Dead Road Walking: How City Staff Keeps Pumping New Blood into the Trinity Toll Road

Even D Magazine, which for years operated as a kind of billboard for the Trinity River toll road project, has given up on it. The Dallas Morning News has admitted it got conned.

But the thing doesn't die.

It's the Dracula of local public works projects. Hammer a stake in its heart. Nail its coffin shut. Dump a pickup load of fresh garlic on it. Next day it's back from the dead, down at City Hall in a fresh tuxedo leaning over the mayor's neck.

There's a huge disconnect between what everybody knows by now about this stupid idea -- if you build a highway out where it floods, it will flood -- and official dogma at City Hall. According to the city's web page, if you build it out where it floods, it'll be OK. The floods will go around it. We're not a billion dollars short of paying for it. We got plenty money.

And all the stuff D and The News have said about it not being necessary and people having lied about the justifications? Not true. Not at all. It really is necessary. In fact, it's just terrific.

One source for the Dracula-like survival of the toll road has always been the Dallas congressional delegation, House and Senate. We can speculate about why. Obviously politicians tend to get their chains yanked in predictable ways.

But over the weekend I got curious about another consistent and even bigger source of fresh blood for the project -- the staff inside City Hall. I did some spelunking through the dank fetid chambers of my Trinity River archives and found a quite striking theme. Maybe even more than a congressional deal, the Trinity River Toll Road has really always been a Dallas City Hall staff deal. Maybe that's why it's so impervious to political stakes-in-the-heart and large amounts of garlic.

Let's take just one staff member, Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, who has been over the project for more than a decade. Her role in advocating for and pushing the toll road has been quite dramatic.

In July of last year U.S. Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison tacked riders onto unrelated funding bills in Congress to exempt the Trinity toll road project from a federal law dealing with alternative routes. And that's what this has been about from the beginning -- alternative routes.

Opponents of the current toll road have never said they were against a toll road. They have said they were against building it out between the flood control levees in the flood zone -- where it floods. They want the city to consider other routes.

With her riders, Hutchison basically meat-axed the portions of federal law that would have established a point system for weighing the half dozen alternative routes for the toll road. The effect was to give a big advantage to the flood-zone route, because that land, even though it floods, is free. In fact, that's why it's free.

Jordan explained to the city council what a great thing Hutchison had done for the city. She said Hutchison's riders "would allow for them [federal highway officials] to look at all alternatives without weighing one more heavily than the other."

As if that were a good thing. And anyway, it was not an honest assessment. The real effect of Hutchison's riders was to put a big fat thumb on the scales in favor of the glug-glug-glug route.

In March of last year Jordan told The Greater Dallas Planning Council, a private leadership group, that removing the toll road from the overall Trinity River project would greatly increase the costs of the project. She has insisted on several occasion over the years that other important highway work in the city -- notably the project to rework the congested freeway exchange downtown called "The Mixmaster" -- would lose vital funding it we failed to bring about construction of of the Trinity River toll road.

In their recent coming-out confessionals, both D and The News admitted that this story simply has never been true. There is no linkage between the toll road and Project Pegasus, the name given to The Mixmaster fix.

But Jordan told an audience that included current and former city council members that there was no "Plan B" in the matter of the toll road, as if stopping or even significantly delaying the toll road portion of the overall Trinity River project would kill everything else -- the parks, the lakes, all other amenities.

She said the water quality issue at the city's "Dallas Wave" kayak park in the river -- where water is rated unsafe for human contact -- was nothing to worry about. "The water quality issues that have been recently in the press really dealt with sediment issues, and so it will be fine for the people just in the water."

But the wave, a dam designed to create turbulence, is designed to stir up the water. Oh, well.

Asked about the projected billion-dollar shortfall in the cost of building the toll road, Jordan said, "... We've seen on the transportation side there [are] funding changes from time to time, and so we'll just kind of see where we are when we closer to it." She added: "It's got to be done."

It does?

In April 2009, Jordan reiterated what has been over the years one of her more fantastic claims for the toll road, that it is a means of making the city's unsafe flood control levees safer. The charitable way to characterize this notion would be as a very hopeful assertion, not backed up by any engineering data, certainly not endorsed by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers which is in charge of flood safety on the Trinity, and probably just dead wrong, given everything we now know about what's wrong with the levees in the first place.

In fact, the rationale for the whole Trinity project probably will be proven wrong in the end. The idea was that a whole bunch of digging around and excavation out between the levees, not to mention construction, sinking piers deep into underlying layers of sand and so on, would be a good thing. But everything the corps said in its scathing 2009 report on the levees, effectively rating them as useless, argues that there should be as little digging and as little construction as possible near them or anywhere out between them.

I could go on, but look, Jordan is only a lieutenant. The general officer calling the tune on the Trinity project over the years has always been City Manager Mary Suhm. If I expanded my archives search beyond this single city staff member -- if I looked at what Suhm and all of her subordinates have told us about this project over the years -- I believe I would come up with a thick and very damning volume.

That volume would tell us that even more than the congressional delegation, the staff at City Hall has kept the toll road alive. It's really their deal. You know why that garlic hasn't worked yet? We've been dumping it in the wrong place.

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