In the recent election for mayor and city council, all of the rhetoric was about streets, potholes, and basic repairs for neighborhoods. But hold on to your wallets. Our shop-till-you-drop city council has just seen something shiny it wants to buy.

The Dallas City Council is about to commit the city to an addition to the Trinity River project that could cost Dallas taxpayers upward of $130 million -- more than half the amount the voters already agreed to last year in what was then the largest bond issue ever authorized in the city's history.

In a worst-case scenario, the additional cost, for seven new bridges across the river, could be much more, in the range of half a billion dollars.

Even though Dallas is more than $3 billion in the hole on deferred basic maintenance of streets, sewers, and other basic infrastructure, promoters of the new, enhanced Trinity River project say it is a once-in-history opportunity to change the city forever.

Critics say that sales pitch is a deliberate and enormous public deception. They say that the new program is a hugely expensive patch on the already exorbitant river project and that it was designed to compensate for stunning mistakes in the original hydraulic design.

The project's backers -- especially the Dallas engineering firm of Halff and Associates, which designed the river plan -- say the critics don't understand the complexities of a vast, multipurpose public-works campaign designed to alter the face and the heart of the city.

At its June 23 meeting, the mayor and every council member except Donna Blumer voted their hearty endorsement of the plan. At a briefing the week before, they had said they wanted the new bridges no matter what they cost, no matter where the money comes from. Swept away by the romantic vision of a renowned Spanish architect, thrilled by the prospect of leaving its mark on posterity, and assured by Halff and Associates that four of the major bridges across the Trinity River downtown are worn out or obsolete and must be replaced soon anyway, the council is plunging ahead to create seven "signature" bridges -- avant-garde steel suspension bridges across the Trinity, where new lakes are planned as part of the river project.

One would be a new bridge to carry the Woodall-Rodgers Freeway across the river. Two more new bridges, at either end of a new toll road along the river, will also become part of the plan if the cost of the exotic designs does not exceed what the North Texas Tollway Authority is willing to spend.

Four of the seven would be replacements of existing bridges -- the Interstate 30 and I-35E freeway bridges, the Hampton Road bridge, and the Corinth Street Viaduct, all of which Halff and Associates told the city council at a June 16 briefing are about to be replaced one way or another.

The council was especially pleased by the repeated assurances from Halff spokesman Jim Carillo that much or all of the cost of replacing the old bridges with fancy new suspension bridges may be absorbed by the state and federal governments. At the recent briefing, the council members seemed not even to hear their own assistant city manager, Jill Jordan, when she interrupted to say that if the city thinks it will get the money for the new bridges from the state or federal governments, "I think we would be fooling ourselves."

Apparently, it did not even occur to the council to wonder how such an incredible coincidence could have occurred -- that four major bridges across the river, including two multilane freeway bridges, could all have come up for routine replacement exactly at the same moment the Halff-designed river reclamation project was to be built.

As if irritated with Jordan for throwing cold water, they turned instead with rapt attention to Carillo. He urged the council to move quickly, even suggesting it might divert money away from trails and other amenities planned for the project to ensure that the city won't get stuck with a bunch of "plain vanilla" bridges in the next few years.

Speaking to the council face-to-face in the council's main briefing room, Carillo counted down the list of bridges that now cross the Trinity. Of the I-35E freeway bridge into southern Dallas, he said, "TxDOT [the Texas Department of Transportation] is looking to replace that within a very short time frame. It's in the cycle to be replaced." The I-30 freeway bridge, he said, "is scheduled for replacement within a very short time frame."

Referring to all four bridges, Carillo said, "These bridges will be replaced no matter what happens with other aspects of the Trinity River project."

Is that right?

Halff and Associates' assertion that these bridges are already scheduled for replacement is directly at odds with what spokesmen for the Texas Department of Transportation say.

Michelle Releford, a spokeswoman for the Dallas region of TxDOT, said flatly that the bridges in question are "not on any kind of maintenance replacement list." The two freeway bridges, she added, would be considered for replacement at some point because they are overloaded at rush hour. "The reason they need to be replaced is because they're not wide enough," she says.

But much of the money for those two bridges would come from the federal government, and according to long-standing federal guidelines, neither bridge qualifies for replacement right now, Releford explained. In fact, neither has been able to get near a replacement list for widening for years because of the congestion in the "mixmaster" interchange area downtown.

