Trinity Toll Road Supporters Play the Race Card. What Jokers.

City Council member Scott Griggs did the nearly impossible -- he stirred excitement at a Trinity toll road meeting.
City Council member Scott Griggs did the nearly impossible -- he stirred excitement at a Trinity toll road meeting.
Mark Graham

Talk about déjà vu. Here I am back in the ample auditorium of Rosemont Elementary, a modern school in North Oak Cliff with padded theater seating, thank God, attending yet another debate on the damned Trinity River toll road.

I attended a debate on the Trinity River toll road in this same auditorium seven years ago. The project was approved by voters in 1998. None of it has been built. We're still debating. Oh my God. It's awful. Architect Robert Meckfessel, a speaker, observes that some kids who were first graders at this school when the project began are now ready to graduate from college.

I'm ready to die. The sense of circularity overwhelms. I am struck suddenly by an unwelcome vision. The year is 2035. A surly felon doing his community service is shoveling me along roughly in a battered Medicare wheelchair. I jab my cane at the air and cackle: "Hurry it up, Jailbird! I want to see if the opening remarks have changed."

This was last week, and now I'm so glad I went after all. When I calmed down, I found that this debate was night-for-day, totally contrary to the event seven years ago. Back then the proponents of the road were smug and parental, portraying the anti-toll roadsters as wacko hippie black sheep out to blow the family nest-egg on surf boards and drugs.

Tonight it has flipped. The anti-road team is captained by City Council member Scott Griggs from Oak Cliff, a smart young lawyer emblematic of the people who have flooded into the old North Oak Cliff neighborhoods, many of them since the last debate here at Rosemont, transforming a marooned streetcar district into Dallas' own Brooklyn. The people on the other side, the pro-toll-roadsters, look ... well, a little like me, like they've been to one too many toll road debates.

The plan being debated tonight is to build a six- to nine-lane tolled super highway right along the banks of the Trinity River through downtown. It would form an exhaust-spewing Chinese wall of concrete and truck traffic where the people in Griggs' district thought they were getting the nation's biggest urban park. Guess how they feel about it.

I get myself settled down psychologically just in time for Griggs to open with a fire-and-brimstone tent-shaker of a speech: "This is a road that's looking for a purpose," he begins. He recites a list of threats invoked seven years ago by the backers -- various major freeway projects and park amenities supposedly bonded at the hip to the Trinity toll road, things we were told we would lose if we failed to build the road. Now, even though the road still hasn't been built, most of that other stuff is either in place or well underway.

"We were told, 'Without this road you won't get economic development,'" Griggs says, his voice rising in volume and intensity. "Look at North Oak Cliff! Look at West Dallas! This is our time." The whole place erupts in applause and basketball arena cheers, and I think I even hear some foot-stomping.

Griggs runs quickly through a traffic analysis carried out by the other side that shows that the toll road, estimated to cost $1.5 to $1.8 billion, will improve traffic speeds downtown by only 2 mph by 2035. He describes plans for a five-story freeway interchange that he says will obliterate 35 years of planning for a new Oak Cliff "gateway" park gazing out from Oak Cliff's higher elevation across the river to downtown.

Instead of that park, he says, "What we'll settle for is a big box and a fast food restaurant."

The audience erupts in bitter derisive laughter.

I can't get over it. I could swear seven years ago that was what the toll road backers were promising Oak Cliff -- a big box store and a fast-food restaurant. Now Griggs might as well be telling them they will get a Super Wal-Mart and a rendering plant.

"That is what is at stake for this area," he says. "This is the time to put Oak Cliff first, to put Dallas first. There is not a reason in the world to do this road."

The house goes crazy. He could be Churchill vowing to fight them on the beaches. This is all kind of unbelievable.

The other side fights back, but they're trying to punch their way out of a clinch. Michael Morris, transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, warns direly that the region's population will soar in years ahead and more highways will be needed:

"A county of two and a half million is anticipated to go to 3.5 million persons in a 24-year time period," Morris says. "Another million people are coming to Dallas County in this time period."

