Sinking Fast

Albert Balck, president of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, wants to start a community forum to discuss alternatives to the existing Trinity River Plan.
Peter Calvin

The Trinity River project is dead. Isn't gonna happen.

Some other river project may emerge. Dallas business leader Albert Black and Dallas City Council member Laura Miller are putting together a public forum to talk about alternatives. Environmental foes and plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the project say they still want to see something good happen along the Trinity.

But the existing $2 billion plan to rebuild the river--a complicated webwork of freeways, new levees, vast new bridges, and parks in the center of the city--has been mortally wounded. It will never overcome the serious flaws revealed in recent weeks. If anything, the river plan will ignite a political backlash as people gradually achieve sharp focus on what almost happened here.

The collapse of this enormous venture may become the most significant watershed event in the recent political history of the city. And more amazing than anything is that The Dallas Morning News may help that happen.

After years of stonewalling--of clumsy suppression within the Morning News and of mean-spirited bullying in the community--the paper finally published a solid, well-reported, truth-telling, front-page story informing readers that this hugely expensive public works project will have the effect of deliberately subjecting downtown to increased flood risk.

The Morning News story, by Victoria Loe Hicks, expressed the increased risk to downtown in terms of dollars: $37 million in potential property damage in a worst-case scenario that could be brought about by this plan. The story didn't try to express it in loss of human life, but most readers can connect the dots on their own. If the plan could cause vast destruction of property downtown, it could also kill people.

That stark truth is not going to slip smoothly down the gullet of the city's body politic. In fact, environmentalists and other foes of the Trinity River plan are already scratching their heads, trying to figure out how this much truth ever made it onto the front page of the Morning News in the first place.

Since Mayor Ron Kirk took office in 1995, public discussion of the Trinity River has been very tightly controlled, and nowhere more so than at the Morning News. The original ownership families of the News have longstanding holdings in river land in and around downtown.

In late April 1998, newsroom tensions over Morning News top management's heavy-handed suppression of the Trinity story finally erupted in a mini-revolt. A staffer at the time described the scene in the newsroom as one of extreme demoralization. "People are walking around saying, 'Oh my God, what kind of paper are we?'" the reporter said.

The News' clumsy efforts to stifle all criticism of the plan have earned it some scathing notices in the national press. The newsroom revolt was reported in some detail in The Washington Post and elsewhere, but apparently Morning News management was able to live with the embarrassment.

In fact, the paper's efforts to suppress all criticism of the plan were even extended beyond its own staff. In August 1998, two top newsroom executives, Gilbert Bailon and Stuart Wilk, summoned the leadership of the Dallas League of Women Voters to the Morning News building for a knuckle-rapping session after the League adopted an official stance in opposition to the Trinity project.

According to people who were present at the meeting, Bailon and Wilk threatened to suspend a long-standing agreement by which the Morning News published and distributed the League's "Voters' Guide" for free--in retaliation for the League's stance.

The League refused to back off its criticisms of the Trinity River Plan, which were based on its own exhaustive study. The Morning News eventually relented in its threat to punish the League.

But the refusal of the News to allow coverage of any criticism or even skepticism about the Trinity River Plan has continued to provide some odd moments in local journalism. In October 1998, a wealthy critic of the river plan grew so infuriated by the News' Sovietesque management of the story that he spent his own money to reproduce an entire Dallas Observer story as a full-page advertisement in the News. The story was also placed as a full-page ad in The Washington Post.

Beginning in early 1998, the Observer has reported a central criticism of this vast public works campaign: It makes flooding worse.

That central truth is what the Morning News finally reported on its front page on Labor Day. Loe Hicks, the reporter, based her report on internal memoranda and other documents she obtained through a broad public records demand on the Corps of Engineers. Her story provided a more explicit and detailed confirmation that this plan is a flood-control fraud.

How could that be? Why would that be? Why would the City of Dallas and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers want to spend billions in taxpayer money on a flood control project they secretly know would make flooding worse, not better? Because it's not about floods. It's about a road. From its first coverage of the issue, the Observer has reported criticism that the Trinity River project is, in fact, designed around a freeway that road promoters want to build on top of new levees. The levees and the channels of the plan are designed to provide a free right-of-way and platform for the road.  

Because the road is speculative--designed to promote new growth, not relieve existing congestion--it can't meet the requirements for a federally funded highway. There isn't enough real demand for it. Only by building it as a semi-private toll road and providing it with a free right-of-way can the backers make the road happen. The levees south of downtown aren't in the plan to control flooding: They are there to provide bridges and right-of-way for the road.

The Corps has offered a very un-Corps-like, un-scientific reason why it needs to build new levees south of downtown: According to the Corps, the levees must be built as a form of racial reparation, to make up for discriminatory flood control policies in the past.

No one questions that previous Dallas flood-control policies were racist. But the story the Observer has reported and Loe Hicks has now advanced is that the new levees south of downtown would cause a massive choking and backing up of the river, virtually undoing all of the flood control benefits of the plan in downtown itself and thereby subjecting the city's business core to enormous new risk.

The other point is that residents of Cadillac Heights, who would be the primary beneficiaries of the reparation levees, have tried every way possible in recent months to make it plain that they don't want them.

Instead, they want out. They believe the soil on which their houses stand is fatally polluted. They have learned that other cities around the country have found ways to buy people out and relocate them in decent areas. The reparation they want is a buy-out.

Some critics of the plan wonder if the willingness of the News to take a harder look at the Trinity plan may have to do with a growing impression that the road can't happen anyway. The EPA, in its comments earlier this year on the Corps' plan, was especially harsh in what it had to say about building a freeway in a flood plain.

Loe Hicks is the first senior reporter the News has ever assigned to the Trinity River project since it became controversial. (Loe Hicks did not return a phone call requesting comment.) Jim Blackburn of Houston is a nationally renowned environmental lawyer who, for two years, has represented critics of the plan in state and federal lawsuits and has carried out extensive scientific study of the project. Blackburn told me that Loe Hicks is the first Morning News reporter who has ever called him.

There are other signs that shifts are taking place behind the scenes. On the day Loe Hicks' story appeared in the News, I took part in a round-table discussion, broadcast on radio by KRLD-AM 1080 and hosted by Councilwoman Laura Miller. In that conversation, Albert Black, who is president of the Greater Dallas Chamber of Commerce, revealed that he and leaders of the private Dallas Citizens Council have been discussing sophisticated strategies for carrying out a buy-out in Cadillac Heights.

Miller asked Black on-air if he would help arrange a community-wide forum to discuss new Trinity River issues that have come to the fore in recent months. Black said he would begin immediately trying to arrange such an event, and management of KRLD said they would sponsor and also broadcast it.

Since then, Black has confirmed to me that he is hard at work trying to make the forum happen. Miller told me she is working to persuade Mayor Kirk to take part. "He needs to be there. This is his baby," she said.

Blackburn, who has had a greater role than any other individual in exposing the plan's secret agendas, is hopeful about what might come out of a major public debate. "There's a wonderful river plan that could emerge if you take out the toll road and do a buy-out," he said.

Whether that happens, there is already a very important bottom line on the existing plan. This plan cannot survive broad public awareness that it will put millions of dollars in property value and an uncounted number of human lives at risk.

The levees won't be built. Without the levees, there will be no road. The existing plan is dead.  

And if anybody thinks Laura Miller won't get anywhere with public hearings on this plan, they need to remember a little something called "Save Our Pools."

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