Dose of Unpleasant Reality About Toll Road. As in, "What Toll Road?"

Angela Hunt, horrifying everyone by standing up and speaking at a meeting.
Angela Hunt, horrifying everyone by standing up and speaking at a meeting.
Sam Merten

Two recent conversations put the Trinity toll road debate into a certain perspective for me. The first, after dinner with friends, came while saying good-bye. One friend, a person of the Park Cities persuasion, said while waving good-night, "Hey, Jim, when are we going to get Town Lake?"

Does anybody under 60 even know that term? Town Lake is something people talked about in the early 1980s before the toll road was ever mentioned -- a great big lake on the Trinity River the length of downtown, equivalent to Austin's Town Lake on the Colorado River.

It could not be done. Let's not get into it here. The problems were geology, topography and reality. But it was good for me to hear that question. It reminded me that in the Park Cities and probably in significant sections of North Dallas, the toll road issue is framed as, "Isn't Dallas going to make a lake or something somewhere someday?"

And the most common answer is probably, "I don't know. I don't go to Dallas."

For one who has worked on the toll road story for almost 20 years, it is humbling and probably healthy to be reminded every once in a while how little a lot of people know or care about any of it.

The other wake-up call was not healthy. This is one I actually hear more often. I spoke with a person -- not of the Park Cities persuasion this time but close enough -- who is a recent convert, once strongly in favor of a massive expressway on top of the river downtown, now strongly opposed. I made the mistake of asking why she had changed her mind.

She blinked. Of course it's not a question people like, because it implies that by their own admission they used to be wrong. Most people search for an excuse. She said, "Well I think it was that person, (former City Council member) Angela Hunt. She was just so strident."

Often when people tell me it was Hunt that put them off their feed, I suspect they are dodging telling me what they really mean: "I think it was you, Jim, because you're such an asshole."

But it bothers me to death anyway. In terms of her personal deportment Hunt was always studiously gracious in her opposition, never grating, caustic, over-personal or over-the-top like ... well, me.

On the other hand, the downtown establishment speaking through its mouthpiece, the editorial page of The Dallas Morning News, based its entire argument on ad hominem personal attacks on Hunt, painting her either as "uncertain," which means ditz, or "sharp-tongued," which means bitch.

But just to check my memory, I took a little tour recently through old Morning News editorials to remind myself how they have handled the issue over the years. Here is a sampling:

On March 28, 2007 in the run-up to a citywide referendum on putting a toll road through the planned river park downtown, the Morning News said Hunt had no right to object to the park route unless she came up with an alternative route:

"If Ms. Hunt has an alternative to propose, we're all ears. Short of that, her efforts to undo a decade of work appear irresponsible."

A week later the paper said, "Just a guess, but this might be why Ms. Hunt and her supporters won't specify an alternative. There isn't one that makes fiscal or any other kind of sense."

They concluded: "As maverick council members before her learned, throwing rocks from the bleachers is the easy part. The hard part is ironing out flaws from the inside."

Of course, as the mayor's own "Dream Team" reminded us recently, we really never needed the damn thing at all -- none of it, no matter what route it took -- which makes me think of another axiom: "Writing snotty editorials is the easy part. The hard part is paying attention to what people are trying to tell you."

See also: Trinity Toll Road "Dream Team" Says Dallas Does Not Need Highway Through a Park

A week after that one, the editorial page launched another canard, charging that doing anything at all to change plans for a massive toll road would cause Dallas to suddenly lose federal and state financing for everything else in the Trinity project, from parks to flood control. "Hanging by a Thread," the headline said. "Tug too hard, and Trinity project could unravel."

"Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt makes dismantling the Trinity River project sound so simple. Just pull out that troublesome toll road, she suggests. Then the city can carry on with its plans for parks, lakes and the now famous, much maligned sailboats."

Oh, that goof-ball. Making stuff sound simple.

"Ms. Hunt," the paper said, "is yanking on a single thread in this carefully crafted project. If she succeeds in forcing a referendum, the entire plan could begin to unravel."

On May 28, 2007, another headline said, "Trinity's Dominoes -- Topple toll road, and who knows what else falls."

That one must have been tough to write, because they had to start off by admitting that Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson, who had more to do with funding for the Trinity River project than any other public official, had recently declared the whole unraveling domino theory to be bullshit. Johnson assured Dallas that none of the flood control funding was tied in any way to the toll road, which we now know to be true. But the editorial writers got where they had to go and did it by attacking Hunt.

"City Council member Angela Hunt, who launched the petition drive for a referendum, is asking voters to act on blind faith," the paper said. "She is a sharp-tongued critic of the plan, but she still has offered no alternatives."

I have tons more in my files. I will spare you. I'm working on a column for next week about the recent election, and I promise to be upbeat. I really do see sunshine peeking up over the far horizon, and this issue -- the stupid underwater toll road -- has been a major catalyst for the important and happy changes ahead for Dallas.

It's not going to get built. It's a basically stupid anti-urban ancien regime idea that already has at least one Gucci loafer in the grave.

And I have a good idea for how to make the other side feel better about losing. I think most of them are like my Park Cities friend. Dallas is sort of a distant rumor anyway. So we just tell them, "Yeah we built it already. Fifty lanes." Then we say something about where Jordan Spieth gets his hair done. It's over. They'd rather talk about Jordan Spieth's hair any old day.

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