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Trinity Toll Road May Cost More Than Promised

Somewhere between Frank Capra's Mr. Smith Goes to Washington and Arthur Miller's The Crucible: Angela Hunt on the Trinity River

Sorry. One more column about The Dallas Morning News and the recent Trinity River toll road referendum, then I promise to do a twelve-steps thing.

I think there is a larger theme–the difference between the Dallas that believes in telling the truth and the Dallas that doesn't get it or doesn't care. You can say I'm obsessed. I won't argue.

But on the morning after the Trinity toll road election, The Dallas Morning News published a story on the left side of Page One under the byline of Michael A. Lindenberger, quoting the chairman of the North Texas Tollway Authority to the effect that Dallas taxpayers may be asked to pay more for the toll road than the $84 million already pledged.

That flies straight in the face of repeated promises throughout the campaign. Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert insisted repeatedly that he had secured a personal handshake deal with the tollway authority by which they agreed never to seek more money from Dallas taxpayers. It was the thing Leppert kept saying he was "comfortable" about: no more money from Dallas taxpayers for the toll road. Ever.

Council member Mitchell Rasansky made the same promises to his North Dallas constituents, who subsequently voted heavily in favor of keeping the planned toll road inside the planned river park downtown. Rasansky's one-note mantra was that Dallas taxpayers will never be asked to put another dime in the toll road beyond the $84 million already pledged from the 1998 Trinity project bond issue.

We're talking about a lot of money. Estimates I saw in the tollway authority's own files a couple weeks ago ranged from $1.3 billion to nearly $2 billion. So far, the amount of money available from the tollway authority, added to our $84 million, looks like it will be less than $300 million. So that's an unfunded liability of at least a billion dollars.

Leppert threatened over and over that voting against the toll road would cost Dallas taxpayers a billion dollars in lost transportation money, but now it looks as if Dallas taxpayers could get stuck for some or all of that amount to get the thing built.

If you don't save a billion by voting yes, and you do have to pay a billion, what are you down? Two billion?

Lindenberger reported that NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman "said last month" the road will be built only if its toll revenue pays for construction. Lindenberger's story reported: "[Wageman] said if the costs continue to rise above the current estimate of $1.29 billion, the agency may ask its partners–including the city and the Regional Transportation Council, which sets priorities for the entire North Texas area–to increase their investments in the road."

So last month when Tom Leppert was looking the tollway authority people in the eye and receiving their absolute assurance that the city will never be asked to pay more for the road, the chairman of the authority was looking a Morning News reporter in the eye and telling him the city may be asked to pay for more of the road.

That would have been very big news, had the News published it.

I have searched the Morning News archives every way I know how–with their Web page search engine, with Nexis-Lexis, by Googling–to find a single instance in which the Morning News ever hinted of this statement by Wageman before the election. I have called Lindenberger, the NTTA and Wageman to ask for help in finding any such mention. The NTTA did call me back, but nobody at the News returned my calls. I even blogged a public appeal on Unfair Park to Lindenberger to prove me wrong.

Therefore I am forced to conclude that Lindenberger brought this very important story home to the newsroom at some point in the month preceding the election. And the story did not get into the paper.

For some period of time then, perhaps weeks, Lindenberger and his editors at the News watched while Tom Leppert and Mitchell Rasansky told the public something that they knew was not true. They remained silent until after the election.

I don't care about Leppert's ethics. I think we know that story from the campaign.

Certainly Wageman is not the bad guy here: A reporter asked him a question, and he gave an honest answer. As the NTTA pointed out to me, neither he nor they had any control over when the News published his remarks.

I sort of hate to beat up on Lindenberger, who wrote some very solid coverage during the campaign and does a great job covering transportation generally. He got a better interview than I did, asked a better question and went back to the newsroom with a very big story. I also know from 200 years in the newspaper business that a reporter has damn little to say about where and when his own very big story appears in the paper.

 

Somebody at the News sat on this. Someone with a lot more power than Michael Lindenberger. Then, even when the News did publish the story, the story itself was upside down and convoluted so that the real news–Wageman's startling revelation–was dropped in halfway down the story as a kind of unimportant aside.

Someone at the News must think slipping this into the paper the day after the election covers them. I just want to remind them that in the real world, in newspaper terms, it doesn't cover shit.

So is this all about newspaper people and what we think of each other? I don't believe so. I do believe there is a larger issue. More than about a toll road, more than about a park and way more than about media, this was an election about truth-telling and individual courage.

Many of the people who voted for the toll road must have believed in their hearts that Leppert and Rasansky were telling the truth. But for many voters and certainly for the people who ran the Vote No campaign, truth was for sissies. This was about being on the winning team, no matter what.

You see it best in the very different attitudes–night and day, black and white–that people had toward Angela Hunt, the lone city council member who was the architect and leader of the Vote Yes crusade.

On the pro-toll-road-in-the-park side, especially among the city's moneyed and elected elites, the proof positive of Hunt's villainy was the fact that she was alone. In this mentality there is a certain small-town Calvinist certainty: the elite are the elect of God (the only election that counts). A person who stands against them is by definition a witch.

The truth? Well, that's all relative, and people who ask questions risk being expelled from the camp circle. Best not to go there.

Among Hunt's supporters is an ardently different view of the world. Politics should and must be about truth. The individual who stands alone against the lie is heroic. There is truth. It isn't all just a matter of being accepted on the right side of the tracks.

For those of us who believed in her, Hunt's crusade was Mr. Smith Goes to Washington. I don't have any idea where to put her on a liberal/conservative slider. I see as much Ayn Rand as I do Jane Fonda.

Almost half of this city believed her and believed in her. I'm sorry, I know this is very narrow-minded of me and sort of reverse-snobbish, but I can't help myself: The half of Dallas that believed in Angela Hunt is the cool half.

The day after the defeat I talked to a bunch of people who said they were going to leave the city and move to someplace smart like Seattle. Oh, no. We can't have that.

For one thing, Dallas has something in common with my native Detroit. It's not a destination destination. At least among those of us who have come here from elsewhere, it was never because we had always dreamed of living near the Trinity River. We came here for work, business, opportunity. This is a making-it city, not a scenic city.

So we got here, and then we collided with this odd and charming local culture–sort of Old South, kind of Midwest, tiny bit cowboy but always with one eye on New York. We met all these locals who have deep-rooted culture and good manners. And somewhere out of our collision, from the sparks and smoke a Dallas emerged that is cool.

Cool Dallas, in fact, is much bigger and cooler than it was 30 years ago. Cool Dallas is probably centered on the Eastern Bloc (East Dallas) but it is linked by protected corridors to Bishop Arts in Oak Cliff, West Village, the young Park Cities wannabes across Central and lots of other cool enclaves like Little Forest Hills and even single households holding out in North Dallas like lone Japanese soldiers on the atolls after World War II.

We're not Seattle. But we are a very cosmo place, even if it is Dallas, and the proof of it was this wonderful election and the amazing 47 percent that Hunt rallied.

I have no idea if she and her husband, Paul Sims, will even be around next time we have a mayoral election in Dallas. They're young, smart, high-energy people who probably won't let a lot of grass grow beneath their feet.

But for right now Angela Hunt is mayor of Cool Dallas. She is mayor of the people who think politics and journalism ought to be about truth. I think she is mayor of the coming Dallas, the one that will emerge victorious after we have some more funerals around here.

 

Let me make it clear when I speak of funerals that I speak strictly and only of natural occurrences. This in no way implies that I intend to help things along. That would be wrong. I'm going to do a twelve-steps program on that, too. But it's hard.


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