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Seven Million Bucks and Three More Years To Open New Bridge. Maybe.

The Margaret McDermott Bridge over the Trinity River in downtown Dallas is the city’s ne’er-do-well relative who shows up every year or so for yet another handout. Is it a mercy for us to give her more money, or have we just become codependent?

Designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava, the $115 million hike and bike bridge was scheduled to open two years ago. It remains closed because the engineering firm in charge of construction insists the bridge, whose two grand arches soar hundreds of feet above the barren, mostly dry river bed below, is too wobbly for people to walk on or ride their bikes across safely. That’s some wobbly.

Rods that connect long steel cables to the concrete decks of the hike and bike paths on both Calatrava bridges at Interstate 30 in downtown Dallas have snapped in high winds.EXPAND
Rods that connect long steel cables to the concrete decks of the hike and bike paths on both Calatrava bridges at Interstate 30 in downtown Dallas have snapped in high winds.
Jim Schutze

At the end of last month, Assistant City Manager Majed Al-Ghafry told the City Council in a memo that the Texas Department of Transportation had informed the city the cost of fixing the bridge and making it safe might be $7.1 million and might take three years. A careful reading of the memo reveals a lot of mights.

The $7 million-plus repair is conditioned on some very expensive testing to see if any of proposed fixes will even work. Special experimental one-off parts would have to be fabricated first, kind of like wooden legs but made of steel. Then a laboratory in Germany would have to subject the new parts to highly specialized stress tests to see if they can stand up to the job.

Similar stress tests, by the way, were eliminated from the original construction process because officials in the city’s Trinity Watershed Management Department wanted to save money and were afraid the results might come back negative. The bridge was built instead with untested components that immediately began snapping off in high winds — Mother Nature’s stress test.

The city reacted by eliminating the Trinity Watershed Management Department — small comfort, it would seem, to anyone flung off the bridge in the future. They say your whole life flashes before your eyes. Maybe not. Maybe as you sail toward your everlasting reward, your last thought would be, “Well, I certainly hope they got rid of the department that approved this thing in the first place.” Might be too long a thought, though. More like, “Well, I certainly …”

The Margaret McDermott bridge always takes some explaining, because it’s not actually a bridge, and, by the way, you probably have been driving over it for years. Very confusing. Sorry. It’s actually four bridges. Two are big, fat plain vanilla concrete freeway bridges, one in each direction, built by the highway department and opened to car and truck traffic in 2013. Then two more bridges, sort of tacked on to the outsides of the freeway bridges but supposedly self-supporting, are elaborate hike and bike bridges hanging from two enormous arches designed by Calatrava. The hike and bike bridges cost almost as much as the freeway bridges.

Why did the city build elaborate hike and bike bridges, one in each direction and hanging on wobbly wires from two huge arches, instead of just adding one protected pedestrian and bicycle lane to the side of one of the freeway bridges? Ah, now we get into the codependency. As do so many of life’s tragedies, this one begins in vanity.

The compulsion to go ahead with the project, no matter what, emanated from a group of wealthy Dallas people who believed building a series of matching Calatrava-designed bridges would put Dallas on the map or elevate it somehow in the view of the outside world. But the original concept, a string of glamorous, matched, arched bridges up and down the river, a kind of massive infrastructure jewelry, would have cost more than the gross national product of small nations. The concept was trimmed back to a matching set of two, both named for wealthy women named Margaret. Eventually only one bridge, the Margaret Hunt Hill, was built according to Calatrava’s signature cable-stayed design — not technically a suspension bridge in engineering terms but looks like one to most people.

When it came time to take on the second Margaret, the money was still far out of reach. In a compromise, the state agreed to build and pay for two squat freeway bridges, one eastbound, one west, while the city took on the fancy parts with the arches.

The parts with the arches were designed to be smushed up (technical engineering term) against the sides of the freeway bridges so that the whole wedding cake would look like one big suspension bridge. The term of art is trompe l’oeil, literally “fools the eye” in French. The four independent bridges were given one name, Margaret McDermott, always referred to by officials as one bridge. That they are four bridges, a fact now grudgingly acknowledged by the city, was a scoop first uncovered by the Dallas Observer, using an investigative reporting technique called, “Go down there and eyeball the thing.”

Two years after completion, the Margaret McDermott bridges are still barred to foot and bicycle traffic and may remain so for at least three more years.EXPAND
Two years after completion, the Margaret McDermott bridges are still barred to foot and bicycle traffic and may remain so for at least three more years.
Jim Schutze

There were always red flags. In 2013, before construction began on the hike and bike bridges, a former assistant city manager bragged to the City Council that she had chopped $20 million off their combined price with what she called “value engineering” (eliminating stress tests, etc.). Two council members, Scott Griggs and Angela Hunt, saw the red flags and voted against going ahead. The council member who led the support for the project, Dwaine Caraway, now awaits federal sentencing in what seems by all external appearances to be an unrelated corruption case.

On the council, Hunt and Griggs were not alone in seeing red. Philip Kingston, who replaced Hunt when she was term-limited off the council, was enraged by the combined cost to taxpayers of both Margarets, somewhere in the neighborhood of $300 million. Kingston knew how the City Council was getting the money — by taking a pass on other things he thought were more important. One, a project to upgrade all of the city’s worn-out, obsolete signal lights to a new computerized technology, would have relieved traffic congestion and calmed streets all over Dallas. That cost was almost exactly what the council spent instead on the vanity bridges.

When I spoke to Kingston about it this week, he framed the question of the new $7.1 million request for repairs in terms of the codependency issue. “One boondoggle just keeps leading to the next one and the next one,” he said. “When does it end?”

Well, the people who brought us this and other similar boondoggle fiascoes haven’t changed their spots a bit, not one spot. They are now engaged on a project to build a massive and elaborate $150 million park on the river downtown, an effort that was led by real estate developer Mike Ablon until he stepped away long enough to run for mayor in the upcoming election.

The business with the vanity bridges would be more than enough to bring down a mayor and maybe an entire regime in a city where people were paying attention. Other cities fire their mayors over not getting the snow plowed quickly enough. Here, in the city with the lowest voter participation in the nation for cities its size, it’s different. The McDermott hike and bridges cost $115 million. Maybe that’s a shrug.

Mayoral candidate Griggs this week launched an online series of videos produced for his campaign by former WFAA investigative ace Brett Shipp, now a political consultant, beginning with the McDermott bridge. Griggs says the online stories will go on to examine an entire series of boondoggles like McDermott, with the argument that these are not goofs or one-offs. The serial boondoggles, he says, are symptoms of a mentality that has crippled the city for decades.

And what exactly is that mentality? I find myself searching for a word. Maybe you can help. Calatravity? Fantabulism? Parkcitiesitis? I’ll tell you what. If we don’t vote but we do give them more money for the next one, I’m going to go with codependency. The sad thing is that it takes two to keep doing this tango.

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