But Patrick Kennedy, a young private-sector urban planner on the anti team, argues that another highway through the city will only exacerbate the bad paradigm we have already, sucking more traffic and pollution into the city while pushing economic growth out. Reading statistics he says he compiled from the U.S. Census, Kennedy points out that Dallas has been almost totally excluded from the population growth of the region over the last decade, a fact he blames on "coerced car-dependence." Among major American cities, he says, Dallas is tied with Detroit for least diversified transit options. "The DFW region is tied with Detroit metro for commuting by bike, foot or transit, at 4 percent, the lowest in the country. Meanwhile, a quarter of the city is in poverty.

"Among the 40 largest urbanized counties, Dallas County has performed third worst in terms of job and wage growth, ahead of only Detroit and Kansas City.

"Of the 30 largest cities in the U.S., the city of Dallas is second to last in percentage growth of millennials, 18- to 34-year-olds, only ahead of Detroit. And the city of Dallas is dead last in percentage growth of college graduates. This is all U.S. census data from 2000 to 2013."

Kennedy blames the city's economic inertia on the road builders. "The compulsion to subsidize traffic flow at all costs and bypass around Dallas accelerates the inertia, subsidizing continued sprawl and disinvestment from the core as jobs and housing continue northward, leaving the southern sector behind."

Former City Council member Craig Holcomb argues vehemently that the current plan is still based strictly on what has been called the "Balanced Vision Plan," introduced in 2003 by former Mayor Laura Miller, a scaled down, kinder gentler version of the toll road. But Griggs and Meckfessel offer evidence that the current plan is all beefed up again, a much worse intrusion than ever on the planned river park. They point out that Miller and one of the designers of the Balanced Vision Plan have both said publicly the current plan is not at all what they designed and should not be built.

Finally the toll road backers have to go to their nuclear option. Both Holcomb and Morris make veiled references "equity" and social justice, implying not very subtly that killing the toll road will be an act of racism, because people in minority neighborhoods in southern Dallas need it. In the evening's only real disruption other than applause, southern Dallas City Council member Vonciel Jones Hill, a late arrival, shouts from the audience, "Thank you!"

The debate was set up and moderated by state Representative Rafael Anchia, whose district reaches from Oak Cliff north to Carrollton and west into Irving. This evening he has maintained a strictly neutral posture to this point, but the invocation of race seems to rouse him.

Anchia turns to Morris and asks suavely, "Have you done a traffic study to determine how many people from the southern sector need to get to Legacy, need to get to 635? How many toll tags are currently owned in the southern sector where people are accessing existing toll facilities to get to those areas?"

Morris goes into a long discursive discussion, most of it anecdotal, of why a person might choose to use a toll road. "If I am late for a plane or if I am a blue-collar worker and I get points charged against me if I'm late for work and if I accumulate 100 points in a year I'm terminated, or if my child can't get to the school or the doctor on time ..." Anchia waits, smiling smoothly, nodding. Then he says, "So you have done studies on this that support this discussion of equity north and south?"

Morris says, "We have the ZIP codes of all our Texas tollway authority tolltag users, and we can map that against census data."

Sounds suspiciously like "not actually."

Afterward as people mill around, I check the anti-toll road crowd. Not a one of the people I talk to missed the "equity" play or what it means for the year ahead. They're all abuzz about it.

Griggs, Meckfessel and Kennedy pounded all of the other side's factual arguments into the ground -- made them look silly, in fact. But that's not going to stop the other side. They're going nuclear.

The backers of the toll road -- all those great Civil Rights organizations we remember so well from the movement years like the Dallas Citizens Council and the Regional Chamber of Commerce -- ah yes, they're going to stir this thing as a racial issue, because they know if they fight it on the facts they're dead on arrival. And Vonciel Hill will help them do it. I want to believe I heard something new, something smarter and more decent than that in the air at Rosemont Elementary this time. Plus, you know. Nothing against Rosemont, a beautiful school. But I really do not want to be back here in 2021.


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