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Is the Army Corps of Engineers Having Second Thoughts About the Trinity River Project?

Downtown Dallas is susceptible to floods that could dwarf Katrina in human toll and property destruction.

I want you to see me here, sitting at my desk with my left hand clamped over my mouth. My right hand is twisting my own right ear. Painfully. What am I doing? Easy. I'm controlling myself.

I am about to talk about the Trinity River Project—our decades-old massive public works project along the river that runs through downtown Dallas, our very own "Big Dig"—but this time I am going to control myself.

I am not calling people morons. Some people might be morons. But I am too much of a gentleman to call them morons. Ouch! Had to twist my own ear pretty hard there.

Something more important is emerging, a new theme that may even have national implications. This all has to do with a little imbroglio that played out last week—something I bet you didn't even notice much. There was a bit of a spat over test borings in the levees along the river. The fight was between the North Texas Tollway Authority and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, a semi-autonomous division of the army headed by military officers but staffed by civilians.

The tollway people wanted to drill test bores in the levees downtown, and the Corps was giving them grief about how they were going to do it. It may sound petty, but it's actually life and death.

The levees, as you know, are the big dirt berms along both sides of the river that hold back the water when the river reaches flood stage in spring and fall. If you have driven over the Trinity when it's "up on the levees," then you know that the river becomes a vast lake at the foot of the downtown Dallas office district—the locus of the city's most expensive real estate and most dense population, at least during the day.

The floods caused in New Orleans in 2005 by Hurricane Katrina were "rising water" floods and took place almost entirely in residential areas. Here, the havoc wrought by failing levees could be even more devastating.

If the Trinity River levees were to break in downtown Dallas, a "rampaging flood" would strike downtown. Not rising water, this would be more like an inland tsunami aimed straight at the office and condo towers.

Whose fault would that be? Well, by law and contract the responsibility would belong to the City of Dallas. The Corps of Engineers builds the levees and has the right and duty to inspect them and demand certain standards of maintenance. But the levees belong to the city.

That's the law. But the Corps learned a bitter lesson after Katrina. The law doesn't mean squat in politics.

In December 2005, the U.S. Senate Committee on Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs, led by Susan Collins, Republican of Maine, and Joseph Leiberman, Turncoat of Connecti...Ooh! Ouch! Another rough twist of the ear on that one...Leiberman, independent Democrat of Connecticut, held hearings titled, "Hurricane Katrina: Who's in Charge of the New Orleans Levees?"

Officials from the Corps gave legally correct answers to the effect that local officials in New Orleans were responsible for the condition of the levees that failed. But virtually all of the local officials at the hearing struck pitiable poses, pointed long fingers of accusation at the Corps and said, "They did it."

That's the story that stuck—the political reality, if not the truth. New Orleans was the victim. Everybody else—especially Washington, especially the Corps—was the villain.

To this day, it is rare in public political discourse in this country for anybody to speak honestly about the culpability of local pols in New Orleans for the Katrina floods. The locals had pushed and pulled for a century to get the federal government to help them build cheap, badly designed levees so their real estate cousin-buddies could sell flood land to middle-class and poor people.

To be fair, before Katrina, there was moral ambiguity about the role of the Corps in flood-control projects. For most of the work it does, the Corps is required by law to recruit a "local partner"—some county or city or flood-control district that will kick in part of the money and then take ownership of the works when the job is done. The feeling in New Orleans—sincere, I'm sure—was that the Corps should have known better than to partner with New Orleans on some of those levee projects.

I can understand this logic best if I imagine it as a caption in a silent movie: An innocent lamb, tempted by her cruel seducer, chooses the path of her own destruction, little knowing what bitter disappointment she brings to the heart of her sainted mother.

New Orleans, an innocent lamb? Can you have an innocent lamb whose nickname is "The Big Easy"? Hey, all I know, it's how Katrina played out in the theater of public opinion.

 

The point for Dallas and the Trinity River Project is that somebody in the Corps has gotten the wake-up call. If Dallas and the Trinity project are any indication, somewhere, somehow an order has gone out to the Army Corps of Engineers field offices: AVOID ALL CRUEL SEDUCER-TYPE SITUATIONS.