"They say there's no point in widening them if they feed into a congested area," Releford said.

Halff and Associates urged the Dallas Observer to call Jim Nesbitt, a TxDOT engineer who is the project coordinator for the Trinity River project. Nesbitt insisted that the two freeway bridges could be considered for replacement at some point in the future if the Trinity project improves congestion downtown.

But, pressed on the point, Nesbitt conceded that the bridges would have to enter a long, involved process and then compete for funding with bridge projects statewide. Not even preliminary steps toward getting these bridges on any list for funding have been taken, Nesbitt said.

Releford, like Nesbitt, said the Dallas bridges might qualify for replacement if Dallas could show that the Trinity project will reduce congestion in the mixmaster. But there are strong indications that the proposed new Trinity Parkway -- because it is being pushed through as a toll road rather than as a public highway -- may do little to reduce congestion downtown.

The so-called "parkway," a major element of the Trinity River plan, is actually a limited-access highway that would run inside the levees along the river banks, split in half with northbound lanes on one side and southbound on the other. The original purpose of the new road was to bleed off congestion from the mixmaster.

But a "Major Investment Study" by TxDOT found that the route -- from the C.F. Hawn Freeway just below old South Dallas up to Highway 183, the airport freeway -- would attract a relatively modest amount of traffic. Both state and federal guidelines prevent spending money on projects like this when the same money might have a greater ability to relieve congestion elsewhere, such as, for example, on the LBJ Freeway. Based on the projections, TxDOT said it couldn't justify building the Trinity road much sooner than 23 years from now.

Plan B was to get the road built quicker as a toll road. The assumption was that the North Texas Tollway Authority, unconstrained by federal guidelines and able to earn its investment back from tolls, could get going on the road much quicker. But even the NTTA's projections for the road look a little sickly.

Some months ago, the NTTA opened its files on the Trinity Parkway to the Observer. In them was an engineering and market study report the NTTA had commissioned on the proposed Trinity Parkway. The NTTA study found that under the original design, the total time savings for a motorist traveling from one end of the proposed new toll road to the other -- as opposed to driving through the mixmaster and out on Stemmons -- was 24 seconds.

Even when all access from southern Dallas was chopped off and access to the new parks along the river was eliminated, and even with the speed limit cranked up to 55 miles per hour -- making it an urban freeway, not a parkway -- the total time savings from one end to the other was just over three minutes.

How many people would pay a toll to save three minutes? The study said not many.

"When you apply the...toll," the study said, "volumes on the parkway drop by as much as two-thirds."

In other words, by taking what was already a weak route for a new highway and turning it into a toll road, the promoters of the Trinity Plan have largely diminished the road's ability to ease downtown congestion. So why would anyone expect the federal government suddenly to agree to rebuild the two major freeway bridges crossing the Trinity, based on such pale projections?

The underlying point is that none of the bridges Carillo told the council were slated for replacement soon is slated for anything. None is on a list. None is scheduled.

The additional $120 million to $130 million presented to the city council by Halff is only the difference in the cost between the fancy steel suspension bridges Halff says the council should buy and regular concrete bridges. If the city should wind up getting saddled with the full cost of even one or two of the fancy new bridges, the full tab would be hundreds of millions of dollars more.

So why, just as the already controversial river project is ready to be launched, would the consultants make this audacious reach, piling on huge costs for new bridges?

Halff and Associates is a 50-year-old local firm with a good reputation even among environmentalists, until this project. Halff has worked on flood-control studies of every major creek in Dallas. More recently, it has been involved in the construction of Alliance Airport and in the rebuilding of North Central Expressway.

Why would Halff and Associates risk its integrity by painting the need for a decision on bridges with such urgency, when the facts seem to lend so little support?

What's the real rush?

The ranks of environmental and grassroots civic groups opposed to all or part of the Trinity River plan now include local chapters of the League of Women Voters, the NAACP, the Sierra Club, the Audubon Society, the Rainbow Coalition, the Texas Committee on Natural Resources (TCONR), the Dallas Historic Tree Coalition, and Citizens for a Safe Environment, as well as a number of ad hoc groups formed specifically to fight the river plan, including Save the Trinity and Citizens for Sensible Priorities (CFSP).

