Mayor Mike's Version of Regionalism: Selling out Dallas to the 'Burbs

In his speech last week endorsing a new highway in the Trinity River flood zone, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings threw down a gauntlet. It was sort of a buried line. I guess not everybody heard it. I did.

He said at one point, "I'm a regionalist," and then he said of people who oppose his view, "For those that feel that way and don't want the city to grow, I can clearly state, I am not your mayor and you may not feel comfortable in Dallas over the long haul because we are going to grow."

Check me on this. But was that not "my way or the highway?" For my two bits worth, I'm glad he said it. It was maybe the only sincere moment in an otherwise an entirely predictable exercise in fake objectivity.

But, wait. What's wrong with being regional? We live in a region, right? Isn't thinking about the whole region the rational thing to do?

Sure. It would be in heaven. But that's not how it works on this particular planet.

Rudy Bush has a great story in today's Dallas Morning News detailing the fakery and stage-management of the mayor's decision to strongly back building high-speed multilane toll road through a park, walling off downtown Dallas from a waterfront that is the city's only major natural feature. Bush pretty much proves that the mayor, prodded by the city manager and others, decided to end a long silence and endorse the toll road plan, then ginned up a fake outreach on Facebook and even took toll road opponent Angela Hunt to dinner so he could argue he had looked at life from all sides now.

I was struck by another buried line. Bush said the first thing City Manager Mary Suhm did, in her effort to get Rawlings to endorse the inside-the-levees route, was facilitate "meetings with Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Texas Council of Governments."

Bush reports: "Morris has made no secret of his support for the road. In 2007, he got permission from the Regional Transportation Council to step beyond his role as a staff member and advocate directly for the road."

Michael who? From the what? Ah, please allow me to introduce you to a planner -- a real one, in the real world, the way "planning" really works.

I've met Morris a few times and spoken to him on the phone. He's very bright and a pleasant enough person. But he's a hammer. He's a campaigner, an advocate, sometimes on some very iffy ground.

Morris works for the North Central Texas Council of Governments. NCTCOG is a metropolitan planning organization, created under federal law to see that transportation money gets spent in a so-called rational fashion. I say so-called, because when was money or politics ever rational?

When the rubber meets the road, Morris is often at the wheel. He was a central figure in efforts to derail Richard Allen's inland port project in southern Dallas -- a topic now at the center of a major FBI corruption probe.

In 2007, when the toll-road-inside-the-levees idea went to voters, Morris hit the hustings like he was Huey Long promising "roads and highways" to the people of Louisiana in 1928.

So if he's a planner and he's planning for the whole region, what's wrong with him getting out there and huckstering for votes with everybody else? Nothing, if we're all willing to concede that planners and advocates are different things.

Morris is sent forth into the political marketplace to sell one point of view over another. So why should anyone believe him when he takes off his huckster hat and tries to squeeze himself back onto his white lab coat as a so-called scientific planner?

Which brings us back to this whole regionalism business. In the 1970s and early '80s, the mayors of Dallas were real estate guys among the very biggest suburban raw-land housing developers. In those years the old Dallas establishment essentially disinvested from the city and reinvested in sprawl.

The worst news those folks ever got was in a speech delivered four years ago to a luncheon meeting of the Downtown Dallas Association by Brookings Institution/University of Michigan scholar and author Christopher Leinberger. He presented objective evidence that the location premium for land -- the extra amount people will pay to be in a certain place -- has inverted in Dallas and in the nation.

People will now pay more to be in the inner city and less to be in the suburbs. Oops. Looks like the old Dallas moneybags have got their eggs in the wrong basket.

If you look closely at the so-called regionalism being flogged by Michael Morris, it's really all about trying to reverse or at least stave off that back-to-the-city trend. How? By using a rich but arcane planning entity to steer coveted federal dollars into projects that are pro-sprawl and anti-urban.

If people want walkable urban venues, then the last thing they want is to bring more cars into or through their neck of the woods. In fact, as the new urbanists are fond of saying, "congestion is our friend."

Traffic jams force people out of their cars and onto the sidewalks or public transportation. Smoothly flowing multiple lanes of vehicular traffic are actually the city's enemy -- the lifeline that keeps sprawl alive.

What Rawlings said last week goes way beyond the matter of the toll road. He effectively listed himself in the army of sprawl, against the interest of the city.

Of course he masked his purposes by saying that he's in favor of growth. That's what they always say. We need more highways so the city can grow.

But more highways do not grow the city. They grow the suburbs and choke the city. They are an attempt to use government money and fake central planning to intervene in the natural market, as revealed by Leinberger, to preserve the interests of a few moneybags who have their eggs in the wrong basket. In other words, this kind of "regionalism," aided and abetted by fake planners like Morris, is an exercise in Sovietology.

The larger trend is for the city to stop serving as a doormat to the suburbs and defend its own unique interests. What we need is true competition -truly urban venues versus truly ex-urban, and then let people vote with their feet.

Rawlings has made his decision. It's the wrong one for the city, flying in the face of long-term reality. It saddens me to say this, because I know these are all good men, but I fear Rawlings and Morris and the crows on a wire who gathered to hear his speech at City Hall last week "may not feel comfortable in Dallas over the long haul."