Haven't Read it Yet, But We're Ready to Rock and Roll on that Trinity Dream Team Report

Mayor Mike Rawlings hasn't read the Dream Report yet but he likes it.
Mayor Mike Rawlings hasn't read the Dream Report yet but he likes it.
Dallas Museum of Art

The muscle is on, Chicago-style in Dallas. The mayor and the people he carries water for on the Trinity toll road do not want you to see, hear or talk about their so-called "Dream Team" plan for the toll road before they can get it underway.

That's why they will unveil the plan itself today at a $150-plate (minimum) luncheon from which the non-paying public will be excluded. Then Thursday -- barely 48 hours after the well-heeled crowd at the luncheon see it, without a single public hearing, before anybody has time to digest any of it -- the mayor's team will ask the council to approve an implementation study in order to get it underway pronto.

Wait. Tell me again why are we implementing it before we decide to do it? Scott Goldstein, the mayor's spokesman, told me the City Council won't be asked Thursday to decide to implement the Dream Team plan. They'll be asked only to approve a study on how to implement it.

Here's what won't happen. You, happy voter, will never be asked and will not get a chance any time soon to do thumbs-up or thumbs-down on the Dream Team plan itself. You won't be able to say, "Don't study it. Don't figure out how to do it. Just don't do it."

Sorry. Not an option.

By the way, Goldstein also told me yesterday that the mayor had not yet read the Dream Team report. He said the mayor had talked about it on the phone with one of the authors and had looked at some of the visuals. But that was enough, apparently, for the mayor to convene the emergency meetings set for tomorrow to get it rolling.

The Dream Team is a committee of paid consultants hired by a group of wealthy toll road backers and friends of the mayor, some anonymous, some not. They were tasked to come up with a way to put a six-to-eight-lane limited access high speed toll road into a linear park along the river without harming the park.

This is in spite of a detailed study and report by a committee of 10 presidents of the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects last February which found that the current official design for the toll road would do irreconcilable violence to the as yet unbuilt river park Dallas voters authorized 17 years ago.

It's also after Alex Krieger, the Harvard professor who headed up the last one of these "Dream Team" efforts on the toll road in 2003, said that entire effort turned out to be a scam. Krieger said the toll road backers pretended like they were adopting the so-called "Balanced Vision Plan" in 2003, waited until nobody was watching and then blew the thing back out into the roaring stinking highway design it is today.

The original sales pitch for the mayor's "Dream Team" was that it would dream up aesthetic improvements to the official roadway design -- find ways to make it look better -- while sticking to the basic engineering framework of the existing plan. That notion was dubious enough -- that the mayor's team could come up with some arrangement of potted palms capable of hiding a fat roaring highway in the middle of a park.

But since then I have seen emails between Brent Brown of the City Design Studio and members of the Dream Team that indicate the Dream Team has wandered into area of the basic hydrology of the levee system. That's the single biggest public interest issue in this whole saga.

In 1998 the Trinity River project was sold to the public and to the federal government not as a recreation project, not as transportation, but as flood control, on the theory that the existing levee system no longer protected downtown. An environmental group sued, arguing that the city had faked the basic hydrology of the levee system in order to justify the project. The plaintiffs were thrown out of court on the basis of their standing to sue, and the judge never looked at extensive evidence they had produced showing that the hydrology had been faked.

Nevertheless, the Corps of Engineers found at one point that the project, a so-called flood control project, would actually worsen flood protection for downtown by decreasing a measurement called "valley storage" -- the amount of water that can sit on the watershed and seep into the ground without causing flooding downstream.

In order for the project to go forward, Dallas had to be granted a waiver allowing it to violate a previous out-of-court settlement in which Dallas had promised the federal court and the U.S. Corps of Engineers it would never authorize a project that decreased valley storage. Now, quite beyond authorizing someone else to do it, Dallas intends to decrease valley storage itself.

The idea here is to build a highway in the middle of a pipe. The levee system is a huge storm sewer designed to hold and carry off flood water fast enough that it won't inundate downtown. Nowhere else in the nation has anyone built a highway inside a levee system. Any manipulation of the road design inside the levee system will have an immediate effect on the carrying capacity of the levee system.

From the beginning some toll road backers have made baldly controversial assertions about hydrology. A good example is the repeated assurance that any decrease in the carrying capacity of the levee system caused by piling up dirt for the toll road can be offset by digging out dirt elsewhere.

But I have spoken with civil engineers who say the offset can't be achieved by digging out just any dirt anywhere. If you slow the pipe down where it flows through downtown, you've got to dig the pipe deeper and much, much longer, far into southern Dallas County or beyond, in order to achieve the flow rate needed to suck water out of the downtown stretch fast enough.

The fact that the Dream Team --- mainly a bunch of architects and planners -- is even talking about hydrology could be truly scary. Or not. Maybe they just wanted to know how to spell it.

But these are the kinds of very consequential public interest issues that ought to be placed before the public at some length before anybody decides to go ahead with anything. Instead, this process is slam, bam, thank you ma'am, as fast as they can go, with the least amount of public scrutiny possible.

Somebody is in a big hurry.

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