After the June 16 briefing, TCONR issued a statement calling the plan for signature bridges "a cover-up of the harmful and costly impacts of the scheme to pile toll roads between the existing levees instead of outside them."

TCONR and the other critics believe the bridges are needed urgently by Halff and Associates and other promoters of the plan to cover up a staggering mistake in Halff's original concept of the Trinity River project itself. The mistake is a result, they say, of going to the voters for the May 1998 bond election with a loosey-goosey concept for the river plan before any real engineering or hydraulic analysis of the toll road component of the plan had been completed.

When Halff finally did the hydraulic analysis, after voters narrowly passed the $246 million Trinity Corridor bond package in a May 1998 election, Houston environmental lawyer Jim Blackburn believes, Halff engineers discovered that putting a freeway inside the levees would tend to make flooding much worse, like putting rocks in a bottle. Blackburn, who has been a player in many of the state's major environmental battles of the last 25 years, was hired by CFSP to seek information about the plan from the city and Halff.

He thinks that once Halff had its hydraulic model in hand -- information the firm has not yet shared with the public -- it had to make major manipulations in the plan for lakes in the floodway to compensate for the effect of building a highway almost on top of the river.

It's a simple enough proposition: Fill it in on the sides. Dig it out deeper in the middle. That's how you make the same amount of water flow through without flooding.

Hence, a plan that had called originally for a 34-acre lake in the center of the floodway downtown was amended to call for nearly 350 acres in lakes, ponds, and manmade wetlands. But with an excavation that big and that deep in the center of the floodway, the critics suggest, floodwaters would rush much faster and churn more powerfully.

The increased velocities of floodwater going under the bridges, the critics argue, meant Halff had to find some way to get rid of all the bridge footings. Otherwise the bridge piers would attract debris, clog things up, and possibly even get knocked down in the much faster floodwaters caused by the new design.

The problem was that replacement bridges weren't included in the record $246 million bond issue narrowly approved by Dallas voters in May 1998 because no one knew yet that the toll road would make them necessary. How, then, to go back to the voters for the new money?

Dr. Mary Ellen Bluntzer, a medical internist and volunteer environmentalist, is a founder of CFSP. She accuses the city and Halff of not wanting to admit to the public what their hydraulic studies must have shown them. "They sure didn't want to have to go back to the voters and say, 'Oops, we need all new bridges downtown. Sorry, folks, we forgot to mention that.'"

Hence, the suddenly urgent call for "signature bridges," a truly novel concept: perhaps the first time in the history of civilization that a major city voluntarily would tear down most of its major bridges and rebuild them just to make a statement.

The designs presented to the council for the exotic new "signature" bridges are the work of Santiago Calatrava, described by architecture critics as the world's premier bridge architect. The designs are of soaring arches reaching across the river bottoms like butterfly wings, with a strangely make-believe visual impact, as if Dallas suddenly had become a port city in the Pacific Northwest.

Blackburn, the lawyer representing CFSP, says he doesn't have any objection to the bridge designs themselves. But he sees in them an elaborate snow job on the public, covering up the real reason so many bridges have to be replaced.

Blackburn says he has no reason to believe that Halff or anyone else set out to lie about the river plan from the beginning. But he says the attempt now to cover up what's really wrong with the plan may raise "a real question of misrepresentation.

"Actually, I think it may have been a mistake," Blackburn says of the failure to realize the bridges would have to be replaced. "I'm not sure this was intentional. If my analysis is correct, they did not analyze the hydraulics of the toll road before the bond election. It's clear from everything we're seeing now that there really was no real plan at all when Proposition 11 went to the voters. There was a concept, not a plan."

The part of the Trinity River scheme that had been worked out elegantly in advance, he suggests, was the new toll road and the impact it was designed to have on real estate values and development, especially in the aging Stemmons industrial corridor northwest of downtown between the Stemmons Freeway and the river.

"This is about development," Blackburn says. "That's the part of the plan that was refined. The part that was not refined was the hydraulics. They had done everything but the hydraulics. They were working on getting their costs down. By putting the road inside the floodway, they wouldn't have to buy right-of-way."

After the election, when Halff was paid $1.5 million by the city council to come up with a specific design for the floodway, Blackburn believes, Halff probably did the hydraulics properly. "And I think they said to themselves, 'Uh-oh, we have a problem with the toll road.'"

