Three things to say about the death of the Trinity toll road project, authorized by city voters in 1998, killed by the Dallas City Council three weeks ago — Thing 1, Thing 2 and the Big Thing. The first thing, you will find obvious, the second less so. The Big Thing, I’m not even talking about until we get there.
Thing 1: The toll road project was a terrible and costly mistake. This monumental error in judgment already has cost Dallas taxpayers sums so vast only a doctoral candidate with years to work on it could count up the money.
Two years ago when the project was only 30 percent designed, the design alone had already cost $31 million. In 2015, the North Texas Tollway Authority was writing checks to Halff and Associates engineers for increments in the design process at $600,000 a pop.
By design or by happenstance, the money is insanely difficult to trace. In 2008 when the NTTA paid the state $3.2 billion to lease the Sam Rayburn Tollway in the northern suburbs for 52 years, an undisclosed portion of that $3.2 billion payment was money that the state had agreed in advance to pay back into the Trinity toll road.
What? Yes. NTTA pays extra money to state for Sam Rayburn toll road. State puts extra money into Trinity toll road. In the private sector, that would be called money laundering. In public finance, it’s called long-range planning.
Nothing short of a full congressional inquiry could uncover the hundreds of millions in tax dollars spent because engineers were making room for the Trinity toll road when they crafted the Horseshoe Project to straighten out the freeway intersections downtown. Woven through this vast new tangle of concrete are all kinds of elevations, radii and other accommodations that probably are there because the state thought the toll road would be intruding into the project’s midst. For example, neither of the huge new freeway bridges now spanning the river downtown was on a federal replacement list until the toll road project came along.
Then we have the largely occult role of an entity called the North Central Texas Council of Governments. Supposedly an impartial planning agency, its chartered role is to bring logic and science to the spending of state and federal transportation dollars in the region.
Yeah, right. In 2006 and 2007 when former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt mounted an unsuccessful referendum to kill the toll road, a man named Michael Morris — supposed to be NCTCOG’s chief impartial transportation-science wonk in pop-bottle glasses and a white lab coat — was out on the hustings campaigning for the toll road at every whistle stop like Billy Sunday to save your soul. It would take a forensic accounting team to sleuth out the tens of millions, maybe hundreds of millions that the NCTCOG has slipped into the now-dead Trinity toll road project.
Lies and the liars who tell them
In addition to the cash wasted, there is the matter of squandered credibility. What a terrible shame that Ron Kirk, an effective mayor and forceful leader of the city from 1995 to 2002, soiled his name and legacy by bonding himself to this epic boondoggle.
Lee Jackson, Dallas county judge for 15 years until 2002 and recently retired as chancellor of the University of North Texas system, was one of the smartest public officials ever to serve the county. He brought financial and academic order out of chaos at UNT. But he will be remembered, at least in part, for his role in huckstering this pack of lies and nonsense called the Trinity toll road project.
And let’s not make a mistake about the nonsense part. Hunt, who led the opposition for a decade, didn’t wander into this issue like some ditsy naïf hoping to get attention. As early as 2006 — 11 years ago — Hunt, a lawyer and fierce scrubber of documents and detail, was writing that none of the arguments for the road held up under scrutiny. Not one.
Mainly, the Trinity toll road wouldn’t have gone anywhere that most people wanted to go. If we wanted to reduce traffic congestion downtown, Hunt said, we needed to do what, in fact, the state highway officials eventually did with the Horseshoe Project in the ensuing decade — fatten up and straighten out the roads already in place and crowded because those roads already went where people want to go. That’s why they were crowded.
The arguments that Kirk, Jackson, Morris and other toll road boosters tried to palm off on the public made less and less sense the deeper they plunged into their imaginary pockets to scrounge for things to say. The most absurd lie on its face was the one that said we needed to build a new expressway through downtown in order to provide a detour while the state worked on the Horseshoe Project. Without the toll road, the booster boys insisted, the Horseshoe Project was not doable.
Meanwhile, 10 miles north of downtown, the state was busily and successfully carrying out a huge, complicated rebuilding of the intersection of Central Expressway and LBJ Freeway, a years-long project called the High Five, all of it accomplished without building a single mile of new expressway or toll road to act as a detour.
Instead of building a multibillion-dollar toll road as a detour for the High Five, state highway engineers built an actual detour — you know, crappy little blacktop lanes where you had to drive real slow through the cranes and the jackhammers and all the people in hard hats. Like it’s always been done. Everywhere. A detour.
Worse, I always thought because it was the most deliberate of the lies, the boosters told the taxpayers and voters of Dallas that the road would be pretty much free to them. Former Mayor Tom Leppert insisted that the city’s small deductible had already been paid in a 1998 bond election, and the rest of the multibillion-dollar cost would be eaten by other people, mainly the tollway authority.
