The Trinity River Toll Road is Now an (Almost) Unstoppable Force
Three things. The Trinity River toll road doesn't have to happen. But it can happen. And stopping it will take money.
Those are the three big practicalities looming over the debate about building a big highway through what was supposed to be our downtown urban park perched against the Trinity River.
Practically speaking, and in spite of the mayor's strong endorsement last week, this terrible idea — essentially ruining the city's only major geographic feature for a highway to nowhere — can be defeated. If the issue went back to the voters again now as it did in 2007, the road would lose.
But a second practical matter is this: The dearly held belief of many road opponents that the thing can't be built because the money isn't there is a false hope. If the concept stays on the boards and the political endorsements continue to flow in, the money will be found.
It will be found because the mechanisms of so-called regionalism have effectively subverted local control of local money. The money will come from an entity most people have never heard of, called the North Central Texas Council of Governments, an arcane and lofty so-called planning agency where the long-game elite divvies up billions in tax dollars like Brinks robbers with a bag of boodle.
The road would lose at the polls now because this time around, it would be up against a clearly superior alternative. The stated purpose of the proposed Trinity River toll road, Mayor Mike Rawlings made clear last week last week, is gridlock relief. But given greater competition for money this time around, there will be a better alternative staring us all in the face — the elephant in the room, in fact.
We can fix the freeways we have. It's cheaper, maybe half the cost. It will deliver way more bang for the buck in reducing gridlock. And why would we even think about building a new road, sucking even more cars into the center city, when we could save money, reduce more gridlock and help protect downtown from even worse pollution problems in the future by fixing the roads we have?
In his endorsement speech last week, the mayor talked his way all around the block to avoid this topic. But as soon as he walked away from the podium at City Hall, the TV cameras in the room all flew to the road opponents, who pointed right straight at the elephant.
Back in 2007, it was called "Project Pegasus," and everybody thought it was a done deal. The federal and state governments were going to come into Dallas with 18-wheeler loads of cash and rebuild the freeway exchanges in downtown. Now the deal is half undone.
Wait. Think about it. You drive through downtown on the freeway once in a while, right? What's wrong? It's the mental process. There are several places where fat freeways pour into skinny bridges, bridges dump you out into full-speed traffic with almost no entry lane, the signs are all crazy or stupid or both, and before you get through with it you're crazy, too.
"Oh, damn, is it I-35 (North) South I want or I-30 West? Oh, damn, to get on I-30 West do I get on I-35 (South) North or I-45 (North) South to Woodall Rodgers Southwest by Northeast all-around-the-merry-go-round I think I'm having a meltdown now? Is it the middle lane? Oh, damn, is that 18-wheeler chicken truck really going to cut across three lanes and turn over on top of me? Oh, damn, yes it is!"
Project Pegasus was designed to come in, remap and rethink all of it, then rebuild it for smooth traffic flow. It is the real fix for downtown.
But the money ran out. Now only half of Pegasus is being done, and the city is shopping for the billion dollars it would take to complete it. But listen to that again. A billion dollars would complete Pegasus. The cost of the Trinity River toll road is now floating somewhere between $1.4 and $1.8 billion.
Nobody even tries to argue the toll road could come close to a completed Pegasus for gridlock relief. The toll road is an add-on and an afterthought dreamed up by landowners along the river. In 2007 it was even sold to voters as a detour during construction on Pegasus. So now we're going to build the detour but not the main project it's supposed to detour around?
Insane, right? Depends on who you are. At last week's mayoral press conference, City Council member Dwaine Caraway committed a splendid gaffe — the kind of thing I love him for — and provided another window into the origins of the toll road idea, not that we don't have enough of those.
Caraway said he and his wife, state legislator and now congressional hopeful Barbara Mallory Caraway, first learned of the toll road idea in 1991, during a visit to the offices of the late Louis A. Beecherl Jr. (I wrote last week about his son, Louis Beecherl III, who is shotgunning a big for-profit eminent domain project for Parkland Hospital.)