The problem, Blackburn says, is major and straightforward: "When you put the freeway inside the levees, it narrows the floodway. You have to mitigate that. You have to dig down. That's why the lakes went from 34 acres to 350. And then you have to find every place where an obstruction to flow is going to make the water stack up. One way you can reduce your flood level is to remove all of these bridge columns. You also have the problem of increased [water] velocity and the danger that it will undermine the bridges."

In fact, some of the more astute of the people opposed to putting the toll road inside the levees began to get an inkling of what lay ahead several months before Halff ever unveiled its plan to the city council. In March, after a public meeting at which Halff engineers had answered questions, Joe Wells, a volunteer environmentalist, went home and made a startlingly prescient prediction:

In response to repeated, detailed questioning, Halff engineers had conceded that it would take 4.5 million to 5 million cubic yards of excavation in order to offset the construction of the toll road on earthen benches inside the levees. That is, in order to build the toll road and then also make up for the amount the new toll road would squeeze floodwaters, they would have to dig out 4.5 million to 5 million cubic yards of dirt. The lakes Halff had described would be 10 feet deep.

Wells did a few rough calculations and predicted Halff eventually would propose lakes inside the levee totaling about 300 acres. Lo and behold, when Halff finally unveiled its big plan to the city council this month, the plan called for about 350 acres in lakes and ponds.

And what's wrong with 350 acres of lake downtown instead of 34 acres? Probably not much, as long as the lakes can be paid for and will have water in them. But Halff's own numbers seem to raise the possibility that at least 200 acres of the excavation for the toll road may be dry holes or close to it for a long time to come.

At a meeting with the Observer recently, Halff engineers and Halff President Joe Novoa said the first or "central" lake of 135 acres will be built at a cost of $31.5 million -- the amount provided in the 1998 Proposition 11 bond issue. Novoa said the cost he calculated for excavating the lake was about $4 per cubic yard of dirt.

Other local sources in the mining business suggest excavation costs to 10 feet of depth should be more like $2.50 per cubic yard. But if Novoa's higher number is correct, then the cost of digging the hole for the central lake will be $7.2 million, assuming the lake requires the removal of about 1.8 million cubic yards of dirt.

So what's the other $24.3 million going for?

Novoa and Carillo, who is Halff's public relations person, said the balance of the cost was for turning the hole into a lake by building borders around it and pumping water to it from the downstream central sewage treatment plant and also pumping up groundwater. It's necessary to pump water to the lake rather than filling it from the river because during the summer when there is little rain, the river is 98 percent health-hazardous, incompletely treated sewage.

The issue of water quality, in fact, makes these lakes very expensive to build and operate. The Halff design calls for splitting the river channel, full of incompletely treated sewage, into two narrow channels down both banks of the river, then digging out long lakes in between and filling them with pumped water at least clean enough to boat on.

On an average of once every two years during flood season, Halff says, the channels full of sewage will slop over into the lakes. During those periods, the lakes and possibly also the toll road will be under water deemed too dangerous for human contact of any kind.

After floods, the city will have to pay to flush and clean the entire area. Every 12 years, at a cost of millions of dollars, the lakes will also have to be dredged of muck deposited by the floods.

A study by the Corps of Engineers has already predicted that the plan to fill these "off-channel" lakes with water piped from the cleaner Elm Fork of the river won't work during dry seasons. Therefore Halff has called for pumping treated water upriver to the lakes from the Central Waste Water Treatment Plant. That water, the Corps predicts, will be relatively free of germs, but will be so nutrient-rich that it will cause an algae scum to grow over the lakes.

The third source of water proposed by Halff -- groundwater to be pumped up into the lakes from deep wells -- may take care of the algae in a big way. The Corps has warned that the groundwater available to the lakes "could produce a significantly changed salinity level that certain aquatic habitat may not be able to tolerate."

Plain English: Too much water from the central treatment plant turns the lakes into green scum. Too much groundwater kills much of the plant life in the lake.

Bottom line: the lakes proposed here are very complicated, very expensive hydraulic mechanisms.

Who, then, is going to pay for the other two lakes in the plan, totaling an additional 200 acres? If one 135-acre lake costs $31.5 million, paid for out of the 1998 bond issue, shouldn't the other two lakes cost something like $46 million total? What bond issue do they come out of?

