Face it. We'll Never Really Talk about the Toll Road. We're Going to Talk About Your Face.
This is Dallas. We can turn even a toll road debate Into an orgy of personal finger-pointing.
Lots of talk yesterday about today's upcoming announcement of a political action committee to kill the Trinity toll road, and, by the way, if you just moved here, it's perfectly OK to say, "Toll road? OK, I don't think I care about that."
But think of it this way: It's a big interesting local battle between old big-hair Dallas stereotype people (all the stuff that made you wonder if you were ruining your life by moving here) and pretty cool seeming forward-the-city types (all the stuff that made moving here seem possibly exciting and maybe more fun than wherever you were).
It's all very personal, this toll road, about virtuous people and wicked people. The newcomer would be justified in wondering how we can divide ourselves into heroes and villains over a damned highway. But, oh, believe me. We do. (For the newly arrived: it's a proposed but unbuilt big expressway along the river. Oh, yeah, forgot to tell you: We have a river. It's called the Trinity. It cuts sort of northwest to southeast through the city. It's hard to see. I'll show it to you some day if you want.)
Yesterday after people found out about the PACs organized to raise money for candidates who will kill the toll road, most of what I heard amounted to ad hominem good-guy/bad-guy speculation. Since it looks like the toll road will be the single biggest issue in next May's City Council elections, some people want to know what has changed, ad hominem-wise, since Dallas voted to keep it in a 2007 referendum.
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A commenter here named "ceemac" asked, "So are these North Dallas voters who always vote and who don't care about parks, libraries etc less of a player than they were in 2007?" Translation: People who hate the road think it will ruin possibilities for a big urban park along the river. This guy, ceemac, is pointing out that most of the middle and upper middle class white people in North Dallas voted in favor of the highway in 2007.
Hey, look, this actually turns into a window on how Dallas really thinks. Promise.
He/she is a bit unfair in caricaturing North Dallas people as park and library haters who love big public works boondoggles. Actually they have been a bulwark against some boondoggles in the past. Think of them more as conservative but civic-minded, boosters for good libraries in their own neighborhoods, maybe a tad stingy about paying for a big one downtown, generally skeptical of big projects that will cost the taxpayers money unless you can hypnotize them.
Hypnotize them? Sure. You know what I mean. And that's not just Dallas. The take-away from politics in the last 20 years, from the national level to hyper-local, is that you can get people to vote against their own paychecks and their own kids going to college if you can hypnotize them into seeing everything as being about identity.
You know how this works: You better vote to raise your own taxes and lower taxes on multi-billionaires or the (black, white, Hispanic, Christian, Muslim, sex offender, gun-nut, antediluvian, scary-bad-one-eyeball-in-middle-of-the-head) people will take over.
But toll roads? You can turn toll roads into identity politics? You can here. It's been done. In 2007 when we had a citywide referendum on the Trinity toll road, a political consultant named Carol Reed did an absolutely brilliant job of painting the toll road opponents as wing-nut hippie flibbertigibbets who wanted to kill a perfectly good toll road so they could blow a billion dollars in tax money instead on untoward activities.
And who would ever believe that? Welcome to Dallas.
After the election -- she won -- I ran into a guy whose kid had been on a soccer team with mine. He didn't know what I did for a living. He was a North Dallas white person. Somehow it came up. He told me his entire church had gone in buses to vote in favor of the road. I asked why. He said, "Our pastor told us that the people against the toll road were mainly the homosexuals."
I asked him if this was part of the secret homosexual anti-toll road agenda that everybody knows about. He said, "I guess so." We parted ways amicably. Believe me, there are moments here when you just don't get into it.
I heard subtle echoes of the hippie wingnut argument at a recent toll debate in North Oak Cliff. Former City Council person Craig Holcomb, a pro toll road mercenary, said, "There are a lot people in the city of Dallas who want to live in single family homes who want to be able to drive their cars where they want to."
Translation: People who want parks and mountain bike trails are hippie wingnuts who live in apartments, whereas people who live in houses, have families and gave up riding bicycles when they were 12 are in favor of toll roads.
Starting to see how it works?
But things change. I don't have numbers, but my gut sense is that many of those North Dallas neighborhoods that were pretty elderly seven years ago are a good bit younger today. Meanwhile the toll road has a huge anti-green stink to it, at a time when Dallas City Hall has managed to paint itself as pretty much the Great Satan of All Nature-Hating Destroyers of Ponds and Horses. I don't think Holcomb or the other pro-roadsters want to go running around North Dallas or anywhere else calling people tree-huggers this time. They'll just come across as tree-haters themselves. I hope they don't know that.
I said after last week's debate that the pro roadsters are going to work hard to make this racial. Too much to explain here. It will work, sorta, but not in the city's burgeoning diverse neighborhoods and maybe not in North Dallas, where it can only divide the pro-road vote. Assuming North Dallas still has a good quotient of hard-voting oldsters, I really don't get telling them the toll road is a civil rights project.
It would be nice, sure, if we could discuss the toll road as a toll road. But you have to remember. We have no ocean here in Dallas, no soaring mountains, busy boroughs or trackless desert. We get bored. If all we've got to talk about is a toll road, then we're going to make the best of it and make it personal, because personal is always more interesting than not. By the way, has your nose always been like that?