The Trinity Toll Road Is a Civil Rights Project? OK, Tell Us What the Toll Is.

One big number the Trinity toll road hustlers don't want us to see before the May City Council elections: How much it would cost to drive on that dog. You saw the story about the new North Texas toll road where they jumped the rate to $7 to drive four miles during the recent ice storm.

The Texas Department of Transportation said later it was looking into how that happened. We know how it happened. You know those big overhead electronic message boards they have over the highways? The message that day should have been "What's your other choice today, suckers?"

We talked here last January about the fact that the North Texas Tollway Authority has spent $1.7 million on studies just to tell them how high the tolls will have to be on the Trinity toll road if it's ever built, but they won't share any of the findings with the public.

So what do you figure? High or low?

I'm guessing high. Very high. Somewhere in the ice-storm rage. Last January, however, I still wasn't clear why the NTTA wanted to hide the ball. But last week the light bulb came on.

Last week Rick Callahan, who represents Pleasant Grove (southeast Dallas) on the City Council, had some southern Dallas residents of his get up for the "open microphone" part of council meeting and talk about how bad they want the city to build the Trinity toll road. The idea was that it's too hard to get to work from that part of town, so people there need the city to build a toll road along the Trinity River.

The road, don't you know, is now more or less a civil rights project. Its purpose is to overcome unemployment and income disparity in poor and minority neighborhoods.

When the robo-residents were done reading their carefully scripted remarks, council member Scott Griggs, a longstanding opponent of the road, pretty much lost it. I loved it.

It was a wonderful "Mr. Smith Goes to Washington" moment in which Griggs became completely off-the-hook and unglued. He eviscerated the arguments just heard and pointed to the enormous cynicism of using social equity as a defense for what is transparently get-rich scheme for a few downtown landholders.

See also: Watch Dallas City Council Member Scott Griggs Absolutely Lay Out the Trinity Toll Road

With strong back-up from fellow member Philip Kingston, Griggs pointed out the sheer physical absurdity of the argument. The Trinity toll road, if built, won't even connect physically with other major freeways serving southern Dallas. That's probably the main purpose of its design, anyway -- to provide an easy in and out route for suburban crowds coming into the southwest corner of downtown for special events. That way they won't have to rub shoulders with all that nasty urban traffic on the free expressways downtown.

You know. If you've got $300 or $400 to spend on a sporting event or a concert, what do you care if it costs you $30 to use the toll road for a quick in and out? It's still cheaper than a chopper.

So, the light bulb. Aha! The toll road hucksters want to sell the road as a civil rights project mainly to give cover to southern Dallas council members like Callahan. They want to make sure those members of the council will be able to deliver their pro-toll-road votes to the hustlers on cue. But the southern Dallas members don't want to look like they're doing what they're actually doing -- selling their asses to a bunch of rich guys downtown.

So now it's a civil rights project. Until the first leak. The first time somebody leaks good information on the tolls then that's it for the civil rights argument. Remember, this road is $1 billion to $1.5 billion in the hole before it opens. That's a big hole to fill with tolls.

Oh, sure, Callahan. Poor people commuting to jobs that give them a take-home check of $325 a week are going to get there by paying $80 a week in tolls (except in case of protracted bad weather, when it will cost them $350 in tolls).

The trump card for the civil rights argument is the toll amount. If the toll amount is high -- and it has to be, given the weak funding and thin traffic projections for the road -- then the Trinity toll road is not a viable option for poor and working class people. Obviously. It provides no equity. At that point it becomes a standing bitter rebuke, a monument to the defenselessness of the poor.

The toll road backers clearly intend, nevertheless, to use the civil rights road argument between now and May in order to defend themselves against anti-toll-road sentiment in the City Council and mayoral elections. Callahan's dog-and-pony show was the opening salvo.

My light bulb was simple: That's why they won't let loose of the $1.7 million traffic and tolling study. Not before May. And there is only one defense.

Every time somebody stands up and says that poor people need this road, somebody else needs to ask what it will cost. What's the toll? They know. We know they know. The only reason to refuse to name the price is that the price reveals their argument for just what Griggs and Kingston said it was -- a shameful cynical ploy. Poor people are not stupid. They will get that.