Novoa and Carillo both insist the next two lakes will cost Dallas voters nothing and will not require a new bond election, because they will be paid for by the North Texas Tollway Authority as part of an "inter-local" agreement.

Novoa told the Observer early in the meeting that the NTTA will pay for the additional 200 acres of lake by paying the city about $4 a cubic yard for the dirt it will dig out of the riverbed in order to build benches for the toll road. In response to questions, however, Novoa conceded that the inter-local agreement spelling out who pays what to whom has not yet been drawn up.

Later, the same meeting at the offices of Halff and Associates was joined by Halff hydraulic engineer Walter Skipwith, who had not been present when Novoa had said the NTTA would dig dirt out of the river, haul it away, and then pay the city for the dirt. Asked about the idea of the NTTA paying for dirt, Skipwith said, "No. They wouldn't move it themselves and then pay for the dirt."

At the far end of a long conference table, Novoa shrugged and smiled.

Take Novoa's number anyway. Say the removal of soil is somehow worth about $4 per cubic yard. Say the NTTA digs out 200 additional acres of hole for two more lakes between the levees. Using Halff's own numbers, that amount of hole would save the city about $11 million in excavation costs. That leaves a cost of about $35 million to turn the hole into lakes.

When the Observer asked whether the other two lakes in the Halff plan could be built without an additional bond election, Novoa said, "That's correct." But Carillo intervened to say, "Now, let me say something to add to that. Now, further amenities around those lakes beyond this 10-year bond package could be continued to be added in subsequent programs. Or they could not be added, if people don't want anything else around them."

Amenities? Like water?

Some critics believe there are powerful reasons why the two huge 100-acre holes might be dug and very little or no water ever put in them. Richard Vail, a civil engineer who works for a local mining company, is concerned that Halff's story on the hydraulics of the toll road does not add up anyway.

Halff says the toll road benches along the levees will not constrict the river because the excavation for the toll road will make the riverbed that much deeper. But Vail says that if you fill the excavations with lake water, you eliminate their value as offsets.

"Unless you pump the hole dry every time, you haven't provided any more volume of capacity," Vail says. "It's like a bottle. If it's already full of water, you can't pour more in."

For the critics, all of the problems come back to the idea of putting a toll road inside the levees -- their central objection to the plan from the beginning. At a time when national policy calls for pushing levees back away from rivers or tearing them down entirely, why would Dallas crowd a major highway into an already flood-prone river system?

Ned Fritz, dean of the Dallas environmental community and a staunch opponent of the Trinity plan on most grounds, says he thinks the central lake designed by Halff is an attractive amenity. It's the toll road that's bad. "If they would just take the toll road out of the riverbed," Fritz said recently, "that might fix almost everything."

David Gray, a member of Save the Trinity, a group that opposed the 1998 bond election, points to a U.S. Army Corps of Engineers environmental impact statement which showed that the river project would provide much more flood protection with the toll road outside the levees. Gray also refers to the TxDOT Major Investment Study which showed that the cost of building the road outside the floodway is only about 10 percent more than building it inside.

"According to what I've seen," he says, "we could do the transportation solution outside the floodway probably for a lot less than what the new bridges will cost us, and we could have much more relief of traffic congestion and much more flood protection."

Gray, along with Fritz and many other critics of the plan, also believes taking the toll road out of the floodway would eliminate the need to bulldoze tens of thousands of trees in the Great Trinity Forest at the bottom of the floodway project, currently planned in order to get water out of the city faster.

Blackburn, the environmental lawyer, says, "The more I've looked at this, the more the utilization of the inside of the levee system to build a road becomes a huge public policy issue."

The TxDOT Major Investment Study for the road found there was not enough demand to justify building it for almost a quarter century. The North Texas Tollway Authority study found that charging a toll would reduce even that demand by as much as two-thirds.

The Observer also found in the tollway authority's files a study by Dain Rauscher Investment Services, which had taken a look at possible funding scenarios for construction of the road using traditional public borrowing methods. The Dain Rauscher report found that if you cranked the speed on the toll road up to 60 miles per hour and allowed heavy trucks, the project would fall short of paying off its bonds by $230 million.

