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At Dallas Mayoral Debate, Voters Seem Wide Awake at Last to the Trinity Toll Road Con

Guess what. To my own absolute amazement, that stupid toll road -- you know the one! -- turns out to be the one thing people want to hear about in this election. Otherwise, they're asleep.

Typical timing for me. I had just gotten to the point where the words, "Trinity River toll road" were like a triple dose of Ambien for me. Whenever I heard them I felt really sleepy, but I also had a powerful urge to drive out and set the airport on fire.

Couple weeks ago I reported that Mayor Mike Rawlings wouldn't debate the proposed toll road along the Trinity River through downtown. He said it wasn't on the ballot in the upcoming May City Hall elections. I knew that wouldn't hold. It sounded fishy.

See also: Mayor Mike Rawlings Is Refusing to Debate the Trinity Toll Road, and That's Weird

By that token, you could dodge debating anything. Economy? Sorry, not on ballot. Cops? Same problem. Rhode Island-sized meteor projected to strike Dallas January 15 at 3:46:21 p.m.? Mmm, don't see that here.

The not-on-ballot thing was a dodge. Obviously. And it didn't last long. Within days, Rawlings' peeps had talked to Robert Wilonsky at The Dallas Morning News who helped "clarify" the mayor's message with a quote:

"Of course, of course, of course I will be glad to address it," the mayor told Wilonsky, "but the debates need to be about who should be your mayor, not the single topic. That's not on the ballot. That's what I told Jim."

OK. Let's leave it at that. Because guess what? In order to run for office, the mayor can't avoid running into his opponent in the May election, lawyer Marcos Ronquillo, and Ronquillo is going to bring it up every time.

Before a mainly African-American business and professional audience last week at the African American Museum, Rawlings tried to keep things focused on those two traditional staples of civic discourse in Dallas -- how to fix the potholes and whether we're a world-class city yet. It's the old Dallas Citizens Council one-two political punch -- 1) put 'em to sleep, 2) give 'em delusions.

"Our streets are terrible," Rawlings told the audience. "We've spent 33 percent more in the last four years on streets, but we've got to make some tough calls.

"The question is, we need your help," he said. "What are we going to take money from so we can put money to?"

Before he could go on, he was interrupted by calls from the audience:

"The toll road!"

"The toll road!"

"I'll tell you this ..." he started again.

"The toll road, mayor!" they went on.

The very next day at a luncheon in the tony downtown Belo Mansion, Rawlings and Ronquillo confronted each other again on the toll road issue. That event was put on by the Dallas Bar Association. It was another business and professional crowd, but the audience this day was bigger and more ethnically diverse (more white people).

Maybe based on the night before, Rawlings massaged things a bit. Instead of starting off with wonkisms about traffic congestion, this time he made what was supposed to be a stirring speech about the wonders of the Great Trinity Forest and the need to preserve it. The audience sat on its hands.

Then Ronquillo took the stage. Ronquillo quoted from the 1998 ballot language (oh, boy, ballots) that authorized the whole Trinity River project in the first place:

He read from the ballot: "The issuance of $246 million general obligation Trinity River corridor funding bonds, the project to include, floodways, levees, waterways, open space, recreational amenities, the Trinity Parkway and related street improvements."

I was just starting to tilt forward in my chair with my mouth open when I was jolted awake by an unmistakable thrill of interest passing through the audience.

"Ladies and gentlemen," Ronquillo asked, "when is the last time we voted on a $1.8 billion six- to 10-lane, limited access toll road along the river? When's the last time we did that?"

For the first and only time in the hourlong event, the audience erupted in cheers and applause. And I sat up.

At both events, the audiences pretty much sat on their hands through technical discussions of the proposed toll road. Rawlings said traffic congestion is getting worse downtown and the toll road is the solution. Yawn. Ronquillo said congestion is getting better without the toll road and the toll road isn't the solution to congestion anyway. Yawn.

But they got off their hands and listened up whenever either candidate -- Ronquillo on purpose, Rawlings by accident -- moved in closer to one issue.

You told us it was a park.

It has taken 18 years for the city to sort that one out. They told us it was a park. They have continued to sell it as a park -- the nation's largest urban park along the Trinity River through downtown, to include a vast urban forest, athletic fields, lakes, trails.

A park. A very big beautiful park. That's what they said when they asked voters to give it their OK 17 years ago.

Then as soon as they got what they wanted -- our votes -- they said it was going to be a highway. And they started telling us why that was OK. Since 1998, any number of arguments have been floated in attempts to trim back the park and divert enthusiasm to the road.

The river is ugly anyway. There will be snakes. People in Dallas don't like parks. You need to stay in your house or your car. You could catch West Nile you know. You can have an eensy-beensy park.

Think how nice the road will be. There will be a new bridge over it. People can drive new cars on the new road under the new bridge. It will be newness. You are getting very very sleepy.

And I was. I know, I know, it seems to me, too, that I've devoted almost my entire life to technical arguments about this stupid toll road. But a few years ago I began to develop some kind of syndrome. My eyelids would get very droopy if people said certain coded phrases in my presence -- total car trips per hour, for example. If people said anything to me about water and cubic feet per second, I felt like I couldn't get home unless someone hurried up and stuck me with a syringe full of adrenaline. And I don't think I was the Lone Ranger.

But Ronquillo has found a new way to tap into a latent reservoir of intense feeling about the toll road, maybe by figuring out that the toll road issue isn't really about the toll road. I don't know if he has whittled his argument to a perfect point yet, but he's getting there.

The point is: You told us it was a park.

You could have some people who truly love the idea of a vast urban park and other people who are lukewarm. But once they see the bait and switch clearly, it's almost as if the park itself becomes secondary for all of them. It's not the park, really. It's that they told us it was a park.

They played us.

But is that all it is? We got suckered, so we're going to be resentful about it for the rest of our lives? That's not the full story, according to what I think I see Ronquillo evincing out there. It's more that there are serious things wrong with the city, because the city is still run by the kind of people who would want to play the city's citizens for suckers in the first place. Believe it or, that even comes full circle to potholes.

At the African American Museum, Rawlings wound up the evening on a strangely wistful note. "You guys know me," he said.

"You probably already have decided whether I'm a good mayor or a bad one. You really have. I just want to tell you this has been a great time in my life, because it is such a wonderful time in the city of Dallas.

"There's a lot more work to be done. What do we want to become? ... I believe that Dallas is already in the limelight of the United States of America, already out there on the world stage. And if we want to play at that level, I'm your mayor."

The audience clapped politely. Then it was Ronquillo's turn to sum up.

"We're at a crossroads in Dallas," he said. "It's not just the toll road. That's a symbol of the old way of doing business. I have a better way.

"It's not just the potholes. That's a symbol of how we have treated ourselves. I don't mind regionalism. But not at the expense of Dallas."

Loud sustained applause.

I'm sure I'm not the only one who has heard one too many technical details about the toll road, not the only one bored. But a lot of people out there are not at all bored -- in fact feel very intensely -- when the topic is framed instead as one of basic honesty and the will of the people.

Maybe the mayor unintentionally pointed us in the right direction. The ballot. If somebody wants a $1.8 million six- to 10-lane tolled expressway along the river, put it on the ballot.

Just like that. No trick wording. No sleight of hand. Give us a straight-up vote. Or is someone running this city who doesn't want us to have that choice? And how in the hell did that happen?

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