Right after the Trinity Commons luncheon early last week, there was something close to euphoria among hardcore opponents of the Trinity toll road, the limited-access, high-speed highway proposed but unbuilt for 18 years along the Trinity River downtown. They spoke to me off the record, because they assumed negotiations lay ahead..
They were gobsmacked by the presentation at the luncheon -- a scheme that looked as if it could be the long-sought solution to an incredibly bitter political fight that has riven the city for two decades.
By the end of the week, that euphoria had crumbled to bleak misgivings and anger. An acrimonious City Council meeting Thursday, called and stage-managed by the mayor, convinced the opponents of the toll road that their high hopes a few days earlier had fallen somewhere between naïvete and foolhardiness.
The ideas put forward by the so-called "Dream Team" of designers and planners (please let's get a less stupid name for it) were not a scam. They were great ideas.
There may well be scams afoot. Everything in the history of this project argues that the hardcore backers of it will stoop to any deceit, any fraud to get exactly what they want. They want a six-to-eight-lane toll road blocking off downtown from the riverfront.
But that's not why the City Council meeting at the end of the week devolved into such an ugly snarl. The council meeting broke apart for two sets of reasons. One had to do with Mayor Mike Rawlings, the one most likely to have tricks up his sleeve, given his marriage and vows of fidelity to the old establishment and to the backers of the toll road. But others on the council had reasons for going ballistic that were more moral and psychological.
Taken all together, the backers of the full-blown high-speed highway, led by Rawlings and whipped on by council members Lee Kleinman and Vonciel Hill, could not or would not muster the basic humility or decency needed to accomplish a viable deal. The most important thing to Kleinman and Hill is never admitting they were ever wrong.
Therefore they refused to do the one thing, the deal-breaker, the sine qua non without which any solution is impossible. They refused to kill the so-called "Alternative 3-C," the bureaucratic name for the full-blown highway already approved by the Federal Highway Administration and awaiting approval by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers.
Here. Let me run this down. The urban design team said we should ditch the big toll road. Toronto planner and head of the design team Larry Beasley said it isn't needed, echoing an avalanche of traffic data from government sources in the last year.
The team proposed instead a lazy, meandering, four-lane park road with turn-offs and curbside parking. Beasley said maybe it shouldn't be a toll road at all but a free road. He suggested one way to make it smaller and gentler would be to forsake the gigantic earthen bench intended to protect the toll road from floods. Ditch the bench. Let it flood, he said. Shut the park down for a couple days. Relax.
The urban design team's concept is based on a fundamental refutation of almost all of the arguments for the toll road. Toll road backers have promised a road along the river will relieve congestion on nearby parallel freeways. The urban design team concept assumes the toll road would not contribute significantly to congestion relief.
Backers of the road have said it would provide a way to work for minorities in southern Dallas. The design team concept didn't even dignify that canard with a response.
Instead the design team said what civic groups and design professionals in Dallas have been saying with ever greater intensity over the last year. The factor that will change things, the element that will drive development and alter forever the city's core destiny, is the park. Not a toll road. Let the park design the road, Beasley said again and again, not the other way around.
Of course the opponents of the toll road loved hearing that. It was music to their ears -- so sweet a tune, in fact, that I found several of them willing the next day to make what I thought were dubious compromises. For example, even though he toyed with the idea of taking out the massive bench designed to carry the high-speed toll road above the so-called 100-year flood level, Beasley's team wound up leaving it in there, deferring to the city's discretion on that issue.
After the Tuesday luncheon, several prominent toll road opponents suggested to me they could live with leaving the bench in there. It seemed risky to me. If you let them build that bench, they can put a toll road on it later. But the opponents felt called upon to offer a meaningful good faith gesture of real compromise, so they were willing to accept the risk of the bench.
Here we have to look history in the eye. In 2003, Mayor Laura Miller carried out a plan very similar to the current design team's effort, called the "Balanced Vision Plan" -- a gentle meandering park road much like this new idea. In fact Beasley said the current team looked closely at the vision plan, admired it and based most of its thinking on reviving it.
But why did it have to be revived? What happened to the vision plan? Why isn't the vision plan the current plan? The City Council approved it in 2003. In a 2007 referendum on the toll road, toll road backers fanned out all over town and spent a million dollars in advertising to assure voters that the vision plan was the city's only plan.
They lied. The backers of the toll road simply lied to the public. No sooner were the votes counted, no sooner did they have the green light back on than the backers began immediately pushing, puffing, blowing the vision plan back out to the massive parameters they had wanted all along -- a high-speed multi-lane highway with huge ramps and fly-overs, virtually obliterating half the park, rendering the rest of it more like a broad, noisy, stinky shoulder than a park.
It's not my opinion. Harvard Professor Alex Krieger, who was a principal architect of the vision plan, came back to town last September to apologize for what his plan had become, saying he had been duped. A committee of past presidents of the Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architecture published a study two months ago showing exactly how the vision plan had been murdered and replaced by Alternative 3-C.
Last week the Greater Dallas Planning Council, a conservative voice of the business community, came out against the toll road saying the promises of congestion mitigation were hollow.
Given that history of duplicity and deceit, any compromise at the end of last week offered by opponents of the toll road had to be tit for tat. If the opponents were willing to accept the bench, the proponents of the design team concept, led by the mayor, Kleinman and Hill, had to put an equivalent stack of chips on the table by agreeing to kill Alternative 3-C, to withdraw the applications, cancel the contracts, put a stake in the heart of 3-C.
Not only would the proponents not do any of that but when Kingston tried to get them to declare themselves plainly and openly on 3-C, Hill and Kleinman went postal. They were furious Kingston was maneuvering them into being honest about their intention to stick with 3-C.
At that point, the mayor offered a disturbingly country-club-esque metaphor to explain his own feelings. He said he was not willing to kill 3-C in favor of the design team concept, even though he loved the design team concept, because, "We have just met this beautiful, in my case, lady, and I'm not ready to get married today."
Someone pointed out to me the next day what an interesting metaphor the mayor had chosen, "given that he's already married." In the extended metaphor offered by my confidant, the mayor was explaining to buddies at the club that he had recently met a really hot number whom he likes a lot, called "Dream Team." But he doesn't want his friends to think he intends to forsake his vows to the lovely and formidable Mrs. 3-C.
"He's just going to have a fling with the delectable Ms. Dream Team until after the election," my confidant said. "But of course after the votes are counted he will go back to Mrs. 3-C."
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Maybe bring her flowers?
There is a bottom line in all of this, and it's one that ought to spawn every bit of the same euphoria people felt after first seeing the Beasley presentation. Yes, this issue can be resolved. Yes, the resolution of it will be the expression of a whole new city, a smart, urbane, humane metropolis building its destiny one mountain bike at a time.
But this recent fandango makes it more urgent than ever that we put people on the City Council who are truly strongly opposed to the toll road. This will not be a compromise in the end. That would have been nice. But the Rawlings/Kleinman/Hill contingent will never allow that to happen. Somehow we must rip 3-C out of the ground root and branch.
Early voting in the upcoming May 9 city council elections starts April 27. It will take four new anti-3-C votes on the council to get it done. That part is up to us.