Trinity Toll Road Project is Rising From the Grave. Quick, Gimme a Stake!

Here's one version of a bucolic Trinity. Who'd be afraid of this?
Here's one version of a bucolic Trinity. Who'd be afraid of this?
The Trinity Trust

Years go by. I’m OK. Sleep great. Steady hands, no shakes. Then out of nowhere I awaken one night from a dead slumber covered in a cold sweat with eyes like silver dollars and a throbbing heart. And I know. Somewhere out there in the black of night, the beast stirs.

The Trinity toll road project is attempting to rise from its grave once more.

I don’t know how I know. I see shadows. I hear things – whispers in the wind. Last week the Greater Dallas Planning Council invited former Dallas City Council members Angela Hunt and Craig Holcomb to debate the project.

“Why?” I thought. “It’s dead, I tell you! Dead!”

I couldn’t go. Had something else. Haircut, I think. OK, afraid to go. I admit it. I have seen with my own eyes the giant, writhing, exhaust-stinking highway that they want to build on top of the Trinity River through downtown, and I have seen it dead in its grave. Several times.

We’ve been debating this project for 20 years — almost an entire generation. None of it has been built. There’s a reason.

The traffic studies show the proposed toll road along the river would make congestion worse in some areas, barely better in others. It's at best a wash, maybe less than that. And it’s at least a $2 billion unfunded liability at this point in a city where we can’t guarantee the cops their pensions and the streets are in a Third World state of ruin.

But the people who want it won’t give up. It has been dead before, a few times. All of the experts and egg-heads who got paid to work on the earlier designs changed their minds eventually, claimed they had been “duped” and turned against it. They said the idea of building an unneeded massive expressway in the middle of what could be a splendid urban park was stupid.

The fact that it won’t work as a traffic congestion reliever, that it would cost a huge amount of money that should be spent elsewhere and that the concept is ugly and stupid all have combined to put it back in the grave again and again. For a while.

Then last year we saw the most hideous effort yet to call the Trinity toll road back from the underworld of dead highway projects. The mayor convened a coven of necromancers from around the country — various planners, urbanologists and other spooks whom he called his “Dream Team.” They came to Dallas to have dreaming sessions together and see if they could dream the toll road back alive. I got nowhere with my own suggestion, which was to burn all of them at the stake.

And slowly while they dreamed and chanted over it, the toll road pushed its dirty claws up through the soil again, and I feared that it would walk once more among the living. Luckily, no one could understand a word they said.

They said it would be a gentle winding country lane that would also serve as a major expressway. I know. It’s difficult to hold those two thoughts in your head at the same time, isn’t it? It was sort of the one-hand-clapping model of highway design.

Anyway, it didn’t last long. When the necromancers presented their I Ching road-of-dreams idea to the City Council, people on all sides of the Trinity toll road issue ridiculed them, and I swear the whole thing was dead. Again. Briefly.

Now we have had this recent Greater Dallas Planning Council debate between Hunt and Holcomb, and then, a few days after that, Dallas Morning News editorial writer Michael A. Lindenberger wrote a long column under the headline, “If we aren't going to scrap Trinity toll road, make the compromise real and make it stick.” And suddenly I’m awake at three in the morning with my eyes spinning around like pinwheels.

Here’s the thing about dead. It’s not a condition that’s really subject to compromise. Things can be dead. They can be alive. Things that are partially dead and partially alive are called zombies.

Lindenberger makes many good points, I must admit. He says that the original proponents and subsequent defenders of the toll road “vastly overstated” their case. They assured the public that a highway built out in the flood zone between the flood control levees along the river was a “slam dunk” in terms of governmental approvals and sheer physical feasibility.

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Former council member Hunt and I contended from the start that putting a highway in a bathtub and then filling the bathtub with water was a subnormal-I.Q. idea, but Lindenberger correctly points out we over-shot our target when we insisted that federal officials would never approve such a manifestly stupid concept.

I think both Hunt and I have learned harsh lessons since then about what the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will approve when enough local congresspersons get involved.

He also makes the more important point that while debating this fundamentally stupid and incredibly wasteful idea, the region has neglected to make badly needed repairs and improvements to the basic flood control infrastructure — mainly dams, reservoirs and levees — that protects us all from Katrina-style flooding mayhem.

This is the picture we need to be thinking about — high water on the Trinity last year.EXPAND
This is the picture we need to be thinking about — high water on the Trinity last year.
Nicholas Henderson

And here, in fact, is where I see the zombies walking among us. With each succeeding rainy season, we see more and more evidence that our flood control measures are failing. In one Dallas/Fort Worth rain event alone last November, three people died in cars swept off roads by flash flooding.

A flash flood at an intersection in suburban Garland 10 miles from the Trinity River is directly related to flooding on the river itself, because suburban sprawl and increased water runoff are the primary forces overwhelming all our watersheds, creeks and rivers.

But we behave as if it isn’t happening. We hear this slow crescendo of horror growling all around us like the sound track from a bad horror movie and we keep dithering on about building an extra highway in the flood zone instead. It’s almost as if we talk about the highway so we won’t have to think about reality.

But Lindenberger, like so many smart well-intended people in the past, winds up out in the cemetery at midnight trying to do a deal with the toll road: Oh, can’t we be reasonable? Please, can’t we find a compromise? Will you agree not to come up all the way out of the grave if I feed you a puppy?

He proposes that we take the winding country lane part of the one-hand-clapping concept and make it the sole design for the road along the river, killing the highway part for good. Design it so that it can’t be a fat road or a high-speed road. Make it wind more deeply so that cars won’t be able to go very fast.

It's important to know that none of the mayor's one-hand-clapping plan is real.  Only one plan, called the Balanced Vision Plan adopted under Mayor Laura Miller is approved by the federal government – a 12-year $50-million process. If we were to abandon the Balanced Vision Plan, we would forfeit $20 million of that investment (the rest can be reused), and we would set back the approval process by at least six years.

That’s why it keeps coming back from the grave. I am always wrong. It never truly dies. All of the additional iterations are disguises, camouflage and window-dressing to get the Balanced Vision Plan up out of the dirt and under construction.

The idea of making a skinnier curvier road is fundamentally crazy. The people who want this road want it because they are still convinced it will carry massive amounts of traffic. If we give up on massive amounts of traffic moving through the river corridor, then we don’t need a road at all. If we build a bench big enough to carry a freeway and put a smaller road on the bench, then sheer bureaucratic inertia will force the expressway out onto that bench sooner or later.

The thing to do is to kill the road, truly kill it, shoot it, chop its head off, stick a stake in its heart. The only way to do that is to build the park we were all promised in the first place.

The Balanced Vision Plan was approved two ways — with the road and without it. The park is already approved. Compromise and zombies are the enemy here. We must kill the road by building the park. Then sleep peacefully.

The vampire Nosferatu on the prowl, like a major engineering project that won't die.
The vampire Nosferatu on the prowl, like a major engineering project that won't die.

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