Why not free?
And why couldn’t it have been paid for by the tollway authority? It's sort of a private-sector entity, is it not? It would charge people to drive on the damned thing, after all. It would be a for-profit venture. So why couldn’t the NTTA use its profits to pay for the road?
The reason the tollway authority could not pay for the road was exactly the same reason that state and federal agencies had declined to pony up the full cost. The road didn’t go where people wanted to go. Traffic studies showed that not enough people would drive on the road to pay enough tolls to cover the bonds to pay for construction. This was the house that Jack did not want to build.
That basic fact — that it was a dumb road — did not change or cease to be true when the boosters decided to take their road to the private sector and make it a toll road. It had been a dumb public-sector road. Now it was a dumb private-sector road.
How could we have had trouble figuring this out, here in Dallas, a citadel of capitalism and entrepreneurial gusto? I’ll get to that in a second. That’s Thing 2. Remember? I said there were three things, the second perhaps a little less obvious than the first.
Us, the media
But before Thing 2, a last dirty detail remains to be swept up before we close the door on Thing 1. The Media. I have been told by my handlers in the past not to write adulatory comments about my newspaper because, they say, it looks like I’m just trying to hang on to my job, which seems to make them very nervous.
But I ought to be able to say this much without causing some kind of human-resources ruckus: At this paper, we make our money at a less hoity-toity end of the street than the daily newspaper. The trouble with making your money from the hoity-toity advertisers is that you always have to keep the hoity-toity people happy. We don’t have that problem.
In the year before the 2007 Trinity toll road referendum, The Dallas Morning News practiced some of the most disgraceful, propagandistic and unprincipled journalism I have seen in my life, culminating in an editorial decision that I will always believe had the effect of throwing the election. Because of the effect this decision had on history, I will never forget or forgive it.
About two weeks before the election, the transportation writer of the News, through some good reporting, got the chairman of the board of the tollway authority to tell him that what Leppert, the mayor at the time, was saying in public was not true. The NTTA was not going to pick up the full additional cost of the road over the relatively small amount that the city thought it was on the hook for.
Leppert, Kirk, Jackson, Morris and the editorial page of the paper were insisting to voters that the city had put in its small share and that more than a billion dollars in magical NTTA money was sitting right there on the table, ready to pay off the balance. The boosters bought TV ads and paid for expensive mass mailings showing a Trinity River flooded with dollars, with the headline: “Don’t Let Angela Hunt Send More than $1 Billion Down the River.”
If it didn’t already know, The Dallas Morning News learned for sure and emphatically at least two weeks before the election that the NTTA was not going to shoulder the full cost of the road. When Dallas voters went to the polls Nov. 6, 2007, Hunt’s supporters failed to win — failed to reach more than 50 percent — by 2,316 votes, less than three percent of the total 79,970 votes cast.
It’s not possible to look at a margin that thin and a factor as big as the billion-dollar story and not conclude that the paper’s suppression of the story either threw the election or was obviously intended to do so. When The Dallas Morning News announced the results the day after the election, it also printed the story saying that the NTTA was not going to pony up the full cost, effectively admitting that the billion-dollars-down-the-river claim was not true.
OK, Thing 2 (phew)
For the 21 years I have been writing about the Trinity toll road, people have told me to follow the money — find out who owned the land along the river, as if that alone would provide the long-sought answer to a question that Hunt raised in 2006 when she first wrote about it on her web page: “Whose bright idea was this?”
At least since 1976, when a screenwriter fictitiously attributed the phrase to the informant, Deep Throat, in a movie about President Richard Nixon’s Watergate scandal, "follow the money" has been a fundamental mantra of our national culture. Maybe because I have heard it so many times in reference to the Trinity toll road, I have had occasion to think about what it means.
Follow the money means it’s always about the money. It means that everything is always about the money. It’s an emphatic declaration of cynicism.
I followed the money several times. It never really worked. There are members of the extended clan who own The Dallas Morning News and related trusts, for example, who own land near the river and could be construed as standing to benefit from the toll road. But you can’t hit a softball in this town without bouncing across their land somewhere. And plenty of landowners along the river were opposed to the project — the smarter ones, frankly.
I don’t think follow the money was the answer, not the whole answer. Way down deep, in spite of all the chicanery and humbuggery that came into the execution of it, as those things come into everything eventually, I do not believe that the primary motivation for building the toll road was ever wicked or even wittingly selfish. It was deeper than that.
To really get to what the toll road was about at bottom, we probably have to go all the way back to 1841, when Dallas was founded by John Nealy Bryan, the city’s progenitor in more ways than one. Bryan, a lawyer by profession, was a super-entrepreneur and adventurer, an Indian trader, a gold hunter and a one-time fugitive from a murder charge. He tried to clear the Trinity River for navigation by starting a fire that accomplished nothing but smoldered for a year. He was on the platform to greet the first train to reach Dallas in 1872 but died five years later in the Texas State Lunatic Asylum, now Austin State Hospital.