If you built it as the city sold it to voters last year -- as a peaceful 45 mph parkway with charming little access ramps along the river bank -- it would go in the red by $330 million. With that kind of projection, you'd have to sell the bonds in Eastern Europe, bundled with heavy weapons.

Small wonder the NTTA told the city it would have to make a major down payment up front if it wanted the toll road. City taxpayers, in other words, had to "buy down" the authority's construction loan, because the road couldn't pay its own freight even as a toll road. In the Proposition 11 package passed by Dallas voters last year, $84 million of the bond money was for such a payment to the tollway authority.

That money represents more than 20 percent of the total cost of construction of the toll road. City officials have told the city council that the NTTA will pay the city back the $84 million over the next 20 years.

But that's not what the city's agreement with the NTTA says. Even though the "inter-local" agreement between the city and the NTTA hasn't been formalized, all of the preliminary agreements and correspondence in NTTA files show that the $84 million is intended mainly for right-of-way acquisition, and that Dallas city officials, whether they have told the city council or not, have assured the NTTA it will not have to reimburse the city for right-of-way.

In other words, the tollway authority plans to spend the city's $84 million for land. City officials have told them they don't have to pay back any money they spend for land. And the same officials have told the council the NTTA is going to pay the $84 million back to the city.

Does it seem as if city officials are not especially worried about the city council figuring anything out anytime soon?

It's an especially ironic issue, given that building the road as a toll facility will slash its effectiveness as a reliever for the mixmaster by as much as two-thirds. Who wants this bad road so badly?

In a graphic that received little attention from the city council at its recent briefing on the river plan, Halff and Associates showed the new "Trinity River Parkway" snaking cozily along almost the entire length of the old Stemmons industrial corridor, between the river and the Stemmons Freeway from downtown up to where Stemmons meets Highway 183 to the airport. This vast swath of the city, much of it now an aging warehouse slum, is still heavily owned by the Stemmons-Crow family real estate interests.

This area is shown on the Halff graphic as the primary target for redevelopment made possible by the river project.

In the drawing, handsome tree-lined ceremonial esplanades march off from the new river parkway into an area rezoned as "multi-use." In months past, Halff engineers have said in public meetings that some three million cubic yards of fill dirt might be taken from the river and used to change the topography of private land nearby. That much dirt could transform the soggy, boggy look and feel of the Stemmons industrial district into something more like Las Colinas by the river.

In his recent interview with the Observer, Halff President Novoa said the Stemmons corridor would be a prime candidate for redevelopment as a high-rise residential area.

"If we build this amenity, lots of [the Stemmons corridor] could go residential, high-density residential," Novoa said. "I think that's a great probability."

The Stemmons industrial district is of interest not just politically but historically because of its key role in the spawning of the great Dallas river fortunes in the post-war period. By dominating -- practically owning -- the early flood-control districts in this area in the first part of the century, the Stemmons family was able to transform thousands of acres of muddy, flood-threatened river bottom into dry land.

It was a touch-and-go operation in its early decades. A published history of the Stemmons empire tells of members of the family having to rush downtown on rainy days to manually crank up big pumping stations needed to get floodwaters from the creeks up off their land and over the levees into the river.

After World War II, when the Stemmons family donated its own land for a new federal highway along the northern fringe of its holdings, the Stemmons district became the warehousing and wholesaling hub of this part of the American Southwest. But nothing is forever in real estate. The growth of peripheral airports and urban sprawl have sucked the warehouse business far beyond the borders of the city.

Drive the narrow streets of the old Stemmons district today, and you find yourself passing row after row of cheap one-story tin and masonry buildings dating from the late '40s to the early '60s, long since amortized, long since abandoned by original tenants. If this entire seedy, down-at-the-heels area were to be suddenly reborn, largely at public expense, as a fashionable high-rise version of Turtle Creek, with vest-pocket parks, lakelets, and streams where dank flood-control works now stand, someone should make a great deal of money.

It's not easy to trace real ownership of property in Texas, because it's too easy to own land under layers of assumed names. Nevertheless, one name that still shows up frequently on land transactions in the Stemmons district is that of Industrial Properties Corp., the traditional vehicle of the Stemmons family interests.

