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The Trinity Toll Road Just Keeps Rolling on the River

Jared Boggess

The Trinity toll road is undead. It walks in the night. Forget garlic. It is coming. It's a fundamentally crazy idea. But it lives.

If anything, the idea is protected by its basic craziness. It's so crazy, it never quite comes together in people's heads, and that's how the powers behind it want it.

They want to build a high-speed multi-lane toll road hugging the Trinity River through downtown, out between the 23-mile-long, 50-foot-high earthen embankments called levees that keep the river from flooding the city. They want to put the road out where it floods.

This is about water. Water can be extremely complicated, or it can be very simple. This ought to be simple. In fact, as I've suggested before, you can model the basic engineering problem in the safety of your own bathroom.

Take some toy cars made out of metal or something that won't float. Or, tell you what, who has toy cars made out of metal? Just do this. Get some rocks. Say to yourself, "These are toy cars made out of metal." Now put the make-believe toy-car rocks on the bottom of your bathtub. If you don't have a bathtub, use your sink.

Now plug the drain. This is the key part. Turn on the taps. Watch the water come out. Comes out, comes out, comes out. Wait. Now observe what has happened to the toy cars. OMG! They're under water!

That's it. That's the main thing wrong with putting a highway out between the flood control levees. Twice a year our monsoon seasons turn the Trinity River levee system into a 23-mile-long, quarter- to half-mile-wide lake up to 50 feet deep.

The proponents will tell you that the bathtub hardly ever gets that full. They will say in recent memory it got that full maybe once or twice, but most of the time it's way less full and would not put the toy cars underwater or at most it might just get their tires wet.

And what is the rebuttal to that? It's the damn bottom of the bathtub. Why would you put your toy cars on the bottom of your bathtub? Isn't one total flooding of the toy cars one too many, seeing as how in real life they would be real cars with real people in them?

Why not keep the cars entirely out of the bathtub? Why not put the road outside the levees? Levees protect the land outside of them, away from the river, not the land inside of them. That's the point of levees. Why ... what ... how can you even ... what on earth is the matter with you?

See, that's where we always wind up. And let's do this. Let us not go trailing back through the entire history explaining why the powers that be want to put the toy cars on the bottom of the bathtub. We could do that, but it's very saddening and in the end changes nothing. They just do. It's what they want. They want to make money on the land outside the levees. They think they have to have a road to make money. But they don't want the road on their land.

Yes, it's stupid. But the idea has been around in one form or another for a good 50 years, and it cannot be killed even with a stake through its heart. It just keeps crawling back out of the crypt.

So how does it do it? How can something so manifestly crazy manage to stay alive so long? It survives because it is crazy. Listen to me. That's how it is.

You got your cars. You got your tub. You got your drain plug and your faucets. But according to City Hall, you have to check them all out separately. You never actually put your toy cars into the tub and turn the water on.

Last week the U.S. Army of Corps of Engineers put on a meeting in the basement of Dallas City Hall to update interested parties on the entire Trinity River project, a massive campaign of public works OK'd by voters in a bond election in 1998. I went. The cars were not in the tub.

If you had attended last week's meeting — I don't think I saw you there, did I? — you might have gone in thinking, "OK, I've had enough of this foolishness. It's time for some hard answers on this toy cars in the bathtub thing."

You would have been sooo wrong. It was not time. It will never be time. You would not even have been allowed to ask the question at this meeting, because this meeting was not about that part of the whole Trinity River project.

In fact this meeting was about only half of the project, because the project was passed by Congress as two projects, one that runs from up around the old Texas Stadium site in Irving down to the DART tracks just south of downtown and a second project that runs from the DART tracks down almost to the city's southern border. This meeting was about the upstream part, so you couldn't ask about the downstream part.

 

But even if it had been about both parts, you would not have been allowed to ask about the toll road, because that's another project. After they finish figuring out the upstream part and the downstream part, then you can ask about sticking a big fat honking highway down the middle of the whole thing.

But can it really work that way? Can different parts of the same river operate independently of each other? Well, let me ask you a question: Can one end of your bathtub operate independently of the other end? Yeah, see what I mean? The answer should be familiar to us by now and comes in two parts. 1)No, and 2) What is the matter with you?

Don't look at me like that. I'm just doing my job. Hey, I asked a question at the thing last week. If this starts to sound technical, I promise you it's not. It goes right back to the what-is-the-matter-with-you thing.

They said they may have to add some expensive underground walls to protect certain parts of the levee system because of "recreational aspects" of the project. My question, not in so many words, was, "Say what?"

Rob Newman, an engineer who is director of the project for the Fort Worth District of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, explained that one of the "recreational aspects" of the project involves moving the river channel closer to the levees on the downtown side of the river. Because there is loose sand beneath the levees, having the river that close might cause the sand to turn to mush, in which case the levees might collapse, bringing about a Katrina-like catastrophe in downtown Dallas.

The corps also revealed that it must raise the levees even higher than previously thought in order to achieve the needed level of flood protection. So here was my thought: If you know in advance that you are going to route a major highway right through there, and you know that putting all that concrete out there will choke the river and make the flood waters go higher, isn't that the real reason you are raising the levees and building even more underground walls beneath them?

Well, you see, you can't ask that question yet, because the cars aren't in the bathtub yet. There is no final design or set route for the road, we are told, because we're still just working on Part I. Then we have to do Part II, downriver. Then maybe we can talk about the road.

Look, I have been all the way around this block more times than I can even remember. I know what answers I can get and what answers I cannot get. But I'm sitting there looking at them and wondering, "Can you be serious? Is it even possible that you would do all this work on different parts of the bathtub and have no idea what will happen when you put the cars in it? Why would you do it that way? What is the matter with you?"

The other thing is this. I also learned last week that, even as we speak, the corps and all of the regional cities are completing a study aimed at determining how much worse flooding has become in the entire region in recent decades because of development. So that's your basic overall bathtub study right there. How much water can it hold? How much water is going to get poured into it in the monsoon seasons?

It's not like they don't know this stuff. Of course they know it. They are building the levee walls higher and higher. They're putting concrete barriers beneath them. They're telling us it has nothing to do with the road. They're saying they don't even know about the road. What road? But we know that's all crazy. Right?

This is how it is done. The same thing will be done with the money for the road. This chess piece will be moved over here, that piece over there, until, lo and behold, the money for the road will appear.

In fact, it's a huge mistake to even try to deal with them at that level. Whenever they are talking about specific aspects of the engineering plan and how this part has nothing to do with that part and so on, it's their game. They own all the parts. They can show them or keep them in their pockets as they choose. Same with the money.

 

That's how this thing can be so crazy and yet still be alive. There's only one way you and I can get ahead of them. Put the rocks in the tub. Plug the drain. Turn on the taps. And say, "What is the matter with you people?"


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