My evidence? Last week I noticed what struck me as a truly anomalous little line buried deep in a story in The Dallas Morning News about the boring test issue. Gene Rice, the Corps official in charge of the Corps' portion of the Trinity River Project, was quoted as saying, "While we are not an advocate of the project, we are not an opponent of it."

Now, I better be a little more precise here. Rice was not talking about the flood-control portion of this project. He was talking about the proposed toll road between the levees, a project of the North Texas Tollway Authority. The authority wants to drill holes in the levees to see if building a highway close to them will weaken them. So Rice was saying he was neither an advocate nor an opponent of the toll road.

That may seem reasonable on the surface—he's a flood-control guy, not a toll road guy—but it is also a momentous shift away from the position of the Corps on the overall project up until now. Until this moment, Gene Rice has been center stage in a black stovepipe hat with a bouquet in one hand and a rag soaked in chloroform in the other, whispering in the city's ear that building a toll road between the levees will be but a picnic for the church folk.

Just to check myself on that, I called Craig Holcomb, who is executive director of Trinity Commons, a private outfit that is the mouthpiece for all the fat cats in town who...ouch! Oh, ouch! My ear is gonna come off!...a public interest group dedicated to promoting the completion of the overall project. Wow. I did it. I was fair to Holcomb. Can't believe it. When I'm done with this, I'm going to run by Baylor to see if I've suffered a transient ischemic attack.

Holcomb confirmed for me that he (meaning the toll road lobby) doesn't think the Corps is living up to its deal with Dallas. "We don't get the sense that it's a working partnership," he said.

That lack of cooperation, Holcomb said, violates the spirit and maybe even the letter of the Corps' deal with Dallas. "They have signed an agreement that they are part of the project partnering team," he said.

He sent me the agreement, which is written in some kind of McKinsey and Company-sounding consultanese, but with work the document can be reduced to the English language (pinch-pinchy on the ear again). Apparently it was signed by all of the participants in the overall project, including the Corps.

It says, "All partners own the primary goal." Then it says, "Partnering will be enabled by not saying 'No,' but saying 'How do we get to Yes.'"

Hmm. Bit of a puzzler there at first blush. In English? It means, "Just say yes."

But in the matter of the boring tests, the Corps had been saying no, no and again no. Apparently those differences now have been resolved, and it looks as if the boring tests will proceed.

Rice gave me a technical explanation of why the Corps had been saying no. They were worried that the bore holes might undermine the levees, which seems like a reasonable concern, and one could only wish city officials were similarly apprehensive. The Corps also wants a much tighter oversight and accounting of the test bore samples—almost a chain of evidence, as in, oh, I don't know, criminal cases and such. I may write more about that issue later.

Mainly, I wanted to know why Rice had said the Corps is no longer an advocate for the overall project. He e-mailed me back a wonkish engineering non-responsive type of response (ouch): "It is a matter of professional engineering requirements that the contractors have been made aware of and must meet."

But that's also a really good response. It is exactly what engineers should be saying. They're not politicians. Their job is to look at the dirt, look at the drawings, do the math and tell us if it will work or not work.

I think Rice is now doing exactly what the Corps should have been doing all along. Somebody has taken him out of the role of politician/salesman and told him to be an engineer about it. That's all absolutely to the good. If we can trust the engineers, then finally we can get some answers we can rely on.

At some point the people huckstering this junkpile...ah, supporting this project, as well as the really smart handsome people like me who are opposed to it, all of us should be able to sit back and listen when the engineers speak.

 

But for that to work, we have to be able to trust the engineers. You and I don't want them to say, "How do we get to yes," if yes means scenes out of the Book of Genesis in downtown Dallas. How do we not get to yes?

My two bits' worth is that this has changed. Something within the Corps has changed, and this change is good for us, probably good for the country. Somebody has wised up. Mom was right. There's no long-range future in marrying a girl whose nickname is "The Big Easy."

But I'm not talking about New Orleans now. I'm talking about Dallas and the people pushing this outrageously irresponsible project. And I am not going to twist my ear again on that. Damn it.


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