Maybe you think this falls under the heading of “lots of luck,” but I wish the first thing the Dallas City Council would do, after we achieve regime change, is a forensic audit of the money spent on the Trinity River project, including the missing sailboat lakes and that stupid highway along the river that we’re not going to build.
The big selling point for the $246 million city bond election in 1998 was a series of manmade lakes in the river bottom — “sailboat lakes,” they were called, because an advertising agency hired by the bond committee drew up graphics for TV ads that showed sailboats downtown.
It’s 20 years later, people. Do you see any sailboat lakes out there? No, you don’t. But, according to an accounting released by the city last week, Dallas has spent $15.5 million designing the lakes that are not there, plus $272,000 for a water quality study.
Now, to be fair, the city says the $15.5 million also went toward designing the limited access high-speed highway along the river. So let me ask you another question: Do you see a limited access high-speed highway along the river? No, you don’t.
But by reporting it this way, the city thinks it has put you in kind of a pickle. It thinks you can’t ask about the money that went for the lakes that aren’t there because that money could have gone for the highway that’s not there. And you can’t ask about the money for the highway that’s not there because it could have gone for the lakes that aren’t there.
See what I mean about “forensic?” We need somebody down there with a badge and a .38 Special going through the books because $15.5 million sure as hell went somewhere, no pickles about it.
The big promise from the backers in ’98 was that the $246 million approved by the voters was the last nickel that Dallas taxpayers would ever have to pay for any of it. Then-Mayor Ron Kirk vowed that Dallas taxpayers would never get hit for another dime. A successor, Mayor Tom Leppert, swore that he already had the feds and the state signed on the dotted line to pay for any costs over $246 million.
Since then, the city has allocated another $183 million to the project from a city bond election in 2006 and another $98 million from a bond election in 2012. So that’s not another dime except for $281 million, making our investment in the lakes that aren’t there and the highway that’s not going to be built more than half a billion dollars.
And again we have a pickle. First of all, the city is going to tell you that you did get some things for that money. You can’t say it did nothing. For example, it built two canoe launches, one where Sylvan crosses the river and another at Loop 12. And it improved some parks and did some other things.
I think this is where the person with the badge and the .38 says, “Where are the lakes?” Right? Canoe launches, park improvements, all good, good to know, good to have, but half a billion dollars?
Let’s imagine this in the private sector. I give you $15 million to build me some sailboat lakes. I come back 20 years later, no lakes. You show me canoe launches. You know what I do? I turn around toward the person with the badge and the .38 and I start calling, “Ma’am! Ma’am, would you come over here right now please and bring the gun?”
I want my $15 million back is what I want. I don’t want a memo. I don’t want a conference call. I really don’t want a lawsuit. I want my $15 million back.
Next pickle. The city is going to say, “Oh, but you’re the ones who killed the highway. We wanted to build the highway. You wouldn’t let us. So, yes, we wasted a ton of money trying to get it done, and now all that money is wasted, but that’s your fault, not ours.”
Fine. Mea Culpa. We take the blame. I deeply suspect the proponents of the ill-advised highway of pushing money out the door as fast as they could as a way of locking us into it, but that would be pretty hard to prove. I still have questions.
Where are the lakes? Don’t talk about the highway, please. You said lakes. Sailboat lakes. You have spent half a billion dollars in taxpayer money out there. I don’t see any lakes. If you show me a canoe launch again, I’m going to call the person with the .38.
And secondly, OK, you say it’s our fault that money was wasted on the highway that’s not going to be built. I would argue that the blame there ought to fall more on the people who wanted it built in the first place. Please remember that it’s not going to be built because it turned out to be a monumentally stupid idea.
But what about this? Let’s not play the blame game, OK? Let’s leave the question of blame for now and just concentrate on one thing: How much money was spent on the highway that’s not going to be built? Let’s count it out, down to Ron Kirk’s last nickel.
In terms of legacy, as a lesson for the future, as a road map for what not to do again, let’s carry out a full forensic accounting of the entire Trinity River project, the whole thing, so that we can know exactly what happened and where every last nickel really went.
I did mention something at the top here, I believe, about regime change. There isn’t a snowball’s chance in hell that we will ever see such an accounting under the current regime at City Hall because that’s the same regime that pushed the project and spent the money in the first place.
That’s why we need a new regime. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s any way we could get a straight answer. We could try. We could all go down to City Hall in our swimsuits wearing flip flops and Mae West life preservers and pack the council chamber, chanting, “Lakes, lakes, lakes!” But I think a lot of that bond money was spent on security.
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