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After Lies, Lies and More Lies, Trinity Road Supporters Ask, Where's the Trust?

By the way and for what it's worth, I am aware that I have been talking about nothing but the Trinity toll road for about a month, and I promise that I am on the verge of checking myself in for a toll road detox. Temporary detox. But here's the thing. The Trinity toll road story is the story of life itself.

You've got this loved one or this colleague, business partner, longtime neighbor, someone important to you whom you would dearly love to trust. It would be so nice to be able to trust this person, if for no other reason than that then you might be able to stop hearing about the person's issues.

But. Every single time you have tried to trust the person in the past, in fact almost as soon as you decided the person might not be lying to you this time, you turned back around and there it was: The person's pants were already on fire.

So. I refuse to dredge back through the entire list of lies that have been foisted off on us over two decades about the highway they want to build along the Trinity River through middle of the city, and I won't do it for two reasons. 1) It's too depressing. 2) It makes us look like idiots. I'm not up for getting depressed right now. I already understand that I have been an idiot.

So I will talk about only -- almost only -- the most recent instance, the one going on right now. We are now being asked to trust the powers behind the toll road project when they tell us they are going to hurriedly modify the project so that it won't harm in any way the large urban park we're supposed to be building along the river cheek by jowl with the road. I attended a debate a couple weeks ago in which former Dallas City Council member Craig Holcomb was positively heart-rending in his pleas for trust. It was a soulful, hand-holding, tear-stained, Thanksgiving Day dinner table, why-can't-we-go-back-to-the-way-it-was moment.

I've known Holcomb since he and I were young, which means I have known him since before home computers. He was a stand-up guy when he was on the council in the early 1980s, defending neighborhoods against the ravages of the road-building urban sprawlers. I sincerely want to trust Craig Holcomb.

Their promise is this: that an ad hoc team of out-of-town architects and urban planners put together recently by the mayor will come up quickly with a way for this proposed six- to 10-lane highway to be jammed into the floodway between the levees along the river in some clever fashion so that will not harm or diminish the promised park in any way. I really want to believe that. Then we could all shut up and get it done.


Last March the Federal Highway Administration (FHWA) published a final environmental impact statement on the toll road that was widely misconstrued in the media and by many local officials, mainly because it was so broadly misstated by the FHWA (the pants are not quite on fire yet, just smoldering). The FHWA said in its document that under normal circumstances its policies would not allow approval of the road, but the FHWA was approving it anyway because of "a unique set of factors." Those factors were misunderstood here as having to do with how badly we supposedly want this road, no matter what.

See also: A Simple Plan for Redesigning the Trinity Toll Road: Don't Build It

Nah. Our wanting it was not the factor that in fact forced the FHWA to approve this road. The FHWA had to approve it because six years ago former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert talked former U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison into getting the road exempted from key provisions of federal law -- specifically the part of the 1966 U.S. Department of Transportation Act that protects parks from being damaged by highways.

In 2010 when Republicans were filibustering President Obama's defense spending bills -- when defense bills were hard-fought battles in the congress, in other words -- Leppert persuaded Hutchison to do some last-minute legislative sleight-of-hand with a defense spending bill that was about to finally get passed. She stuck two "riders" on that bill, provisions of little interest to anybody outside of Dallas, which received scant news coverage even here except in this newspaper. http://www.dallasobserver.com/2010-07-01/news/senator-kay-bailey-hutchison-took-a-meat-axe-to-federal-law-to-get-the-mayor-his-toll-road-but-did-she-even-think-about-the-consequences/

Those riders said the Trinity River in Dallas was exempt from Section 4(f) of the act. A current U.S. Department of Transportation online publication explains that the FHWA is required by Section 4(f) to put "a thumb on the scale" in favor of park land wherever a highway touches a park, either by running along its edge or by cutting through its middle. Proponents can't merely argue that a route that harms park land is the cheapest alternative, and, in fact, the FHWA must seriously consider any alternative that would spare the park.

That is the law everywhere in America but in Dallas and along the Trinity River, thanks to Hutchison and Leppert. At the time, Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm said the exemption was only for impacts to historic sites (as if that were a good thing). But we quoted people saying her statement was untrue, that the effect of the riders was so broad that they denuded the toll road project of all of the protective requirements of Section 4(f).

The truth (pants starting to smoke now) is in a series of letters traded back and forth between Texas officials and FHWA officials in Washington in 2011 as the FHWA was closing in on its impact statement for the road. In a January 20, 2011, letter, Melissa A. Neely at the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) asks the FHWA to acknowledge that the Trinity toll road is exempt from all of the protections of 4(f):

"We request concurrence from FHWA that section 4(f) does not apply to the Trinity Parkway and therefore, a Section 4(f) evaluation is not required for potential impacts to any public parks, recreation areas, wildlife or waterfowl refuges, and historic sites of national, state or local significance where the Trinity Parkway project is concerned. We are requesting confirmation of this finding in writing ..."

Wait. Smoke on that for a moment. Unlike the rest of America, Dallas can jam its toll road through parks, recreation areas, game refuges, bird sanctuaries and any and all types of historic sites, and the feds can say nothing about it.

Three days later the FHWA district engineer, Salvador Deocampo, writes back in a tone I would translate as, "You gotta be kidding me." He objects that the state's letter is too vague about the area in question and the conditions that are involved. He concludes, "Please provide us with a revised letter that addresses our comments presented above."

After that for a period of months, Deocampo appears to be no longer in the loop. Letters fly back and forth between various agencies -- local agencies including the North Texas Tollway Authority pulling hard for the bareback no-protection position for the toll road -- and finally a full year after Deocampo's first letter, he's back with a second one on January 23, 2012. This one cries uncle:

"For the proposed Trinity Parkway project," Deocampo writes, "we concur that the requirements of section 4(f) do not apply ..." He goes on and lists all of the bird sanctuaries and wildlife refuges and other great stuff that Dallas can legally wreck to get its toll road built.

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I know I promised at the top of this thing not to dredge back through old heartaches, but there is one I need to resurrect. When the Trinity River project was first being assembled as a ballot issue for voters in 1998, Hutchison's late husband, bond lawyer Ray Hutchison, did some important legal work on it. Opponents were objecting that the proposed ballot language violated Texas law by lumping together a bunch of unrelated stuff, so voters were unable to vote on each part of the program separately. Hutchison persuaded the Texas attorney general that all of the elements of the project were so tightly bonded at the hip that you just couldn't possibly break them apart. To do any of it, you had to do all of it exactly as laid out.

After the bond program passed, the city immediately wanted to start shifting money around so it could spend more on the road, less on the promised park. They hired Hutchison again. He argued successfully for the city that it was perfectly OK for the city to pull the program's elements apart, do some of them and not do others. He also argued successfully that the city was not legally bound by any of the campaign promises it had made to voters about exactly how the program would be carried out.

Takes me back to that debate a couple weeks ago when Craig Holcomb has got me just about ready to break out in big honking snot-blowing sobs and run up on the stage and hug him and say, "YES, CRAIG! YES! I TRUST YOU! NOW WILL YOU PLEASE SHUT UP?"

But I know. I know that they have invested years, huge sums of money and untold political clout to guarantee their ability to make blubbering fools of us all. My own modest ambition now is that I will be allowed to shuffle off this mortal coil at some point with some tiny shred of self-respect intact, some rag of dignity that I have managed to hide from the Trinity toll road boosters, a small secret pocket of my soul left un-fleeced. But the jury of life is still out on that one. And I smell fire.

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