Key Opponent to Tearing Down I-345 Likes to Keep the Race Card Up His Sleeve

This morning, Eric posted an item here with a particular quote that I just could not let pass. Eric saw through the quoted statements immediately, so I guess I'm just piling on. His story was about remarks made recently to The Dallas Morning News by a powerful regional transportation planner who not very subtly accused opponents on a road issue of elitism and racism. I need to remind us all of the last time this same guy did this same thing.

See also: Transportation Planners Hesitant to Tear Down I-345, Because Poor People

Michael Morris, the head highway person for the regional agency that divvies up state and federal transportation money in this part of Texas, characterized people he saw at a meeting recently who were advocating the demolition of a downtown Dallas elevated freeway: "They were all white," Morris told the News, "they were very wealthy, and I don't think any of them live in the neighborhood."

This is about tearing down an elevated portion of something called I-345, which I think of as the lower end of Central Expressway where it crosses the eastern end of downtown near Baylor and then hooks up with Interstate 30. The elevated roadway there creates one of those deep-shadowed, trash-blown no-man's lands, the curse wrought by elevated freeways everywhere, because that kind of dead zone acts as an absolute barrier to walkable development. Urban advocate Patrick Kennedy and Morning News architecture critic Mark Lamster both have made eloquent persuasive arguments for tearing down that portion of freeway. They say it would open the way for a multi-billion dollar reinvestment and development surge linking Deep Ellum with downtown Dallas.

Kennedy and Lamster bring an important perspective to the local discourse, but I can't help pointing out that what they are saying is not exactly a groundbreaking concept. In fact serious research shows that tearing down elevated freeways generally has had strong positive effects on development without any notably bad effect on transportation.

Morris is the transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments (don't feel bad, nobody else has ever heard of them, either). He is an old-fashioned road guy -- a big proponent of building an elevated freeway on top of the Trinity River, for example -- and, really, that's OK. Somebody's gotta be the road guy. To an old-fashioned road advocate, tearing down a perfectly good freeway is anathema. We can all get that. It's kind of like being against concussions in professional football. For die-hard fans, professional football without life-threatening injuries is like O'Doul's, all of the bloating and none of the fun. Same thing with elevated freeways -- the higher, the better.

Being in favor of elevated freeways and against tearing them down is Morris' business, literally. I'm not talking about that. This is about a particular reflex Morris has shown in the past and is showing again now in a search for political traction -- playing the race card. Morris' clear suggestion to the News was that a bunch of rich white people want to tear down I-345 for their own amusement, callous to the hardship they would wreak on the black neighborhoods at the other end of that road.

The last time Morris weighed in on the race issue was five years ago, after the powerful Perot family declared that an immense proposed rail, trucking and warehousing center in southern Dallas County called "The Inland Port" or "Dallas Logistics Hub," if realized, would comprise a direct competitive threat to the Perot-controlled Alliance Airport and logistics center in Fort Worth. A newcomer to Dallas might have assumed that Dallas officials, the local daily newspaper and especially leadership in southern Dallas would have stood up and cheered for that, since the only threat ever mentioned in connection with southern Dallas since Reconstruction had been the threat of unemployment and bitter poverty.

John Ellis Price, vice chancellor of the University of North Texas-Dallas, described the projected impact of the project in a speech to local leaders back then: "The 6,000-acre master plan with 60 million square feet of distribution, manufacturing, office and retail development is slated to become one of the biggest economic engines for northern Texas," he said.

"The Dallas Logistics Hub is projected to create 31,000 new direct jobs, plus 32,000 new indirect jobs," Price told them. "The hub also expects to increase the tax base for the municipalities of Dallas, Lancaster, Wilmer and Hutchins by $2.4 billion. The economic impact of the facility, construction and employment for operations within the hub from 2006 to 2035 is projected to be $68.85 billion dollars."

But instead of cheering the launch, local leaders went to work drilling holes in the hull. In fact what the saga of the Inland Port revealed was that North Texas is ruled by powerful families much more than by communities or even formal institutions of government. The competing Perot logistics development may be in Fort Worth, but Perot influence and power are keenly felt in Dallas where they live. Instead of cheering the project, key local Dallas officials joined the editorial board and reporting staff of The Dallas Morning News in attacking and sabotaging the Dallas project. All of that is now the focus of a multi-year FBI investigation.

Michael Morris joined the fray back then with gusto, telling the Morning News he was very disappointed with the racial attitudes of Richard Allen, a California developer and industrialist who was the driving force behind the Dallas development. Morris said he had lectured Allen and his people about race but to no avail: "I said, 'Be sensitive to minority contracting.' They seemed very naïve about it, to my surprise. I think they had no sensitivity to this subject. I don't think to this day he [Allen] understands why minority firms should be used."

The biggest problem with that characterization was that it was untrue. On major projects already underway in Dallas, Allen's minority participation rate was 55 percent. A major locally owned firm also participating on some of those same projects, never once singled out by Morris for criticism, was running a minority participation rate of 4.9 percent. Morris' own employer, the North Texas Council of Whatever, had a stated goal of 13 percent for minority participation on its own projects, so Allen was beating Morris at his own game by more than four times.

What is more, the minute the topic of minority participation was broached to Allen, he provided Dallas officials with names and phone numbers of mayors, city council persons, members of Congress and other minority leaders all over the United States with whom he had done business. He promised not to call them himself ahead of time and asked officials here to contact them and inquire about his record on racial matters. As far as Allen could tell, not a single name on that list was ever contacted.

If you don't recall Morris and the North Central Council of Whatever as major players in civil rights matters or huge champions of minority rights, I urge you to trust your lack of memory. Morris does weigh in on those issues once every five years or so, probably when he thinks most people have forgotten the last time, but only as an exercise in crass manipulation and cynicism. It tends to work for him.