The bike lanes hanging from the massive Calatrava arches are tacked to the sides of the highway bridges in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to stabilize them, but they provide no support to the highway bridges.EXPAND
The bike lanes hanging from the massive Calatrava arches are tacked to the sides of the highway bridges in an apparently unsuccessful attempt to stabilize them, but they provide no support to the highway bridges.
Jim Schutze

No, Really. Not Joking. Huge Arches on McDermott Bridge Are Fake. Go Figure.

The Trinity Trust Foundation, now calling itself the Trinity Park Conservancy, has posted a job notice (see below) for a construction manager, citing among the club’s previous accomplishments the construction of the Margaret McDermott Bridge that carries Interstate 30 across the Trinity River downtown. I thought they might want to append at the end of their long list of job duties, “Mind your own business.”

Here’s the thing. This is not made up. The two enormous arches on both sides of that bridge they’re bragging about — designed by famed architect Santiago Calatrava — have nothing to do with the bridge itself. In fact, the highway bridge, the one carrying the cars and trucks, is actually made up of two totally independent standalone bridges, one westbound and the other eastbound, of the variety, design and engineering usually termed “plain vanilla” in transportation parlance. The Trinity Trust people are very discreet about that.

Let me go back over it again. Let’s say you drive over the McDermott “bridge” westbound and then come back across eastbound. You have just driven over two totally independent highway department plain vanilla bridges of the variety that inhabits the interstate highway system everywhere up and down the road.

Standing next to those bridges, on the upriver side of the westbound bridge and the downriver side of the eastbound, are two additional independent structures, the 340-feet high Calatrava arches. The arches provide no support whatsoever to the traffic lanes of the plain vanilla bridges.

The highway bridges — the ones that carry the traffic — cost $120 million to build, opened five years ago and have been carrying massive loads of traffic ever since. The arches, which cost $115 million and were designed to carry only bike lanes, have not yet been cleared as safe by the project engineer and remain closed.

Wait. I swear, there is a way to make sense of this, but first we have to do some of the backstory. In the 1990s, the Dallas Citizens Council, the private group that ran the city back then, was still engaged in its 20-year doomed attempt to build a new unneeded expressway more or less on top of the river, to be called the Trinity toll road.

Why? Oh, people always say “follow the money” and “look at the land” and stuff like that, but I think a big part of the reason the old leaders were so obsessed with building an unneeded freeway on top of the river was that they were sort of stupid. If it had been about money and land, a nature park along the river would have been a much bigger boost to adjacent land values than some roaring, stinking elevated freeway. I just think they were dumb.

Part of the effort to dress up the toll road project was an attempt by the wives of the Dallas Citizens Council to decorate the road. If that sounds sexist, you must not have been around at the time. Believe me, it is not possible to out-sexist the culture itself.

All of the decoration ideas for the river came from things wealthy Park Cities women had seen somewhere on vacation. For example, we still have a massively grotesque mound of concrete and steel occluding the river near the Santa Fe Railway trestle where the ladies thought it would be nice to create a fake rapid for kayakers like something they had seen somewhere in Colorado.

Why didn’t that work? Why were we not able to convert a muddy Texas river over flat alluvial soil into a roaring Rocky Mountain torrent? I really don’t know. If you believe in God, ask her. Let me know what you find out.

The centerpiece of the decoration plan for the river was to be the worshipful erection of a series of matching suspension bridges, all designed by Calatrava, who was then (and may, for all I know, still be) the most stylish bridge designer in the world. But here we begin to close in on the nub of the problem and the thing the new construction manager for the Trinity Park Conservancy really needs to grasp, so he or she can avoid asking about it in the interview:

Suspension bridges were invented for a reason — to get across broad, deep chasms where upright piers were either physically impossible or too expensive to build. We have no such chasms here. Our Calatrava suspension bridges were envisioned originally, purely and entirely as decoration.

They were supposed to match. Matching is something purses do with shoes. My wife is always telling me socks absolutely must match, or, she claims, you can’t even leave the house.

