City Hall

With Fresh Eyes and Honesty, Next Thing You Know the Trinity Toll Road Goes Away

In Charles Dickens’ novel, Bleak House, written in installments in 1852 and ’53, the central character is not a person but a lawsuit, “Jarndyce and Jarndyce,” which Dickens describes as an endless and bottomless morass of “trickery, evasion, procrastination, spoliation, botheration [and] false pretences.”  The suit ensures that “whole families have inherited legendary hatreds.”

In other words, Jarndyce is Dickens' version of our own Trinity toll road project.

In fact I think the toll road controversy, about building a super highway along the Trinity River through Dallas, has gone on almost as long here — since the late 1990s — as Jarndyce and Jarndyce drags on in Dickens’ novel.

Next Friday a group called “The Trinity Commons” (which is not common) will hold its annual white linen luncheon to pat itself on the back for the previous year’s “progress” on the issue. Boil away all the balderdash, and their version of progress means, “Hallelujah, nobody has been able to kill the thing yet.”

Why are some interests so intent on keeping it alive? Well, it could have a lot to do with the $2 billion-plus bonanza the project promises to the construction and engineering community should it ever come to pass. But keeping the Trinity toll road project alive at this point probably has at least as much to do with the same kind of sheer inertia Dickens portrayed in Bleak House. The proposal alone, let alone the project, has become a meal ticket.

The uncommon Trinity Commons — not its real name in IRS records — pays somebody about 80 grand a year in consultant and administration fees. That’s peanuts compared to its sister non-profit, the Trinity Trust, which is also dedicated to educating the public about why the toll road should be built. That entity now sits on $4.2 million in assets and pays $120,000 a year to Gail Thomas, a consultant who acts as its part-time president, according to IRS records.

The arguments for building the toll road have gathered as dense a blanket of cobwebs and contradictions as anything Dickens could have invented. One of the more amusing, I always thought, was the Poor Souls of Pleasant Grove argument, which the backers of the toll road only thought of for the first time a couple years ago, after the project had already been on the books for 16 years.

Mayor Mike Rawlings said, “We need to make sure that we can get people from Pleasant Grove to one of the busiest hospital districts, that is happening right here in Dallas. That is why the Trinity Parkway is so critical for us.”

The idea was that people in southeast Dallas in the area called Pleasant Grove are cut off from West Dallas by the Great Trinity Forest, by the river and by a bunch of other stuff, like, for example, life. So, what if they need to get to Parkland, the public hospital, all of a sudden?

Quick! Build an expressway on top of the river! Pleasant Grove needs to get to the hospital!

Missing from the argument, of course, was any consideration of what a nice hospital you could build right in the middle of Pleasant Grove for way less than $2 billion and totally without ravaging the city’s single biggest natural asset, the river.

But that’s how it goes with Dallas’ own Jarndyce and Jarndyce. Argument gets layered onto rebuttal gets layered onto argument until one day no one can really remember where it started.

Except for one day. One day back in 2014, Robbie Good, youthful proprietor of Br_dge Studios, a branding and graphic design agency in North Oak Cliff, is riding his bike across the Houston Street viaduct.

He stops. He looks down. Beneath the bridge he sees the brown sliding surface of river and the adjacent angrily coiling snakes of crowded freeway lane and ramp — the traffic jumble that is called “The Mixmaster.” He looks a little farther and sees Riverfront Boulevard, which used to be called Industrial.

“I’m riding my bike into downtown,” he remembered for me the other day. “Half of that ride is over the Trinity. Half of it is basically over roadways, the Mixmaster and Riverfront.”

He says he saw wall-to-wall traffic on the Mixmaster, a decent amount of traffic on Riverfront going in one direction and no traffic at all in the other direction.

“There was just no traffic on that side of Riverfront. I thought about it. I looked out and you could see basically where Riverfront ends (south, at Corinth Street). Obviously there is no traffic coming from that direction because the road simply stops there.”

He’s still on his bike, right? Takes out his phone. Back then he had one of those phones with a stylus. He draws a straight line from the end of Riverfront over to the infamous “Dead Man’s Curve” on Highway 175 in South Dallas, a distance of about two and a half miles.

Bingo. Pleasant Grove gets to the hospital.

All on surface streets. No superhighway on top of the river. Utilizing a corridor that is under-utilized now because it is disconnected at Corinth Street from the rest of the grid at Corinth Street.

Again: Good is sitting on his bike on the Houston Street viaduct. He draws a line with a stylus on his phone. Lights come on all over the city.

He put it on Twitter. Within minutes people like former Dallas City Councilmember Angela Hunt and urban planner Patrick Kennedy were saying, "Hell yes! Why not?" Why not re-purpose something you already have, save an untold amount of violence to the environment, not to mention a mountain of cash, and get the same thing done?

Now, I have to tell you, Robbie Good is a politically sophisticated person about an area even smart people can’t get – Dallas City Hall, the land of echoes, mirrors and quicksand. He grew up in a family that knows what’s what in Dallas.

He told me he had no inkling of an expectation that anybody was really going to adopt his idea. At one point later on, after the inspirational bike ride, he sat down and noodled around with some cost figures for his idea. He came up with a guesstimate of less than $100 million. He knows full well and good, he told me, that the construction community was never going to abandon a project that’s north of $2 billion for one that’s south of $100 million.

And he doesn’t really blame the construction industry for that. He’s a consultant, too. Everybody wants work. He knows that.

His point at the time was focused and simple, and it went to the political arguments being made for the toll road. It was this: Tell Robbie Good that you want to build an entire major new freeway along the river because you want to help Pleasant Grove get to the hospital. He’s going to sit on his bike with his phone and Twitter and show you how absurd that notion is when you compare it with vastly cheaper and more practical ways to achieve that same goal.

But here’s something very interesting about Good’s idea that I don’t think was ever aired at the time. Instead of using Pleasant Grove as a kind of joke, a rhetorical trick to sell the toll road, Good kept looking at it on the map with sincere interest.

“What I discovered,” he told me, “is if you look at Pleasant Grove, it is extremely isolated. It is cut off. It has the natural barrier of the Trinity Forest. The forest is obviously a great asset, but it’s also a huge barrier for the grid system of Pleasant Grove.

“Pleasant Grove has its own grid, but it only ties into the rest of the city by three roads.”

So, wait. The joke was not that Pleasant Grove was isolated. It really is isolated. The joke was that the Trinity toll road was the solution.

Good said his study of the maps showed him that the entire quadrant of the city is filtered and pushed to the freeways surrounding it, because it has no surface street connections to the rest of the city. So his idea, which he has now elaborated with a number of additional connections, is to create a densely woven bond with the rest of the city using surface street connections.

I thought that aspect of Good’s thinking was maybe even more impressive than his original light bulb moment on the bridge. On that day, he was trying to rebut a certain political argument, which he knew to be farcical.

But look what happens when somebody young and smart looks at the city with fresh eyes and an open heart. All of a sudden he is seeing the real dilemma, not that Pleasant Grove can’t get to Parkland but that Pleasant Grove can’t get anywhere. It is an island. And with that image in mind, he begins to sketch in the foot-bridges that would weave this island into the rest of the city.

On the one hand, by now even I have this sense that the Trinity toll road project has metastasized to such an incredible mass, that it has so many people already milking it for a living, that it simply cannot be killed. And that’s why they will sing hallelujah at the fancy dinner this week. Our own Jarndyce and Jarndyce lives on. Let’s raise a toast to it and then bill it for our drinks.

But if we could kill it – if somebody could shoot it somehow, poison it or trick it into going away – think … just think what fresh eyes could do instead. 
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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze