From the beginning of the Trinity River toll road debate 14 years ago, one of the biggest hurdles faced by critics of the road has been the unwillingness of urban planners and other so-called experts to publicly speak ill of a project with so much money and power behind it. Apparently moral courage is not a part of anybody's urban-planning curriculum.
But that may not be all bad. It leaves it up to us. We ordinary citizens can tell whether the emperor is naked, can we not? Maybe the silence of the lambs in the urban planning community has tricked us into thinking we have to be lambs.
Last week I visited Angela Hunt in her home, where she reminded me of a particularly depressing chapter in the matter of experts and moral courage. She talked about a time in 2007 when there was a referendum on the toll road idea.
Trinity toll road
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"We were desperately trying to find an expert who could provide us with some analysis of alternatives to the toll road," she said. "Remember, that was the big complaint. We supposedly didn't have any clue about what the alternatives would be.
"So [Oak Cliff developer and Belmont Hotel-owner] Monte Anderson gave me a call and invited me to meet with a transportation expert that he had asked for some assistance on an unrelated project. This guy was flying in, I think, from Dubai or some Middle Eastern city where he had overseen their entire transportation plan for the city, so he knew his stuff."
Hunt and Anderson brought along a big map when they met the expert at the Belmont, using it to explain the toll road and how it would "ruin the park," Hunt said.
"This expert is incredulous. He can't believe Dallas is considering doing this. He thinks it's absolutely absurd. He wasn't getting paid for this response. We weren't engaging him.
"I said, 'Explain this to me.' He said, 'Look, traffic is like water. If you close one road, traffic will find a way to its destination another way.' His point was, number one, it was absurd to build a new freeway in our downtown. That was very antiquated thinking. Number two, we weren't diverting traffic around our downtown. He suggested doing that. That made more sense to him.
"It was so fantastic to talk with someone who had such experience and such knowledge and who knew instantly that [the toll road idea] doesn't make any sense."
She told the expert the anti-toll road side would like to hire him, and the pair exchanged cards. When Hunt tried to follow up by phone, however, she kept getting shunted to the man's answering machine until finally getting him on the phone.
"I said, 'I wanted to talk with you about engaging you for our effort and just wanted to talk with you about cost so I know how much money we need to raise.'
"He said, 'Angela, I have talked to my friends in the transportation industry in Dallas, and they have told me that if I take this job I will never work in Dallas again.' He didn't mince words about it.
"I cannot tell you how disappointing that was. I cannot tell you how many engineers or urban planners will tell you on the side that the Trinity toll road concept is just a bad idea, but they will not come out in public and say it."
Yes. That is depressing. But maybe it's good for us. How much is their word worth, anyway? Do we even need them? When experts do talk about this kind of stuff, it all comes out sounding like the worst course you ever took in school combined with memories of a root canal operation. Maybe it's more important to stop and remember what this is all about.
This is about the one cool thing in all of downtown Dallas, the river. How many of you newcomers out there even knew we had a river in Dallas when you came to town?
We do. It's a real river. The Trinity River runs from northwest Texas all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, a length in river miles, counting all of its branches, of 710 miles. Spanish explorers in the 17th century called it La Santísima Trinidad, the Most Holy Trinity.
Dallas, like many mid-20th century cities, always considered its river a sewer. Only in recent years has there been real interest in resurrecting the Trinity from the industrial graveyard that surrounds it in downtown and turning it back into the truly transformative natural treasure it should be.
But just as this great moment and splendid opportunity present themselves to us, the Old Guard of city leadership is ferociously determined to give the abuses and bad ideas of the previous century one last gasp. They want to consign the riverbed to right-of-way for a high-speed toll road, a mammoth public works undertaking that would create a Chinese wall between downtown and its only waterfront.
It's a crazy idea that flies in the face of what's going on all over the rest of the world, where cities are going to enormous expense to tear down freeways that have imprisoned their waterfronts since the post-World War II era.
The idea is especially implausible at this moment, because the cost — somewhere between one and two billion dollars — is way out ahead of anything the city can raise. And now we do have an alternative. There is a better, cheaper, more effective way to reduce traffic congestion in downtown Dallas.
Project Pegasus is a plan to reconfigure the existing freeways that run through downtown, getting rid of left-hand exits and blind entrances, straightening out cork-screws and devising a system of signage that will reduce the number of wrecks caused by people craning around, lifting their feet off their accelerators and yanking sharply on their steering wheels while they try to figure out which way to turn.
There's no money for that project, either. So the question is this. If we ever do get some money, which thing should we do first, fix the roads we have or sort of give up on them for now and build a brand-new one along the river?
As you may know, Mayor Mike Rawlings and City Council members Hunt, Scott Griggs and Sandy Greyson have been wrestling with this question and with each other, gathering up all kinds of numbers and projections and algorithms. The answers are in by now. I believe they are not hard to follow. Look at Hunt's web page, angelahunt.com, and you will find numbers, footnoted and sourced to the government documents they come from, proving that Pegasus wins on every score.
The mayor, however, has his own set of numbers. I think they are contorted to the point of blatant dishonesty, but I also happen to know something else. I believe I know what the final argument is going to be on all of this on the part of the Old Guard.
At some point in the days ahead, The Dallas Morning News editorial page will float an argument that the debate between the three council members and the mayor over traffic projections and costs is all sort of six of one, half dozen of the other — too much to follow. Instead, the News will offer the following case for the toll road:
The two plans, Pegasus versus Trinity toll road, both have a lot of complicated numbers whirling around them. So in that sense they're sort of equal. We'll never figure it all out, will we? It's like your worst subject in school. Stay away from it!
The toll road is a new road out on new dirt between the flood control levees, so it can be built without any construction mess. And it can charge tolls. So let's do it! Let's just do it!
That's a fundamentally idiotic argument for all sorts of reasons. But maybe the News will be right about one thing. Maybe it's a mistake for all of us to go rushing into numbers-land. If the experts are afraid to go there, maybe we should think twice too.
So how about trying this instead as a nonexpert way to look at things: Let's go ahead and just agree with what I think the News' argument will be. Six of one, half dozen of the other on those real complicated numbers. Winds up equal.
But one road is a Chinese wall in front of the riverfront. The other is not. Where does that get factored in?
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If there is a way to solve congestion problems downtown and leave La Santísima Trinidad entirely alone, and in fact enhance and adorn her with parks and trails, then why wouldn't that simple fact alone tip the scales dramatically away from building a new expressway where we do not have one now?
Is this 2012? Or is this 1954, the year President Dwight David Eisenhower announced the Interstate Highway Program in Cadillac Square in Detroit? In 1954, more highways were better than fewer. Every new interstate was money ahead. But this is 2012. Fewer highways are better than more highways if we can possibly manage.
More highways are more air pollution, more noise, more land wasted, more money spent that could be spent on better things. So if there is a way to use the highways we already have, a way to not build a new one and save our entire riverfront in the process and if the traffic projections and the costs are sort of a wash, then why in the world wouldn't we go with the fewer highways option instead of the more?
Isn't it this simple? One solution puts a highway right down the length of the river through all of downtown where we want to have a park and a natural area. The other one doesn't. Do we really need experts to figure this out?