought a highway along the river since the early 1960s, would have produced 3.7 million cubic yards of dirt -- exactly what was needed for the highway.

But the lake would have been real stinky -- so foul, in fact, that it would have been unsafe for physical contact. The mayor's ad campaign for the river bonds showed people sailing on it. To do that and live, they would have had to wear space suits.  

When the council balked at the on-channel lake full of sewage, the staff switched to a much bigger off-channel lake. At 135 acres by eight feet of depth, the hole for the new lake would produce 3.2 million cubic yards of fill dirt, the staff said.

When Miller told me the staff was telling her there had never been numbers, I went back and looked at the stuff in my files -- city documents -- giving numbers for the various lakes that have been proposed, and I discovered an unsettling problem. The holes for the lakes, dug in the same place at the same depth, were producing greatly varying amounts of dirt per acre, according to the city's own briefing materials.

I borrowed my son's math book, looked up the table of weights and measures, and did some eighth-grade math. And guess what -- none of the depths made sense. The lakes would all have to be much deeper than eight to 10 feet to produce the amount of fill dirt the engineers were saying would come out of them. In order to get the dirt they say they'll get out of the 135-acre hole, for example, they will have to go down 15 feet. Not eight.

I'm not certain they're telling the council the truth about the size of these lakes. I think the missing millions may be in the dirt quarries. But I may be wrong. So here's a test:

Why doesn't our council ask the engineering company designing this project, Halff Associates, this one question: how deep are you going to dig? Exactly.

And if it's more than eight feet, especially if it's 15 feet, why don't we cut our excavation costs -- now estimated at $9 million to $11 million -- in half by going only eight feet deep, as planned? And see what they say.

They're going to howl, because they want that dirt, because they're lusting after that road.

That road, by the way, is in big trouble. I had an interesting chat this week with Chris Anderson, planning director of the North Texas Tollway Authority. I asked him about some rumors I was hearing that the tollway project is $161 million in the hole -- that they can't even start on it yet, because they need that much more money up front.

"Yes," he said, "that would be essentially correct."

That's because the road won't draw enough traffic. They can't get toll projections to back up the money they would have to borrow to build it. It doesn't pay out. It's a speculative boondoggle designed to push up land values.

Here's something else the staff forgot to mention in the briefing with the watercolors on the wall: In the recently released environmental-impact statement on the river project, the Corps of Engineers found that building a highway inside the levees will ruin the value of the river as a recreational resource.

Ruin it.

"The intrusion of a vehicular freeway into the channel side of the floodway will have a negative aesthetic effect," the Corps report states. "The noise, rapid movement and exhaust generated by the traffic would reverse most of the gains created by the positive alternatives that have been previously discussed. The overall appeal of the floodway as an escape from the urban fabric would be lost by the intrusion of high-volume, high-speed traffic into the open space."

Think about all this. They say they don't have numbers. But they do. What they have is a shifting array of numbers in which there is one immutable constant -- the number of cubic yards of dirt they have to scoop out of the river bottom to build the highway they want.

The tollway authority, which is supposed to build the road, can't start because the road is such a financial loser. The Army Corps of Engineers says the highway will ruin the park value of the whole project, which is most of what it was sold on when the mayor asked us to vote for the bonds. Most of the park is "unfunded," anyway.

When I spoke with Miller in a conference room in City Hall, she offered what seems like a fair proposal. See, she's for the river project. She wants it to happen. She thinks it would be great for downtown and especially for Oak Cliff.

She said, "Why don't we find out what the truth is?"

The what?

"Why don't we find out what the truth is and then tell the people?" she said. "Why don't we say, 'Here's what we can really afford now. Here's what it would cost to finish it.' And if we need more money to finish it, let people vote on it again. But why don't we tell the truth?"  

Well, sure. We're excited. Let's do some focus groups on that.

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