The 20-year battle to kill the proposed Trinity toll road has been the closest thing this city has seen to a civil war. The people to whom the mayor wants to hand off exclusive control of the river, now that our civil war appears to be ending, are the losers.
Why should they run the river? It took an entire bloody war to stop these people from destroying the river. And now the mayor thinks they should be entrusted with its safekeeping? After they wasted hundreds of millions of public dollars and 20 years of the city’s time trying to wreck it?
Deliberately or not, the mayor and his team consistently misconstrue and misrepresent the significance of what’s going on. The tentative agreement of the City Council at its most recent briefing session to kill the Trinity toll road represented a fundamental rejection of the city’s old power structure and an embrace of a new era in Dallas. The word "watershed" may get overused, but this is the instance it’s meant for.
After the meeting, the people who have fought all these years to kill the toll road project sensed the nearness of a momentous accomplishment. “We quite literally are saving the soul of Dallas,” council member Philip Kingston said to me, “and it will be a narrow win.”
Maybe you think that sounds like crowing. That’s not at all what it sounded like to me when Kingston said it. What I heard was an urgent desire for people to understand the immensity of the moment.
Dallas now has an opportunity to build one of the most innovative urban parks on the planet along the Trinity River through downtown. That opportunity arises only because new leadership, made up of younger, smarter people, has outwitted and defeated an entrenched, arrogant, narrow, not-very-smart oligarchy. This truly has been, as Kingston says, a battle for the city’s soul.
Everything about the old Dallas was derivative, secondhand and behind the curve, from the superficial to the substantive. The concept of building an expressway practically on top of the river was a legacy of the mid-20th century Eisenhower era when highways were hot. Now cities all over the planet are spending billions to demolish massive concrete structures that bar access to waterfronts because nature, not highways, now spurs development.
The new park on the river offers an opportunity for the city’s new leadership to explode with creativity and make its mark in the world. The people who brought the toll road to its knees were mainly the city’s new, younger participants. They did it by excavating deep into the data, digging out hard-to-find facts and proving that the toll road project was a loser.
The argument for the road was based on a fabric of what now, in the fullness of time, can only be called lies. These were huge lies, bald public lies recited over and over to voters as if the voters were gullible fools. The people who recited the lies clearly had no regard for truth.
Every one of those assertions was a lie. Opponents of the road pulled teeth to do it, but eventually they forced highway officials to admit that the toll road had nothing at all to do with resolving congestion problems downtown. Since 2008, vast new highway reconstruction projects have been completed downtown to tackle congestion, and not one of them was related in any way to the toll road project.
As chairwoman of the U.S. House Subcommittee on Water Resources and Environment during the 110th and 111th Congresses, Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson of Dallas had more to say about flood control in America than anyone else. It took her a while, but Johnson finally conceded that the Trinity toll road project had nothing to do with federally supported flood safety measures on the Trinity.
And the money? The billions of dollars in state, federal and private support promised by the toll road backers — vowed to us over and over again by former Mayors Ron Kirk and Tom Leppert and current Mayor Mike Rawlings — was nonexistent from the beginning. That money was never there. That money was a lie.
Because they couldn’t argue from truth or data, the supporters of the road couched their attacks on the opponents in sneering tones of contempt, personal disparagement and social exclusion, aiming the worst of their mean-girl barbs at former City Council member Angela Hunt. I spent time recently looking through propaganda that the pro-toll road forces sent out before the 2008 referendum:
“A small but vocal group has forced another expensive election … don’t let Dallas get sold down the river by the Angela Hunt plan.”
“Don’t let Angela Hunt send more than $1 billion down the river and turn our river of dreams into a nightmare for Dallas taxpayers and families.”
That’s the one that always got me. Don’t let Angela Hunt send more than $1 billion down the river. So nine years later, where’s the billion? She didn’t send it down the river, right? So it must still be here somewhere. Oh, I forgot. The billion dollars were a lie. There never were a billion dollars.
reporting on the City Council briefing session, remarked that the Rawlings' acquiescence represented quite a turnaround for the mayor, “who, just three years ago, championed the road and said ‘it's got my full clout of the office of mayor behind it.’”
But no. That wasn’t three years ago. That was yesterday. The mayor was a gung-ho advocate of the toll road up until about five minutes before he wasn’t. I attended a luncheon of a pro-toll road lobby group last February at which Rawlings joined Leppert and Kirk in insisting that building the toll road had to be the city’s highest priority.
Part of what makes opponents of the toll road nervous now, in fact, is the suddenness of Rawlings’ road-to- Damascus conversion and the complete absence of an explanation. How did it happen? Why? Was there blinding light?
Kingston said to me after the briefing session: “It’s not that jailhouse conversions aren’t real. It’s that you have to ask a lot of questions about whether they are real. And typically you don’t know if they are real for a period of time afterward.”
The people who fought the toll road were never trying only to kill a road project. They were fighting to save the largest natural feature of the city’s landscape from a massive act of vandalism. Their concern now is that the mayor’s effort to hand off control of a new park on the river to a private entity of his own devising smacks of the same hurry-up, the same disregard for truth and the identical sneering disdain for debate that characterized the toll road effort.
It even gets couched in the same fraternity-boy bro-speak. Lawyer Mark Melton had an opinion piece in The Dallas Morning News the day after the briefing urging critics of the mayor’s plan to stop whining and get on the team. The headline was: “It's time for Dallas to stop squabbling about the Trinity and build a park.”
There was no squabbling. There was war. The people who dug for truth and begged for time were fighting for a principle that never once showed up in the arguments of the pro-toll road group and still is distressingly absent from the mayor’s socially exclusive handoff plan. That principle is stewardship.
Yes, they wanted to kill the road. But they wanted to kill the road to save the river’s life. Now the mayor wants to fence them out and turn the river over to the same people who wanted to kill it.
Here’s a prediction: The mayor’s park plan will not stand. If it takes another 20 years, that plan will not stand.