The Opposite of True

Robot tunnel trains--please don't laugh--are serious technology. This is an illustration of one currently under study in the Netherlands.
Element, Amsterdam, the Netherlands

If this job craters, I have a fallback skill. I can work for the CIA! I'm qualified to read the official newspapers of authoritarian regimes and ferret out what's really happening, because I spend a lot of time reading The Dallas Morning News.

Latest good example: On October 3, the U.S. Office of Management and Budget under the White House sent a letter to the Army Corps of Engineers telling them that the Trinity River project in Dallas--which involves rebuilding the river where it runs through downtown--is a big mess and needs to be rethought.

Here's what happened next: The Dallas backers of the plan mounted a big lobbying effort to get Congress to pass a law saying that the project is legal no matter what. The specific kind of provision Congress would have used is called "sufficiency language." Basically, it says, "We make the laws, and we deem this project to be legal no matter what."

They're the Congress, and they can do it.

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But Congress declined to give the backers of the project the sufficiency language. A conference committee of the House and Senate did leave untouched a $10 million annual appropriation, an installment payment on the full $135 million federal share of the river project, but nobody expected them to mess with that. It was already in both the House and Senate bills.

In spite of very intensive lobbying by Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison and Representative Eddie Bernice Johnson, the lawmakers refused to add the sufficiency language. That means the OMB criticism still stands; there is a split within the Bush Administration about the project; and the Trinity River project is still in big trouble.

So here is what the Morning News told its readers in a lead editorial after the conference report came out:

"Overturning a recommendation from the Office of Management and Budget is not something that should be done lightly. This office provides an important checks and balance [sic] against wasteful or inappropriate spending. But the decision by Congress to do so came after serious questions were raised about many of the statements made in the Oct. 3 letter."

Naughty, naughty Morning News! You gave the comrades out there an impression that was contrary to the truthski.

Yes, Congress did authorize the money. But given the timing, no one expected the OMB letter to affect this year's appropriation anyway. And, no, no, no, Congress did not overturn the OMB's basic criticism of the project.

Here is an editorial viewpoint the Morning News might have wanted to consider: This is a time when there is great faith in the Bush Administration, at least on logistical and military issues. And here is a key branch of the Bush Administration warning the Army that the Dallas river project needs to go back to the drawing board. Does anybody here think we should take this seriously?

But you know what? In my career of Belo-watching (Belology, actually), I find that the tricky stuff the Morning News prints in the paper is way less interesting than the stuff it leaves out.

Example: For the last five years, whenever I talk to people about the Trinity River project, everybody asks why in the world the backers are so adamantly determined to cram an eight- to 10-lane freeway inside the levees. Everybody sees that putting a highway in there will wreck the river bottom as a place for a park or a lake or any other kind of urban amenity.

The road doesn't make sense even from a transit point of view. It can't generate enough traffic to qualify for normal federal highway support. Even if you build it as a toll road, it can't collect enough tolls to pay for its bonds. So what's the big deal? Who is it that wants this road so badly?

I'm still not sure myself, but I do know that the public might have been able to guess a little better about what's really going on if the city's only major daily newspaper had elected to fill people in a little more fully on the background.

One of the things the News might have elucidated, for example, given the amount of staff and resources the paper has devoted to this river project over the years, is the level of planning and speculation going on in the region right now about NAFTA and so-called "intermodal shipping."

Hillwood Development, controlled by the Perot family, is probably at the apex of this state-of-the-art form of freight handling from its center at Alliance Airport, the privately owned freight airport the Perots operate north of Fort Worth. Intermodal shipping is streamlined, containerized, computerized shipping in which freight can be shifted seamlessly from airplanes to trains to trucks and ships and vice versa. The Perots have been especially good at putting this technology together with various kinds of "freeport" and trade zone arrangements that cut out local taxes and make the customs process less onerous.  