Beecherl Jr. was head of the Trinity River Improvement Association, the traditional lobbying arm of the old Stemmons Industrial Corridor land gang. That's who wants the toll road — the land gang. They cherish the hopelessly antique mid-century notion that building a new highway through their land downtown will allow them to redevelop it as an urban mixed-use Hanging Gardens of Babylon. They absolutely do not get, and will never get, and cannot get what makes cities work today. What works today is development woven into the whole fabric of the city, not cut off by highways, walls and cul de sacs. These people don't get that. They don't get anything urban, and they never will.
After the mayor finished speaking last week, I walked across the crowded ceremonial "flag room" at City Hall and talked to city council member Scott Griggs. He's new, and he gets all of it, utterly and implicitly.
First, Griggs dismissed the mayor's call for "regionalism" as "anti-urbanism." But then he cut deeper, taking the mayor at his word that the most important thing is gridlock relief.
"There is an option that one-to-one addresses that problem," Griggs said. "Pegasus. Fix I-30, I-35, Woodall Rodgers. That's a billion dollars.
"The toll road alternative starts at $1.4 billion," he said. "That approach is fiscally irresponsible."
I think he's got the mayor right there. It's why the toll road would lose at the polls now. The proponents can't say, "We want $1.4 billion in tax money to turn our own crapped-out industrial district into the Hanging Gardens of Babylon so our heirs can collect pre-Columbian pots in Colombia for the next four generations."
They have to say it's for a public purpose: gridlock relief. And the opponents will be able to say there's a much cheaper and more effective way.
I also think that in these more straitened times, the proponents of the road won't have the same success mesmerizing Dallas with their misdirection play: the over-the-top fancy-schmancy visuals of sailboats, solar-powered water taxis and other offerings of bread and circuses. We've been through some stuff in recent years; we know a scam when we see one. If it's a park we want, how 'bout we start by just not paving the river?
"It's the traditional mentality," Griggs said. "Whenever a problem arises, you gravitate to the new, big, sexy solution, instead of getting down and fixing your problem and not just letting your problems fester."
And fester they shall if we do the toll road first. "This problem [on the old freeways] is going to continue to fester for the rest of Dallas," Griggs said, "who use the existing freeways."
He dismissed as absurd the mayor's assurances that the money for the toll road can be found. But he didn't dismiss it because it can't be found. He dismissed it because if it can be found, it obviously should be spent on Pegasus.
"We heard again the story that there are 'buckets of money' and if we don't do this the money won't show up," Griggs said. "Where is the money? If we can get the money, why wouldn't we go with Pegasus? It's cheaper."
Like I said, the old land-holding elites can come up with a billion or so in tax dollars for a favored public works project. They can because they control the regional planning agency that doles out that kind of money.
But in a straight-up OK Corral shootout, the toll road could never outgun Pegasus for that money. In a shootout, Pegasus has to win.
So where's the shootout? Nowhere. There is no shootout. This stuff gets done at obscure board meetings in Arlington that never even draw media coverage, let alone public attendance. The only way there's a shootout is if somehow the question finds its way back to the voting booth in a reprise of the 2007 referendum.
So is that going to happen? I doubt it. And that brings us to our third and last practicality.
Calling a referendum of this size costs half a million bucks. In a city this big, this sort of thing probably cannot be pulled off again as a volunteer children's crusade. Somebody has to come up with about half a million bucks to pay a commercial canvassing company to come in and gather enough signatures to get the thing on the ballot.
In 2007, it was a children's crusade. A six-years younger City Council member Angela Hunt and a band of dedicated insurgents did it by the skin of their teeth. That's not going to happen again. Hunt's got two children of her own this time around. Those in her merry band are older and wiser now.
Then again, they're older and wiser now. They've been this way before. They know the path. I think they would do it if they didn't have to raise the money themselves. Somebody else who could write a check or checks like that could change the history of the city forever. But that's quite a long shot, isn't it?
Short of that, I have to utter words I never thought would leave my lips. Now I think the damned thing will get built eventually after all. Damn.
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