Can City Council Tell the Difference Between a Photo Op and a Hole in the Ground?

Drive around Dallas -- not the suburbs, Dallas -- and what do you see? You see a nice kind of new well-kept Dallas toward the northern end of the city, with a few glitches here and there. But anywhere south of Mockingbird you're likely to see a bunch of crapped-out streets and busted curbs. If you get into the really old parts of town like Old East Dallas, the curbs and gutters and sidewalks start looking post-apocalyptic.

Every once in a while somebody in one of the old parts of town will argue that the city is discriminating. Well, yeah. Well, not really. Maybe the city has devoted more resources toward new development in the far northern tiers and shorted the old neighborhoods in the process, but that was just how things developed.

Old is old. Old can be charming. But old can also be crappy. Old needs work.

And now push comes to shove on that. We are about to see exactly what the deal is. The city manager is telling the city council that they must spend $300 million digging a huge tunnel -- an underground river, in effect -- to carry rain water from big storms out of an old part of the city in East Dallas, Uptown and near downtown.

Oh, my. That's most of the money the city will be able to spend on anything for the next several years, and the council won't even get a new football stadium or a fake suspension bridge out of it. It's basically a sewer. What a lousy photo op that is.

You never know. Maybe they could reject the idea of tunneling and hire famed Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design it as a suspension sewer instead -- a huge 30-foot pipe hanging from delicately traced arches. Gail Thomas of the Dallas Institute could hire a bunch of native Americans or people who look like native Americans to come down from New Mexico and do a ceremony about giving the rain back to the sky. The council might get a pretty good photo op out of that.

But I don't think so. I think it's a $300 million sewer. It is the kind of basic infrastructure investment the city has to make in an old part of town if Dallas is not to abandon it as an unsafe slum.

At the briefing where the idea was unveiled, North Dallas council member Ann Margolin seemed a little antsy about it. I watched. She wasn't out-and-out negative, but I think you could see the wheels turning:

No photo op. Nothing for North Dallas. All this money for a sewer for the old part of town. Hmm.

I'm not even going to blame the council members from North Dallas if they resist this idea or start trying to chisel it down. They will only be sticking up for their own districts if they do.

This is what to watch for. Can the representatives from the older parts of the city coalesce and muster enough muscle at the dais to get this done? Will they see their shared interest in redirecting major investment from new to old?

Will Oak Cliff see it? This particular pipe won't help Oak Cliff at all. But if the city won't save East Dallas, Uptown and Baylor Hospital, why would it care about North Oak Cliff and Methodist Hospital?

More to the point, will southern Dallas see it? Or will they just write it off, as council member Carolyn Davis seemed to be doing at the briefing, as more money for some kind of white people somewhere?

It's a storm sewer. How exciting can a sewer be? But don't think of it that way. Think of it more like bypass operation for an aging heart in a guy who's got no medical insurance but a hundred grand to spend. What does he want to spend his money on more? The bypass operation? Or a new Lexus?

I'm afraid to ask.

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