Gunfight at the Trinity

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As of a year ago, I had been writing critical stories and columns about the Trinity River project for a decade. I went to work for the Dallas Observer in 1998 in part because I knew it was the one place in Dallas where I could write honestly about the Trinity. And by last year, I have to tell you, I was sick of the whole thing.

Worse than sick. Heart-sick.

So were all of the people who had served as my best sources. Two dark angels hovered over them named Defeat and Despair.


Trinity River project

I hated calling my Trinity sources. The sigh in their voices when they heard me on the other end made me feel like a guy on an 800 number calling during the dinner hour to sell identity theft insurance.

Jeanie Fritz, one of the stalwarts in the anti-toll road campaign, agreed with me recently that things a year ago were at a low ebb. "We weren't exactly giving up," she said, "but the spark wasn't there. We didn't have many good ideas."

David Gray, a computer engineer who was at the center of all the big Trinity River fights from the late 1990s, told me: "We were all in a state of despair. 'This thing's coming. Is there any hope of a lawsuit? Are they going to get the money? Can we keep them from getting the money? Probably not.'

"We were still meeting, but no one really felt like there was much we could do to stop that freight train."

The Trinity River toll road, a multi-lane high-speed highway and truck route between the flood control levees downtown where the voters had been told a park was to be built in 1998, did indeed feel like a head-on freight train with whistles blowing.

And then all of a sudden in the fall of 2006, everything changed. The opposition to the toll road caught a spark again, ignited into flames and roared back to life, bigger than ever.

Two weeks from now, depending on what happens in the Trinity toll road referendum, that movement may achieve deep permanent change in the fundamental political nature of the city.

If the anti-toll road forces win on November 6, their victory will constitute the single biggest electoral victory of a grassroots coalition—and the single most devastating defeat of the old downtown power elite—that I have seen in my 30 years covering Dallas politics.

The Trinity project, whichever way it goes, will be one of the largest public works projects in Dallas history. Whether it's a 10-mile high-speed toll road jammed with 18-wheelers and suburban commuters, or the river park voters approved in 1998, the project will change the face of the downtown area for generations to come.

On one side of the fight are the city's biggest power brokers—including oilman Ray Hunt, real estate magnate Harlan Crow and Dallas Morning News publisher Robert Decherd. This group—toll-road supporters from the beginning—have lined up almost every single officeholder from City Hall to the Congress on their side.

And yet, for all their wealth and power, they have been stymied by a coalition of environmentalists, fiscal conservatives and urban activists who want to get the toll road out of the planned river park downtown. Their de facto leader is a young, relatively inexperienced councilwoman named Angela Hunt. Somehow, this group has turned the tide in the city, gathering 91,000 signatures in just 60 days to call for the coming referendum vote, a remarkable display of the power of civic engagement.

This is the story of how it happened.

Late in 2006 I was invited to a secret planning session for a group of activists interested in stopping the Trinity River toll road. I can't tell you how badly I did not want to go. First of all, it was going to ruin half of a lovely weekend day. In the second place, under the terms of the invitation I would not be able to write about it for months. I suspected I would not want to write about it ever.

And finally, and most guiltily, I didn't want to face the faces. I expected this to be the same small cadre of people who had explained to me what was wrong with the Trinity project 10 years earlier when I was the Dallas reporter for the Houston Chronicle.

They had fought the good fight. And lost. Several times. Originally Ned Fritz, founder of the Texas Committee on Natural Resources, fought the Trinity River project because he believed it was a dangerous, destructive plan that flew in the face of national flood control policy and would one day cost lives.

When I was still at the Chronicle, Fritz steered me to the "Galloway Report," a study of national and global flood control knowledge commissioned by the White House after disastrous floods on the Upper Mississippi in the early 1990s. I wrote a story for the Chronicle in which I quoted flood control experts around the country saying that the Trinity plan in Dallas, building new structures in a floodway, was unsafe and irresponsible.

Eventually the Bush White House took the Trinity project out of the president's budget, agreeing that it was not a worthy project. But Dallas leaders succeeded in pushing the local congressional delegation to stick it back into the congressional budget as an earmark. So the battle to kill it at the level of national flood control policy was lost.

In the meantime, another battle was lost in the bond election to fund the Trinity project. Fritz and a coalition of community activists were hugely out-spent by proponents of the project, and they were defeated, albeit narrowly, at the polls.

After the election, another loose alliance of environmentalists and citizen watchdog groups brought two suits against the city and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, one in federal court on environmental grounds and the other in state court arguing the city had done a "bait and switch" on voters, promising to use the 1998 bond money for parks but diverting it instead to a toll road and other uses.

The federal judge refused to look at evidence that the Corps had faked its justifications for the project, even though that was precisely why the Bush White House had tossed it out of the presidential budget. So the antis lost that suit.

The state judge ruled against the antis, agreeing with lawyers for the city that the city was not bound by promises it had made in any of its own pamphlets, publications or public utterances.

These were bitter defeats for the antis, because both rulings seemed to be based on narrow, technical readings of the law and not on fairness or common sense. It knocked the wind out of them. The fight to stop the toll road was comatose, if not dead.

I was feeling pretty comatose myself. In my column for the Observer, I had taken a strong advocacy position in support of the people fighting the road. Over 10 years, the toll road foes had lost so many bitter battles that by last year I was starting to feel like Custer's drummer boy.

So of course I went to their damned secret meeting.

The minute I stepped into the large, sun-washed living room of the house in North Dallas where the meeting was taking place, it was clear that something entirely new and different was afoot. Most of my regular sources were there, but so were many new and unfamiliar faces.

At center stage was Angela Hunt, a sitting member of the Dallas City Council from District 14, which boxes the Park Cities on three sides. At her side was recent former city council member Sandy Greyson from District 12 in Nosebleed Almost-Oklahoma North Dallas.

Greyson is very popular in conservative mainstream North Dallas. At City Hall she was respected as the city council's expert on transportation issues.

Mary Vogelson, the meeting's hostess, had become one of the city's reigning technical experts on the Trinity and clean air issues when she studied them for the League of Women Voters.

Around the room were young, energetic and very undefeated-looking types whom I did not recognize. In the course of the meeting, some of them came across as greenies, but others clearly were fiscal conservatives.

They were all talking seriously and with great animation about a referendum. They intended to stop the city from building a high-speed multi-lane toll road where they had been promised a park. They were talking about fund-raising and hiring a consultant. They were talking about action, and they were speaking of it in terms of winning.

Jeanie Fritz winked at me across the room as if to say, "Bet you can't believe it."

More than that, I was completely dumbfounded. Where in the hell had all this come from? What were two city council members doing here? No elected official had ever been willing to give critics of the toll road more than a bored nod.

No member of the city council, in my opinion, had ever understood the project beyond the deliberately shallow level of the PowerPoint presentations given them by city staff. And yet here were Hunt and Greyson talking about the project at a level of deep detail and sophistication. Frankly, I, with my 10 years invested, found it ego-challenging. How were they grasping so quickly what had taken me 10 years of investigation and reporting to understand?

Part of the secret, I have learned since, is in knowing a few things about Angela Hunt. She's 35 years old. She went to Rice on a full-ride scholarship and UT law school on a full scholarship. She and her husband, Paul, 37, have been boyfriend and girlfriend since she was 15 in blue-collar Pasadena, near Houston. Their violins, which they no longer play, hang side by side on the living room wall of their M Streets home. He designs back-end Web pages—the extremely technical user-specific software that businesses use to run their operations.

Think of them as really smart band kids who, in their 30s, still ride bikes together and act like boyfriend and girlfriend. All of that is important to me now because it helps me understand how Hunt cracked the code at City Hall.

"I started looking at this in January and February of 2006," she told me. "I had gotten really fed up with the very superficial way the council was presented information on the Trinity River project.

"I felt that they presented the information in a disjointed way. At the time I didn't recognize it as a purposeful, calculated means of keeping the council away from the depth of information. I just thought we're not getting the information in a comprehensive way."

But, you see, I've watched this for 30 years. City staffers make the council watch PowerPoints for the same reason hypnotherapists make people count backward. The staffers scroll this endless diorama of soft generality and half-baked detail past the heavy-lidded eyes of the council until no one who has a question can remember what the question was.

Council members, one must remember, only recently acquired any pay at all. It's still less than $40,000 a year. When Hunt left her position at the law firm of McKool Smith to devote herself full-time to council duties, she says her pay dropped to one-fifth what it had been.