The Stemmons family, its heirs, and its longtime business partners are still a major force in Dallas business circles and behind the scenes in Dallas politics. Louis Beecherl Jr. of Beecherl Cos., an investor closely associated with Industrial Properties Corp., has been the business community's lead lobbyist for the river plan.

Other old Dallas river-bottom names show up here and there in other key redevelopment target areas for the plan, such as the Oak Cliff "gateway" area at the foot of the Houston Street Viaduct in Oak Cliff or at the confluence of the Stemmons and R.L. Thornton Freeways at the far southwest corner of downtown by Reunion Arena. The Dealey family, founders and principal owners of The Dallas Morning News, are here in the guise of various estates, trusteeships, and assumed names such as 5947B Corp.

The new toll road planned as part of the river project would neatly frame all of these holdings. The Stemmons family has campaigned for a highway somewhere near this alignment since the late 1950s.

Citizens for Sensible Priorities went to court recently under a brand-new Texas Supreme Court rule that can require people to testify under oath even before a lawsuit has been filed against them. The group's lawyer, Blackburn, told visiting state District Judge Leonard Hoffman Jr. that he was acting "in an abundance of caution," seeking to get sworn testimony from city officials and experts at Halff before deciding whether to file suit.

Otherwise, Blackburn told the judge, if CFSP filed suit against the city before knowing more of the facts, the city would accuse the group of filing frivolous litigation.

When Blackburn made his argument to Hoffman, a lawyer for the city countered that Halff and city officials have been holding dozens of public meetings to explain the river project. Why should CFSP or any other group be given the right to compel testimony from busy city officials on what is already a very public dialogue?

The judge had a quick reply. "This isn't just a political controversy," Hoffman said. "This apparently is involved with large sums of money."

Hoffman granted Blackburn's request. CFSP's victory was an indication that, while backers of the river project may dismiss the critics as kooks and tree-huggers, the courts do not. Blackburn and CFSP are in the process of deciding whom they will subpoena.

In their meeting with the Observer, Halff President Novoa and PR person Carillo, along with Walter Skipwith, the hydraulic engineer, were emphatic that the lakes and the new bridges are not tied to or made necessary by the toll road project. The central lake, the first to be built, can be built and paid for whether or not the toll road is ever built, Novoa said.

But the issue of the other 200 acres of excavation was a little less clear. Carillo had said at the beginning of the meeting that the total excavation of 350 acres, 10 feet deep, in the riverbed would "offset" the toll road. But later in the same meeting, both Carillo and Skipwith insisted that the excavation was not tied to the toll road by an "exact science." It might be possible, they said, to offset the toll road with considerably smaller holes. Skipwith referred to a "hydraulic model" he said he had developed, but he did not provide a specific number for the size of the hole needed to offset the toll road alone.

Then exactly what amount of lake is needed to hydraulically offset the toll road?

In a later phone message, Skipwith said, "We really didn't look at it that way. We just took the parkway and then we put in the lakes that we thought would satisfy our charge to develop lakes in the Trinity Dallas floodway and determined that it worked."

That amounts to a very casual description of their study: They have no measurements whatsoever, he says, to show the precise hydraulic relationship between the toll road and the lakes.

How much does the toll road make the water rise? How much do the lakes bring it back down? Skipwith, the hydraulic expert in charge of this part of the design, says nobody really knows.

But Skipwith's version flies in the face of assertions that Halff has made over and over again in public meetings in the last year that the excavation of the riverbed would be designed to overcome the hydraulic flooding effect of the toll road. It flies in the face of precise measurements published in January 1998 by the Army Corps of Engineers showing that 100 acres of lake would lower the flooding caused by the toll road by 0.7 of a foot. It flies in the face of a study Halff itself did for TxDOT, published in March 1998, showing exactly what effects could be achieved by digging the lakes from 8 feet of depth to 12 feet.

Skipwith's assertion -- that Halff doesn't know exactly how the lakes and the toll road are related hydraulically -- contradicts all of the company's previous assertions, along with those of of the Corps of Engineers, TxDOT, and the city. It would also seem an affront to common sense: How could they possibly have spent $1.5 million in city money designing a flood-control project and now suddenly claim they're not sure how it works?

Better question than how: Why? Why would any responsible engineer make such a claim?

Possible answer: Because the engineer knows he may be headed to court on this one.

