Trinity Toll Road Doesn't Add Up

From the beginning of the Trinity River toll road debate 14 years ago, one of the biggest hurdles faced by critics of the road has been the unwillingness of urban planners and other so-called experts to publicly speak ill of a project with so much money and power behind it. Apparently moral courage is not a part of anybody's urban-planning curriculum.

But that may not be all bad. It leaves it up to us. We ordinary citizens can tell whether the emperor is naked, can we not? Maybe the silence of the lambs in the urban planning community has tricked us into thinking we have to be lambs.

Last week I visited Angela Hunt in her home, where she reminded me of a particularly depressing chapter in the matter of experts and moral courage. She talked about a time in 2007 when there was a referendum on the toll road idea.

"We were desperately trying to find an expert who could provide us with some analysis of alternatives to the toll road," she said. "Remember, that was the big complaint. We supposedly didn't have any clue about what the alternatives would be.

"So [Oak Cliff developer and Belmont Hotel-owner] Monte Anderson gave me a call and invited me to meet with a transportation expert that he had asked for some assistance on an unrelated project. This guy was flying in, I think, from Dubai or some Middle Eastern city where he had overseen their entire transportation plan for the city, so he knew his stuff."

Hunt and Anderson brought along a big map when they met the expert at the Belmont, using it to explain the toll road and how it would "ruin the park," Hunt said.

"This expert is incredulous. He can't believe Dallas is considering doing this. He thinks it's absolutely absurd. He wasn't getting paid for this response. We weren't engaging him.

"I said, 'Explain this to me.' He said, 'Look, traffic is like water. If you close one road, traffic will find a way to its destination another way.' His point was, number one, it was absurd to build a new freeway in our downtown. That was very antiquated thinking. Number two, we weren't diverting traffic around our downtown. He suggested doing that. That made more sense to him.

"It was so fantastic to talk with someone who had such experience and such knowledge and who knew instantly that [the toll road idea] doesn't make any sense."

She told the expert the anti-toll road side would like to hire him, and the pair exchanged cards. When Hunt tried to follow up by phone, however, she kept getting shunted to the man's answering machine until finally getting him on the phone.

"I said, 'I wanted to talk with you about engaging you for our effort and just wanted to talk with you about cost so I know how much money we need to raise.'

"He said, 'Angela, I have talked to my friends in the transportation industry in Dallas, and they have told me that if I take this job I will never work in Dallas again.' He didn't mince words about it.

"I cannot tell you how disappointing that was. I cannot tell you how many engineers or urban planners will tell you on the side that the Trinity toll road concept is just a bad idea, but they will not come out in public and say it."

Yes. That is depressing. But maybe it's good for us. How much is their word worth, anyway? Do we even need them? When experts do talk about this kind of stuff, it all comes out sounding like the worst course you ever took in school combined with memories of a root canal operation. Maybe it's more important to stop and remember what this is all about.

This is about the one cool thing in all of downtown Dallas, the river. How many of you newcomers out there even knew we had a river in Dallas when you came to town?

We do. It's a real river. The Trinity River runs from northwest Texas all the way to the Gulf of Mexico, a length in river miles, counting all of its branches, of 710 miles. Spanish explorers in the 17th century called it La Santísima Trinidad, the Most Holy Trinity.

Dallas, like many mid-20th century cities, always considered its river a sewer. Only in recent years has there been real interest in resurrecting the Trinity from the industrial graveyard that surrounds it in downtown and turning it back into the truly transformative natural treasure it should be.

But just as this great moment and splendid opportunity present themselves to us, the Old Guard of city leadership is ferociously determined to give the abuses and bad ideas of the previous century one last gasp. They want to consign the riverbed to right-of-way for a high-speed toll road, a mammoth public works undertaking that would create a Chinese wall between downtown and its only waterfront.