But bridges? Who ever built bridges to match, especially when the basic engineering and the design of the bridges don’t even match the function or the terrain? We’ve got the wrong matchy-matchy going here, do we not? Back to that possible explanation above.

The problem was that an entire row of matching Calatrava suspension bridges up and down the Trinity River would have cost some significant chunk of the gross national product to build. (Oh, that!) So the plan was chopped back to just two bridges, the second of which was to be the McDermott, named for the late Margaret McDermott, a revered philanthropist and maven of the arts.

But it was still too expensive. A suspension bridge to carry 11 lanes of heavy traffic back and forth across the river would have cost something north of $300 million, and nobody had that much money or would pay it — not the feds, not the state or the city and certainly not the Citizens Council.

That’s how we came up with this strange hybrid combination of structures, all lumped together as the Margaret McDermott Bridge. The state paid the $120 million for the two plain vanilla traffic bridges. For the arches, the Citizens Council types paid $5.5 million of the total $115 million bill, and you and I paid the balance.

But what are the arches? Decorations? That’s a problem, politically. Do you remember anybody telling you that the taxpayers were going to pay $109.5 million for decorations? No, you do not.

In fact, all of the public pronouncements about the Margaret McDermott always described it as one structure, the Margaret McDermott Bridge, and the cost has always been given as $115 million, as if that were the price for everything out there. I had to dig and jump through hoops to get the highway department to tell me that the $115 million paid for only the arches, something the city still has never publicly declared.

Both the city and Caltrava’s people really buck and whinny if you say the arches are merely decorative. Oh, no, they say. The arches have an important function. The one on the upriver side carries the westbound bike lane, a narrow band of concrete suspended on cables hundreds of feet below the arches, and the downriver arch carries the eastbound bike lane.

Let me ask you something, and this kind of goes back to the matchy-matchy issue. Why would you build separate eastbound and westbound bike lanes, especially if it’s going to take $115 million worth of arches to carry them both?

Radio silence from the city on when it's going to get those bike lanes open. Like, never?EXPAND
Radio silence from the city on when it's going to get those bike lanes open. Like, never?
Jim Schutze

Just think. You could put all the cyclists on one bike bridge and put up signs: “Be careful not to bonk into each other.” You just saved $57.5 million.

The people I know who ride bikes aren’t that stupid. I see them on the Katy Trail and the Santa Fe sharing the same concrete and not just running straight into each other all the time.

Maybe you need to paint a line or something. The city could give away free ting-a-ling bells for people’s handlebars. You can get those on Amazon for $1.18. You could give away 48,728,813 ting-a-ling bells for $57.5 million.

So the point here is that the bike lanes are fake add-ons to create political cover for the arches. They are there so the Citizens Council types, the city and the Calatrava people can claim the arches are not purely decorative.

The net effect of the whole thing visually, combined with the way the project always has been described officially, is the creation of what artists call a trompe l’oeil effect, roughly translated from the French as “fools the eye.” You are supposed to see it as one big suspension bridge, a real one, where the arches carry the traffic lanes. You are supposed to hear it that way, too, when officials talk about it.

It’s not. It’s four independent structures. Two of them are decorations. And here’s the big drumroll at the end: the engineers still can’t stabilize the bike lanes in high winds well enough to certify them as safe, so the bike lanes remain closed.

I emailed Sarah Standifer, the city official in charge of the McDermott, on Tuesday to ask when she planned on getting the bike lanes open. Radio silence.

So let’s think about this. Narrow bands of concrete suspended on wires from arches hundreds of feet above them, subjected to extremely high winds in the riverbed at various times of the year. How good an idea was that anyway? Is that why the bike lanes still can’t be opened? Is the basic idea coming back to bite us?

In fact, is it possible that the Margaret McDermott Bridge is really a big object lesson for architects, engineers and not-very-bright rich people worldwide? Stray too far from function in your lust for style, and nature and physics may come back to bite you.

The Trinity Park Conservancy is exactly the same club of people who brought us the McDermott, and now the mayor has seen to it that they will have total sway over lots more projects along the river. Maybe for that new construction manager they’re looking for, they should add two more job qualifications: 1) Kiss up. 2) Don't look down.

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