The specific issue of the hydraulic model is at the center of what CFSP will seek to discover when it starts putting city officials and Halff engineers under oath sometime later this summer. Blackburn says frankly that "at this stage, we don't have all of the information." It's possible, he says, that when Halff people and city officials finally are forced to answer specific nuts-and-bolts questions, their answers will bear them out, in which case there will be no lawsuit.

For that to happen, Halff and the city would have to show that the replacement of the bridges really has nothing to do with the hydraulic model and that the 350-acre, 10-foot-deep excavation in the middle of the riverbed either has nothing to do with the toll road or truly will not cost Dallas taxpayers any money.

If the information from the depositions goes the other way -- if it looks as though the bridge replacements and the excavations are needed to make up for the mistake of putting a toll road in the riverbed, and if it looks as though Dallas taxpayers will have to pay hundreds of millions of dollars to correct the mistake -- then Blackburn and CFSP will put the city in court to force a new bond election.

Blackburn says it is not CFSP's aim to condemn the whole project as a bad idea. In fact, many of its members and supporters, including Ned Fritz, endorse certain aspects of the plan and think it should go ahead in modified form, without the toll road inside the levees.

Rather, CFSP's argument is that Halff and the city either did not tell voters the truth about the full costs and impact of their scheme before the bond election, or were forced to change the scheme so radically after the election that it no longer is what the voters approved.

"Texas law is pretty controlling on this point," Blackburn says. "If you tell the voters the money is going to be spent on X and Y, and that's what they approve, then you can only spend the bond money on X and Y."

Halff and the city have known for some weeks that Blackburn intends to make a case against them for bait-and-switch, getting voters to approve a package on the promise that $246 million would be the city's total share and then upping the ante later. That may explain why it's so difficult now, without a subpoena, to get either Halff or the city to answer specific questions about the hydraulic linkages between the toll road and the rest of the deal.

"This is about development," Blackburn says, "which on the face of it is not a bad thing. It's just that it was never presented as that to the voters. They weren't told that it was about improving property values in the Stemmons industrial corridor."

That central truth has been hidden through what Blackburn calls "a continuing pattern of misrepresentation." He says the remedy is to put everything that is now known about the project, including whatever emerges from the depositions, into a fresh new bond package and take it back to the polls.

Junk the Proposition 11 package. Take it again from the top. Hold a clean election.

"In my opinion," Blackburn says, "this should all be put into a single bond issue and presented to the voters for them to decide."

David Gray, of Save the Trinity, believes another trip through the public process might give Dallas a chance to re-mold the Trinity project back into what people wanted and thought they were getting in the first place.

"We could have most of what people want for the river, without a lot of the baggage that's been thrown onto it," Gray says.

When the question of the signature bridges came back to the city council for a formal vote last Wednesday, most of the council members revealed by the questions they asked that they had no idea how the project works or why it has been designed the way it has. In response to the only question about whether it will actually protect the city from floods, Assistant City Manager Jordan assured the council the project will provide "several feet of freeboard" on the levees, meaning the new construction will keep floodwaters several feet below the level where they would top the levees and spill into downtown.

Not true.

It might be true if there were no toll road inside the levees. But with the toll road there, even the Halff people concede that this flood-control project -- at a total cost of more than $1 billion in city, state, and federal tax dollars -- will provide only "an average of one foot" of freeboard along its length, meaning less than a foot of freeboard in some key areas. Pretty tight for a billion dollars.

Only North Dallas council member Donna Blumer voted against the signature bridges. Citing the city's $3 billion-plus backlog of basic maintenance, Blumer ticked off other glitzy big-ticket items to which the council has obligated Dallas taxpayers, including the new sports arena and the 2012 Olympics.

Blumer said she was afraid that signing up the city to pay for hundreds of millions more for pretty bridges is a way of "hamstringing future councils" so that the city will have no borrowing capacity left when it finally gets around to fixing the streets and sewers.

Given what has transpired so far, the opponents' chances of getting the rest of the city council to focus on these issues seem slim indeed. Mary Vogelson, a member of the League of Women Voters and past president of Save Open Spaces, says, "I really don't see at this point how we can accomplish anything except in court."

The promoters of the river plan understand one thing well: The way to make the city council stop worrying about something complex and difficult is to show it something shiny instead.

In this case, seven shiny new suspension bridges.


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