Citizen Council PAC Paves Way for Trinity Toll Road

A few weeks ago I had coffee with a guy from another state who was here looking into some local political issues. At one point he kind of bent forward across the table and said in a lowered voice, "I understand there used to be some group here called 'The Dallas Citizens Council' who controlled City Council elections from behind the scenes."

I said, "Yes. There still is."

Then for the next full minute we did, "No!" "Yes!" "No!" "Yes!" If anybody was eavesdropping from a nearby table, we must have sounded like college students gossiping about who was doing it with whom, which, in a sense, we were. Still doing it.

In my visitor's mind, the name Citizens Council was associated with the old white citizens councils that sprang up in the '50s and '60s to fight integration, as the more genteel downtown faces of the Klan. That's not technically fair to the Dallas Citizens Council, which was founded in 1937 before the race-based citizens councils came along. But the visitor remarked that in most cities the organization would have changed its name by now anyway.

Far from that here. In fact, in advance of next summer's City Council elections, the Dallas Citizens Council has jumped out from behind the curtain in a new, much more aggressive posture, having formed a political action committee called the Dallas Citizens Council Community Engagement Committee.

Recent Supreme Court decisions have expanded the reach of the court's landmark 2010 Citizens United ruling, apparently knocking down most state and local restrictions on campaign contributions by political action committees.

Donna Halstead, the longtime executive head of the Citizens Council, stepped down from that post earlier this year to take over running the PAC. In what I'm sure is an indication of the transparency we can expect from the PAC, Halstead failed to respond to my efforts to reach her at home or at work.

The Citizens Council has been grilling people who are declared candidates for City Council in the upcoming May elections, most of whom received a two-page questionnaire some weeks ago. After a few eyewash questions ("What are the biggest three challenges facing the city of Dallas?"), the questionnaire gets down to brass tacks: "Do you support the Trinity Parkway? Why or why not?"

"Trinity Parkway" was the advertising term used in campaign literature 15 years ago to get voters to approve what the Citizens Council really wanted — a multi-lane, high-speed, limited-access toll road along the Trinity River through the city center. Linked to plans for the redevelopment of key landholdings downtown, the toll road has always been, is now and will always be the Citizens Council's premiere piece of business.

I was able to speak with several candidates who had filled out the questionnaire and then showed up for a subsequent oral examination by an inner committee of the Citizens Council. All spoke to me only on condition of anonymity, citing their desire not to incite the further wrath of the Citizens Council even if they already knew it would be supporting their opponents.

Those whose positions on the toll road were in any doubt all told me they took intense drubbings on the issue. Those whose positions were well known but negative said their inquisitors were not interested in hearing their thoughts.

This is a key point in time. Critics of the road have fallen into a false sense of security, certain it will never pass muster in the final scrutiny of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, which is not expected to rule on the flood safety aspects before 2014. The critics also have assumed the road, whose cost is now between one and two billion dollars over any existing budget, can never be paid for.

Both assumptions are wrong. The Citizens Council-types have been engaged in intensive back-room maneuvering for state and federal funds through a powerful but little known entity called the Regional Transportation Council, or RTC. Hand-in-glove with the North Central Texas Council of Governments, another regional planning agency, the RTC is lining up chess pieces to divert funding from things like the downtown Dallas "Mixmaster" freeway interchanges to pay for the toll road instead.

They just might make it.

The Corps of Engineers was tough on flood control issues for about five years after the massive levee failures in New Orleans in 2005. Corps officials told cities across the country they might have to rebuild existing levees at enormous costs. In 2009 the corps said scientific analysis had shown the Dallas levees were worthless, incapable of protecting the city from even the lowest levels of flood threat. That finding was a huge blow to the Citizens Council's plans, which involved building a new expressway inside the Trinity River levees, a scheme that would reduce the effectiveness of the levees, subject them to greater stresses and even pose the danger of cave-ins.

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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

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