From his earliest days in a lean-to on the banks of the Trinity, Bryan’s dreams and the dreams of the eclectic settlers who joined him, including a highly unlikely tribe of French utopians, were dreams of a connection to civilization. And who could blame them?
If you and I wanted to know what it felt like to live on the banks of the Trinity River in the mid-19th century, we’d probably have to go live in a giant, pressurized tin can on the surface of the moon. Of course they wanted a connection with civilization, with mankind. Their yearning for connection must have been like a lonely person pining for love.
History repeats itself
The best and most incisive history I have seen of the role the Trinity River played in that early history is one we published in 2002, called “Been There, Done That,” by Julia Barton, who is now a public media editor and reporter for Public Radio International.
In her piece, Barton does a wonderful job showing how, from the very birth of the city, the Trinity River served as a kind of sacred harp, the instrument of rugged promise by which this ragtag settlement out on the edge of the far beyond would connect itself to the heart of the world and take its place rightful place in humankind.
Those dreams were all commercial because commerce was the purpose and meaning of the place. Barton describes brave men battering their way through forests of snags and branches in a decades-long battle to get a barge full of some kind of product from Dallas all the way down the river to somewhere or part of the way up the river to somewhere else.
“Dallas entered the world filled with nautical enthusiasm,” she writes. “The steamboat excitement peaked in 1893 when, after much snag-battling, the H.A. Harvey made it to Dallas from Galveston. One local bridge had to be raised with crowbars so the boat could shove its way under, but the town was ecstatic. The Dallas Morning News printed its entire front page in red to celebrate the steamboat's arrival, and a mob of residents turned out for a parade and free barbecue.”
Barton recounts a history that is unknown to most of us, not because we forgot it but because we never knew it. From the very first years of the 20th century, the leaders of Dallas persuaded the United States Congress to fund what were then very expensive construction projects along the river’s 700-mile course — locks, dams, dredging, even the construction of ports — to tie Dallas to the sea and make it a saltwater port.
Dallas turned its attention to railroads and highways, of course, but never surrendered the dream of a connection to the sea. The present configuration of the river downtown, wrenched from its natural meandering course and fenced between straight walls called levees, was created from the 1930s to the ’50s as a kind of sample of what Dallas wanted the river to become.
The people who fought for the canalization of the Trinity, especially an entity called the Trinity Improvement Association, were the initiating force behind the Trinity toll road. A decade before Hunt took up the cudgel, the people who defeated canalization, especially the late Ned Fritz and his wife, Genie, national pioneers in the environmental movement, gave birth to the movement that has now defeated the toll road project.
In Barton’s piece, you can see the eerie parallelism, almost a refrain, in the arguments over canalization and more recent arguments over the road. In the attempt to get the canal project done, the backers made grand promises about a park along the river, but once they got their go-ahead and the money, they began diverting resources to their real aim, the canal, and the park project fell by the wayside. Sound familiar?
In 2009, radio station KERA aired a documentary about the canal scheme by Rob Tranchin called “Living with the Trinity.” In it, writer and editor Lee Cullum, the product of an important Dallas business family, explains the mentality of Dallas business leaders who were willing to cut a few corners and bend some facts to get a job done.
“The basic idea of Dallas business leadership was, ‘We will build this city, and as a consequence we, too, will prosper.’” Cullum says in the film. “So there was a conflating of personal and public interest that stretched back over many years and seemed perfectly moral and just and worth pursuing.”
The Big Thing, finally
The Big Thing is not about following the money, really. Yes, there is money in the world, or so I am told. Yes, it seems to influence everything. But, no, it is not everything.
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The people who fought for the toll road are the people who fought for the canal are the people who lived in the lean-tos. They are, in fact, the Jacks who built this house. Yes, they fought for all those things because it was a way to make money. But more than that, deeper than that, those battles of connectedness were the sacred harp, the yearning for destiny itself.
What they could not see in the smoke of battle over the toll road was that Fritz, Hunt and the brave army of people who stopped this terrible desecration of the river from happening were engaged in the same crusade. It was not the road. It was never the road. It was always the city.
The new, younger leaders who just won this historic battle see the destiny of the city not solely in commercial enterprise but also in a connectedness to and reverence for nature. Not one or the other. Both things together in harmony. It’s a big trick, but what else have we got to do on the planet these days?
Both sides in the toll road battle were fighting, ultimately, to achieve the destiny of the city — its greatness among cities. That’s the Big Thing and probably the only thing. I could have started with that.