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We spent $19 Million for Trinity Lakes. Don't Expect a Lake.

Vonciel Hill, City Council's appointed censor.
Vonciel Hill, City Council's appointed censor.
Mark Graham

The powers that be made sure leadership of the Dallas City Council's Trinity River project committee would go to Vonciel Hill, their biggest suck-up. Therefore, most of the good information about the project dies right there. Everything would die if it were not for Sandy Greyson and Scott Griggs.

Griggs, a council member from Oak Cliff who is not on the committee, has been attending meetings uninvited to back up council member Greyson, the only other person in the room who knows where the bones are buried. They dug up some pretty funky bones at last week's meeting.

The so-called lakes the city was supposed to be building along the Trinity River have shrunk from almost 300 acres to three ponds of 20 acres each, maybe, except for one thing: the $19 million that taxpayers approved for the lakes project 16 years ago is sorta gone.

Greyson and Griggs forced Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan to admit that the cupboard is bare. And even though Jordan promised the laughable 20-acre cow-tank ponds are only the beginning, she also named all kinds of factors that make it sound as if they will be the end product.

But wait, before I get into all that, here's Vonciel Hill, chairperson of the damn committee. What does she say? In 1998 the taxpayers of the city were shown renderings of vast sheets of water downtown covered with sailboats, and that's what we voted for. So now we get a 20-acre pond stuck in the middle of nowhere. What is this, a giant middle finger in our faces?

Here's my point about Hill. I'm sitting out there in the peanut gallery wondering how she's going to handle this stuff. Hill's only significant action as chairperson so far today has been to halt the proceedings in order to acknowledge that a rich lady of her acquaintance has entered the room.

But Griggs and Greyson have just uncovered a massive fraud on the voters, and they have done it under the very nose of Hill, whose mission in life is to keep this kind of info from ever coming out. What does she even say?

We're at a particularly dismal point in the meeting. Jordan is trying to put a brave face on things. She says, "It could be that we could create basically a concrete-lined channel that would look like a lake."

Griggs and Greyson exchange small but meaningful glances. Griggs is about to dig into that one, but Hill interrupts. She says to Griggs, "As a non-committee member, you are exhausting a lot of time. Are you close to being finished?"

Griggs agrees to wrap it up. The very painful crucial points already have been made. Here's what Greyson and Griggs have dug out:

The $19 million that we approved for the design and construction of the lakes has been spent already on design. What the designers found out was that they can't design them.

Yeah. I'm not kidding. First, Jordan told the committee, the designers found out the lakes can't be dug down deeper than 10 feet, because a hole that deep would penetrate the sand layers beneath the clay cap, and all the water would leak out. Then they found out the lakes can't be connected to the river. In fact they can't come closer than 200 feet to the river, or the Corps of Engineers will make the city build full-scale dams between the lakes and the river. Nobody thought of any of this ahead of time.

How do we get water in the lakes if not from the river? Jordan said the only way is with water wells, and she said those will cost $1 million apiece. She didn't say why they will cost that much. They just will.

Sorry. Not done being depressing yet. The lakes can't be connected to each other, because they can't flow under the old bridges that cross the river. They can't flow under the old bridges because the old bridges stand on crappy piers that might fall down if any serious digging is done next to them. Nobody ever thought of that, either.

Well, can't we just fix the piers? Jordan said, "It costs about a million per pier to fix the piers, so that will not happen. So one way around incurring that expense is don't excavate around the piers, just stay away from them."

Just stay away from them? But there are old bridges up and down the river. Do you see where we're headed here? Jordan kept saying the three 20-acre ponds planned now will be just the beginning. But the beginning of what? If you have to stay 200 feet away from the river, and the corps requires everything to be quite a distance from the levees bordering the floodway, and you can't get near any old bridges, then disconnected spit-bath ponds scattered out on in the brush sound pretty much like the beginning and the end, do they not?

Then there's the money. Yeah, let's go back to that one. What do you mean, they spent all the money on the design, and they found out they couldn't do the design? That makes no sense whatsoever, right? They have to at least come up with a story that doesn't make us feel like total fools. Or do they?

In the calm, deliberative manner of the lawyer he is, Griggs picked his way into the truth about the money. On the table in front of him was a memo he had waited three weeks to get from the staff about where the money for the project stands.

"My understanding," he said, "is that [the design firm] has been paid $19,558,124 so far to draw up plans for these lakes. That seems like an awful lot of money we have spent on planning documents without turning dirt."

Jordan answered. "The challenge we have had on that is that to do the environmental impact statement for the corps we have to basically do the schematic design for the whole park improvement. So a lot of that money was used for the schematic design for the full balanced vision plan, which includes a lot of the lakes plus the park roads and the trails, all of the other amenities."

Translation: They took the lakes money and spent it on a design for everything else in the entire project. So where is this headed? Oh, you may have jumped ahead. If you were around and could already read in 1998, you may remember that after the election and after we had approved the money for this huge project, the powers that be sprung a little surprise on us. They had told us before the election we were voting for lakes with sailboats on them, but actually what they really intended to use the money for was a new superhighway right down the banks of the river cutting off downtown from the waterfront.

While the lakes money has been squandered on all kinds of non-lakes stuff, the money for the highway we didn't vote for has been bulldog sequestered and protected.

Greyson noted that there was still $28 million in the kitty for the highway, even though the highway is currently under-funded by $2 billion and is not scheduled for construction by anyone because no one can find a real reason to build it. Greyson knows the history and the who-shot-john on all this. She pointed out that the city went to court at one point and argued successfully it had the right to move money around within the project any way it wanted to.

She asked Jordan to scroll back to an earlier page in Jordan's PowerPoint presentation where there was a footnote that said "Note: $28M can only be spent on Parkway related excavation and dirt placement."

"I was wondering why that was so," Greyson said. "I know the city even went to court at one point to try and say you could move the money around any way you wanted within this proposition because it was all one proposition. So why couldn't we move parkway money around? Why does it have to be dedicated to the parkway?"

Jordan answered that the city had entered into a contract with the North Texas Tollway Authority to build the highway, and in the contract, she said, the city agreed that, "we would spend the money on the parkway and that we would take no action that would undermine proceeding with the parkway project."

In other words, they signed a contract binding future councils to protect the highway money, even while they were spending the lakes money on other things. So how will they pay for the first spit-bath pond? Jordan said maybe they can filch money out of the city's storm-water management fund, a tricky maneuver that makes it sound to me as if there will be only one 20-acre pond, if that.

Bottom line? One shitty pond. No lakes. Still pimping for that highway we didn't vote for. Now you see why it's so important to Hill to keep the toilet seat down.


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