Strangest thing. I believe I’ve told you in previous years that I am annually privileged to attend the luncheon of Trinity Commons, the Trinity toll road booster group. I get to go because a generous member of the board has a robust sense of humor.
Imagine my surprise last Friday when I attended the annual toll road booster luncheon and heard all kinds of boosting — boosting and boosting and boosting! — but not a single mention of the toll road.
It was like Thanksgiving dinner with a family whose daughter was recently sent to prison — lots of talk about the perfect turkey, great stories about when the kids were little, interesting facts about the new tractor, but not a single mention of poor Jenny, languishing in the big house. Well, in this case, 6 feet under, actually.
At last year’s Trinity Commons Trinity toll road booster luncheon, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings said the toll road was the most important project in the city’s entire history, and he would do or die to get it done. This year, when the mayor spoke, two words were notable for never once crossing his lips: toll and road.
Oh, that’s right! It’s dead. In the intervening time between last year’s Trinity toll road booster luncheon and this one, the Dallas City Council took the toll road out back of City Hall and put a bullet in its head. Killed it. Deep-sixed it. Voted to make it gone.
But shouldn’t there still have been at least a moment of silence? I would think a big room full of people who had passionately boosted the toll road project for 20 years would want to be afforded at least a brief opportunity to put their fedoras on their hearts and snuffle.
I did notice they had new signs up this year saying cameras and recording were not allowed. I thought, “Oh, gosh. Is that just for me?” So I took some pictures and turned on my recorder.
At one point, I looked across my table to former Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt, who, more than any other person in the city, was responsible for killing the toll road. And rather than drag you back through the multitudinous powerful arguments against building a multilane expressway in a flood zone between levees, please let me refer you to the photograph above, which I took on my way to the luncheon. Enough said?
I sort of bent my ear out with one finger and did my eyebrows up and down to Hunt. She bent her ear and did her eyebrows back. Yeah, that’s what I thought. Something missing at the booster lunch!
How can you have a Trinity Commons Trinity toll road booster luncheon and not even mention the toll road? Isn’t that like a National Rifle Association luncheon where nobody brings up guns? I mean, I realize that the Dear Departed is no longer with us, but this is her birthday party. There could be a mention at least:
“Good Old Toll Road, may she rest in peace.”
Even I felt sorry for the toll road. Somewhere in the part of the afterlife where incredibly stupid infrastructure projects go when they finally get killed, thank God, the poor old toll road must have been thinking, “Thanks a lot, you fickle bastards.”
And yes, they are a bit fickle. After less than a year of grieving, apparently they already have a new sweetheart about whom they are just booster-booster crazy. At first when Rawlings spoke, I foolishly assumed he was still talking about the old girlfriend. I remembered that at last year’s luncheon he called the toll road the most important infrastructure project in the history of the city, and it seemed to me Friday he was headed off on the same toot.
Speaking to an assemblage of several hundred lifelong toll road boosters in a ballroom at the Hilton Anatole, the mayor said, “I have said from day one I believe this particular capital project that’s going to happen in the city of Dallas in the 21st century, when we get this project done and what it’s going to mean for this city, is remarkable.”
I thought, “Oh, my God, has no one told the man?”
But as he continued to speak, I realized this wasn’t the old most important project in the history of the city he was going on about. He was talking about the new most important project in the history of the city — the fancy new park the group wants to build all of a sudden down between the flood control levees where the toll road was supposed to go. (If you don’t mind, please take another quick gander at my photo.)
There are at least two competing concepts in play for what to do with the Trinity River bottom now that the City Council in its wisdom has elected not to turn it over to the glug-glug-glug world’s dumbest underwater zombie toll road. One concept, which seems to have generated enthusiasm among nature groups like the Audubon Society, is to allow the river bottom to return to as natural a state as possible.
This idea, sometimes called the rewilding of the Trinity, has three main arguments going for it. One, no one knows what Dallas looked like before it got paved with parking lots and strip shopping malls, so it might be interesting to see. Two, a 10,000-acre nature preserve in the center of a major city would be unique in the world and might even finally give Dallas a distinctive character of its own at long last. Three, please look at photo.
The other idea — and apparently the new girlfriend of the former toll road boosters — involves hiring the architect who designed Brooklyn Bridge Park in New York to do something like that for us here in the Trinity River bottoms. Brooklyn Bridge Park definitely has a lot of great stuff in it, all very manmade and expensively put together. One problem would be the photo. The other issue would be why Dallas wants to be like Brooklyn.
But the mayor was fairly open in addressing both of those questions. First, he made a great point of identifying and honoring the rich ladies at the head table Friday who used to be big boosters of the toll road and now are big boosters of the fancy Brooklyn park between the levees:
“This all started,” he said, “with a historic gift by the [Harold] Simmons family of $50 million.” Then, referring to a special private “government” structure [oxymoron alert] created to get the Brooklyn Trinity River park built, the mayor said, “We will make sure that this government structure is in place to speak both on behalf of the citizens of Dallas but work closely in making sure that it is built the way that Miss [Annette] Simmons and other funders will want to make sure it happens.”
Sitting at the head table were two rich ladies, Dee Dee Rose and Mary McDermott Cook, who played principal parts in bringing us the two Santiago Calatrava make-believe suspension bridges across the Trinity downtown, certainly the most absurdly overexpensive and fundamentally misbegotten public infrastructure projects in the history of the city, possibly in the history of the world.
With a significant tip of his hand to them, the mayor signaled that these two, along with Annette Simmons, are the people he intends to keep most happy, not that the rest of us might not catch some small leftovers of minor happiness as well.
Of the two Calatravas, we have been discussing the Margaret McDermott Bridge here more recently. It is the one where two Calatrava-designed arches were appended to the sides of a regular concrete state highway bridge, doubling the cost, to make it look like a suspension bridge. To justify spending $115 million on decor, the arches were given the supposed job of carrying dual pedestrian and bicycle lane across the river.
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To save money on the arches, the new head of the city department in charge of the project — the first ever non-engineer in the post — agreed to skip some silly old stress tests on the cables that hold up the bike lanes. Now, more than a half-year after the bicycle bridges were to open, no one will certify them as safe because the cables holding them up have demonstrated a bad tendency to snap in the wind.
And gosh, I really hate to ask this, but would you mind just one more peek at the photo? Here is why I keep harping on it. If you look at that photograph, what you really see — what I saw when I took it — is something magnificent. Surging past all of mankind’s trivial interference is a great force of nature, vastly more powerful and awe-inspiring than anything human beings can do, say, design, build or pay for. And I don't mean the bike-share bikes in the water.
When I surveyed the crowd at the luncheon, I saw a lot of people who mean well and want to do the right thing. They just need to go down to that river and look at it more often. I honestly believe if they would allow themselves to be filled with the magic and power of the river, they might get over their own magic and power a little bit.
And here’s the great thing. Right now, the Brooklyn Trinity River Park in their minds is the most important project in the history of Dallas. But if we took a pass on it, next year they could have a new most important project in the history of Dallas, and I’d get to go to their lunch again and record them and take pictures.