After We Bury the Trinity Toll Road, Let's Get Rid of the Liars Who Sold It

There's a power-story making the rounds — I just heard it for the first time a couple weeks ago — about why people in the business community are changing their minds on the Trinity River toll road. It goes like this:

"Oh, no, Angela Hunt was not right. Absolutely not. When she opposed the toll road in 2007, she was dead wrong. But opposing the toll road now is the right thing to do because the facts on the ground have changed."

So let's lay down a few markers here. Nothing has changed about the toll road. If built today, a 10-lane highway between flood control levees along the Trinity River downtown would have exactly the same physical impact it would have had in 2007 when Hunt launched a citywide referendum to get the road out from between the levees. It would be a massive barrier between downtown and the river, then and now.

The aching lack of money to build the road — a deficit somewhere in the unmeasured low billions — is the same today as it was then. Nobody knows, except billions.

The picture of a beautiful urban park with large man-made lakes and white-water streams — a vision borrowed from Colorado — was as physically and fiscally absurd then as it is now.

The question now about the toll road is not who was right then and who's right now. The question is who were the liars and who were the truth-tellers.

Lying is the important issue — even more important than the project itself — because the people who lied then will continue to lie in the future. The important reality is that they are liars. They were liars when this project started. They are still liars. They will continue to lie about this project and about anything else when they think lies will get them what they want.

The Trinity River project and especially the toll road element of it have importance far beyond the questions intrinsic to the project itself. As we begin to realize what has been said and what has been done and what has been spent, we must lift our eyes up from the details and gaze into the eyes of the people who have pushed this project at us for 17 years. They will look away and mumble. That's a promise.

Where to begin?

In 2004 D Magazine published a special edition, fat with ads from the public works construction lobby, presenting the official vision of the Trinity River Project: "... the Trinity River will accommodate small sailboats and paddle boats. More interestingly, a reverse-flow lake is planned with a 17-foot drop where it curves back to the river, creating rapids and a perfect white-water course for winter kayaking competitions ...

"But the most visible benefit will be on the Oak Cliff side, which will have easy access to downtown, great views and — most important of all — along the levee, direct entry into the country's largest urban park."

None of that was ever in the $246 million Trinity River project plan approved by voters, even though voters were told it was. None of it was there. Ever. All of the features described in that magazine — repeated hypnotically for years in speeches and slideshows all over the city by all of the project's many hucksters — were in a different plan. That other plan never had an official name, so I must invent one for it here: "The Trinity River Project if We Had Another $700 Million Plan."

I'm not pulling the $700 million out of the air. It was the number actually cited in a document that the city did post on a very back page of its website for several years. I was unable to find it last week when I looked. The document listed in detail all of those wonderful features hawked to the public in D Magazine and their attendant costs. But it also included a fact never mentioned in the public presentations — that there was no money for them. They were "unfunded."

They were lies. They were lies in 2004. They are lies today. The difference between D Magazine and the people still hawking these lies is that D and its publisher have recognized their error and admitted it. They were just wrong. The rest of them were liars back then and still are today.

One of the biggest liars about the toll road then was Mayor Tom Leppert. He said repeatedly that he was "comfortable" with assurances he said he had received from the North Texas Tollway Authority that the NTTA would pick up the financing of the toll road along the river. He was "comfortable" with the NTTA's promise, he said, that Dallas would never be asked to kick in another nickel beyond its original $84 million contribution.

At some point in the month preceding the 2007 election, NTTA board chairman Paul Wageman gave information to Dallas Morning News transportation writer Michael A. Lindenberger indicating he had given Leppert no such assurance. Wageman told Lindenberger that projected tolls on the road might fund a total construction cost of $1.29 billion, but with estimates already ranging up close to $2 billion, Wageman said the NTTA would have to ask Dallas to contribute more money to make a go of it.

The News suppressed that story until the day after the votes were counted in the 2007 referendum in which voters narrowly upheld the plan to build the toll road between the levees.

Leppert's continued assurances that the NTTA had pledged full funding for the road were lies. The Morning News' suppression of that story until after the election enabled the lie.

At a League of Women Voters debate before the referendum, Leppert told an audience that all of the environmental, flood control and engineering questions about the project had already been answered satisfactorily and positively by the relevant government agencies: "The reality of it is, as I said, that both the Army Corps of Engineers, TxDOT and the NTTA have studied this.

"They say it's safe. They say it's environmentally sensitive, and they say it's economically viable. All three of those, and they're the experts, we have acknowledged them as being the experts on this, every single one of them has said this is viable and it works. It can be done. There's no reason not to believe it [can be] done."

As soon as the election was over, spokespersons for the Corps of Engineers began making it clear that none of the approvals had been granted and that Leppert had received no such guarantees. In fact as the study and approval process ground on in years to come, the enormity of Leppert's lie — that it was already all done in 2007 — grew like Pinocchio's nose.

In 2011, apparently feeling they had to say something, Leppert and other toll road promoters including Mary Kay Senior Vice President Michael Lunceford issued a clarification: "Clearly, some bureaucrats within our project partners voiced concerns in emails," they said in an op-ed piece in the News. "But ultimately, none of those partners have concluded that the tollway is unsafe or unachievable."

Let's see if we can parse that one. We weren't lying to the voters in 2007 when we said all of the government agencies had already assured us of their approval of the project, because none of them, in fact, had told us they weren't going to approve it.

Perhaps a metaphor is in order: I did not lie in 2007 when I told you that my mother-in-law would give you a check for $6,700 for your Chevrolet, because in fact my mother-in-law had not told me that she would not give you such a check.

That's when you sock the guy in the face and peel off his watch. Not that I am recommending you do so.

One of the consistent stories told to successive city councils over the last 15 years was that Dallas had signed a deal with the NTTA to develop the toll road. According to this story, Dallas was legally bound by that deal until released from it by the NTTA.

It was always a screwy story, in part because the deal the city signed with the NTTA had all kinds of optional steps in it in the future, especially elements the City Council could decide to fund or not fund. But past city attorneys have told councils their hands were tied: Because an earlier council had signed the overarching deal, future councils had to vote to keep it going.

But, wait. Why do they call it "voting?"

An important underlying principle of democratic governance is that a legislative body cannot bind future bodies to future deals. Otherwise we would still have slavery. For example. And finally last week in response to a pointed request from council member Scott Griggs, a lawyer, current City Attorney Warren Ernst produced an opinion in which he conceded the council could get out of the toll road deal at any time by voting to do so.

The story that it was somehow illegal or a breach for Dallas to change its mind on an unbuilt, unfunded and still unapproved highway project was a lie.

The larger lesson of the Trinity River project is that the people who huckstered it to voters over the years were liars. They are liars today — a leadership of liars. Sure, we need to get rid of the toll road project. But more important and more urgently, we need to get rid of the liars.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze