Basic Dallas Dilemma Is Still Whether to Fix the Toilet or Park a BMW Out Front

Two recent city documents to call to your attention: 1) showing that we have spent almost $610 million so far on the Trinity River project, which is mainly unbuilt, and 2) showing that we need to spend $121 million, which we supposedly don’t have, just to stop our terrible street system from falling apart even worse.

Both are below.

Think of the Trinity River project — with its “signature” bridge designed by a Spanish architect and its white water feature that nobody can use because it was so poorly designed – as a shiny new BMW convertible parked in the driveway in front of our condo for everyone to see. Now think about our decaying street system. That’s a toilet we have to flush with a bucket.

The BMW parked outside and the malfunctioning plumbing inside together make a statement about the values of the kind of people who have had their hands on the levers of power at Dallas City Hall for decades. They would rather have toilets that won’t work — I suspect they would rather shoot themselves — than not have a car that makes them look rich.

I don’t believe for a minute that those are the values of the vast middle and working classes of people who really live in our neighborhoods, as opposed to people who live in the wealthy enclave communities of Highland Park and University Park. In the Park Cities, sure: rather than drive a 5-year-old Hyundai to raise the money for new plumbing, he’ll use the backyard.

But we in the city have been trying to elect somebody who would fix the damn streets since 2002. When Laura Miller ran for mayor that year on a platform of basic restoration of infrastructure, she was mocked and derided as “Mayor Pothole” by the old guard money, as spoken for by groups like the private Dallas Citizens Council.

Everybody I knew — homeowners and renters in houses and apartments all over the city — was saying, “Damn right, Mayor Pothole! Exactly what we need.” And she soundly beat the Citizens Council candidate. But nothing changed, and not for Miller’s want of trying.

Then as now, the Citizens Council BMW-in-the-driveway types presented their own agenda as a kind of holy obligation on a par with matrimony. Now we hear the same arguments. Yes, the city swore to voters in 1998 that the Trinity River project would never cost more than $246 million. Yes, last time we checked, $610 million is more than $246 million.

But we can’t stop sluicing cash into it now! We’ve made promises. We have obligations. Look at the money we’ve got invested in it already. We’ve got to go on pouring the money in. What if someone sees the BMW out there with duct tape over the vent window? We’ll all have to shoot ourselves. Won’t we?

No. Most of the so-called obligations in the Trinity River project are all obligations made by insiders to insiders, most of them involved in public works construction, all of whom stand to make money. The people citing the obligations are the ones who will profit from the obligations.

Here’s a question I have been asking around town for years, at first because I was genuinely curious, now just because I like to embarrass people. Let’s say I’m a big public works construction company. I see that the majority of the people in the city don’t want to do that Trinity River stuff anymore. They want to fix the city’s streets, its sewers, its traffic lights, its waste disposal. They want to get the house in order and forget about the car on the curb.

Yes, they are boring. No, they are not glamorous. No, there will never be a movie about them. But, yes, they happen to be the backbone of the nation, and they have sense.

So why wouldn’t I, the big construction company, tell my people to forget about the big glam signature blah-blah deal on the river and get us into street construction? As it happens, there is an answer to that question. I have received it consistently over the years from people who would know.

Street repairs and even reconstruction are little company deals. Because of the way the work is done, piece by piece, because of the way the bidding works, all out in the daylight, because the public can watch it and understand what’s going on, basic infrastructure jobs tend to get shared out evenly among lots of smaller companies.

It would be almost impossible for three or four gigantic construction companies to get the inside line and control all of street rebuilding in the city. The big guys like to do those huge “design-build” things, which means, “Give us the keys to the treasury and then go away.” They want to keep the public money in one big pot that they can control.

Maybe that all sounds very Chinatown and difficult to access or alter, but not really. It’s really just cultural, based on who runs the city and what basic social values they carry in their hearts.

Rich, thin-skinned pretentious people obsessed with appearances will always spend the last drop on appearances. They will be aided and abetted by the kind of business interests who go for great big unitary projects distant from the eyes, the quotidian concerns and the know-how of the masses.

Another kind of people are trying to build strong communities with good streets, water and sewers that work, reliable energy delivery, good communications, strong public health. That kind of people simply have to get their own elected leaders into office and then tell them. That’s really all it takes.

We’re going to get the BMW towed. We’re going to fix the damned toilet. And that’s how we’re going to live. We’re not going to talk about this anymore.

You know who we really need down there? Mayor Commode.

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