Far from anything wrong with this stuff, it's got to be the wave of the future. Burlington Northern Santa Fe Railroad has built one of the world's largest state-of-the-art intermodal shipping facilities at Alliance. Also at Alliance are major intermodal trucking facilities. By the way, this is not a conspiracy theory. Yet. But we'll get there.

Hillwood also has led the way in the development of new industrial parks in the Dallas region, especially in areas such as Mesquite, where developers have been able to get so-called "triple freeports," exempting manufacturers and plants from all levels of property taxation on goods.

If you look at the Hillwood industrial developments on the map, they form a kind of flying wedge or bow aimed right at Alliance. The developments are in Mesquite, DeSoto, Dallas, Grand Prairie, Grapevine, Coppell, Plano, Garland and Flower Mound, arranged loosely on a northwest to southeast axis.

At the same time, Interstate 35, the so-called "NAFTA Highway" from Laredo to St. Paul, goes right through Alliance. All kinds of fascinating machinations are taking place around that route because of the huge surge of trade expected along it as soon as the United States, Mexico and Canada get their differences sorted out on trucking.

For example, the Texas Department of Transportation last year sponsored a $1.4 million study that concluded it would be economically feasible to build a 400-mile underground tube from Laredo to Dallas for robot freight trains.

Oh, I know, it sounds wacko. But the closer you look, the less wacko it may be. They're talking about a "cut-and-cover" tunnel: Dig a ditch, throw a big tube down there, heave the dirt back on--usually cheaper than boring. The plan would be to build it either on rights of way that are already publicly owned or out in the boondocks. It's a serious technology. Rudolph Giuliani wanted one for New York.

At the same time and with little fanfare, Texas Department of Transportation officials have been chatting up local officials for the last year or so about a so-called I-35EE--a new road 20 miles or so east of I-35 in the boonies, open to high-speed trucks only, possibly with a tunnel component, from Laredo to Dallas.

All right: time for the totally wacked-out, please-don't-believe-me over-the-top off-the-edge conspiracy theory. I keep looking at all of this very focused activity along the NAFTA trade route, with the tunnel ideas and the truck roads and so on, and I keep seeing Alliance Airport hunkered down on the neck of the thing.

I did call Dr. Steven S. Roop, who headed up the tunnel study and who happened to be in Dallas for a conference the day I called, and I did ask him if maybe, just for the sake of wild and crazy speculation, it was possible that his study might have assumed a terminus of the freight tunnel somewhere in the immediate vicinity of Alliance Airport.

He said that would be a "logical conclusion."

Let's all be logical, shall we?

When I look at the map, and when I look at the proposed route for the highway that somebody wants real badly to jam in along the riverbed, that highway looks logically to me like a highway that runs right up the spine of the Hillwood freeports to Alliance Airport.

I also can't help noticing that some of this route runs into an area between Highway 183 and Interstate 30 where I have found a lot of land ownership by the families that have controlling ownership of the Morning News.

Doesn't make anybody a bad person. I think we all understand that people who own big stuff have to think big and plan long.

But look. I also happen to know that over the last few weeks, a Power Point presentation has been made to various Dallas leadership groups, including the Dallas Assembly, showing persuasive evidence that the whole Trinity River project is upside down, if you take it at face value. Dallas architect James Pratt, the author of the presentation, has been arguing that the Trinity River project skipped the entire concept and design process and went straight to the engineers before anybody had even decided what it was we wanted to build.

Why do we want to put a road in it? When did we ever decide that?

And here is where I go totally woo-hoo. I don't think Pratt is right. I don't think the concept and design stage was skipped. I think the public just wasn't in on it.  

That road's there for a reason, believe me. It's just not a reason that The Dallas Morning News is ever going to tell you and me about.

And one last thing I forgot to mention. The river doesn't belong to The Dallas Morning News or to Hillwood Development or to any of the swallowtails who lobbied Congress for sufficiency language last month.

It belongs to you.

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