Council members who aren't rich usually have to keep at least one eye on a business or paycheck somewhere else. The ones who are rich, in my experience, may look like they're paying attention to the PowerPoint but often they are mentally already on the golf course. Usually it's easy for the staff to slide things by them.

A friend of mine who has worked for the city for many years told me the staff refers to the council members as "the summer help." I would call them "the temps." But Hunt's focus was permanent.

She said, "I thought, 'I have a responsibility to look at this in greater depth. And I'm not getting enough depth.'"

Hunt went to Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan, who was over the project. "I said, 'Jill, I want to understand where the money's going and where it's gone. Where has all the money gone from the '98 bond?' So she gave me this spreadsheet that was several months old at the time."

Jordan gave Hunt the information she was seeking, but not in the form she wanted. "They always want to give me things in a PDF [portable document format] that I can't manipulate, and it really irritates me," Hunt said.

"I said, 'No, I want it in an Excel spreadsheet in electronic form so I can really look at it.'"

Because I have covered the Dallas City Council for about 100 years, I feel qualified to state that most city council members take the information they get from city staff on paper. The few who could even accept it in digital form would be thrilled with a PDF file, even though there's nothing you can do with a PDF file except open it in your computer and stare at it, as if it were a printed pamphlet or book.

Almost nobody would demand information in an Excel file or have the slightest idea how to begin analyzing that data and pushing it into charts and graphs.

Hunt said: "I'm a computer geek, so I took this spreadsheet. It was broken out in transportation, environmental, recreation and something else. I had to see it visually.

"I made a chart that went across horizontally. I did the parks in their own little chart. I made the things that were totally unfunded red and all on one bar. I made the stuff that is going to be funded outside of the city in a light green, and I did the stuff that's fully funded in kelly green.

"There was lots and lots of red. Lots of red.

"What I figured out was that this toll road was eating up all these transportation dollars and just eclipsing everything else in the funding. It was enormous."

Hunt decided she needed to know a lot more about the toll road. She said the staff had presented the council with artistic renderings to explain the road, rather than data.

"All of these watercolors were the same things, I learned later, that had been used as marketing drawings in 2003 to show how gorgeous this road was going to be."

Hunt didn't want to see the marketing drawings. She wanted to see the numbers underlying the drawings, assuming there were any.

"I sat down with Jill Jordan, and I talked to her about it. I asked her to explain it to me, because I couldn't grasp where this road was going to be.

"She said, 'It's inside the levees,' and she kind of sketched it out for me. I said, 'Jill, why do we have to have a toll road?' She said, 'Angela, we have to have the road. If we don't have the road we can't have the lakes.'

"And she gave me this very reasonable explanation about how we have to dig our lakes. We don't have the money to build our lakes. So the people who are doing the toll road need dirt to build their shelf. They're going to dig our lakes for us.

"At that point I put the brakes on the idea of griping about this ridiculous toll road, because I thought, 'I can't ruin this project. The lakes are the key to it.' It was an unfortunate compromise that had to be made."

But in fact she did not put on the brakes. Not the full brakes. She put the brakes on her mouth. For a while she stopped bringing it up to colleagues. But she didn't put the brakes on her curiosity.

It was at this time that Hunt made her first contact with the group I had talked to for 10 years about the Trinity. She called Jeanie Fritz, wife of Ned Fritz, a man often described as the dean of the Texas environmental community.

Ned, now 91, has a list of environmental victories as long as both arms, including saving the Big Thicket Wilderness in deep East Texas. But these days he leaves the day-to-day to Jeanie, who is considered a force in her own right in the environmental community.

Hunt called her and said, "Jeanie, could you maybe get together some people that know about this and who could educate me a little bit?" She said sure. But there wasn't much enthusiasm.

"Here I came in, I was graduating law school in 1998. I came in kind of wide-eyed and bushy-tailed saying, 'What can we do about this?' There was a real malaise in this group and skepticism. It was like, 'We've tried everything.'"

In fact, looking back now, I'm not sure Hunt was entirely correct in her appraisal of my old source group. I have talked to them since about it. Some agree that they were dispirited before Hunt came along, but not by her, and they had been watching her even before she called them.

"She had been writing about it on her blog," Jeanie Fritz told me. "I didn't see it, but some of the other people did. We thought she was wonderful. She was asking all the right questions."

Hunt also had been discussing the issue with the-young-and-the-bright crowd who frequent "Dallas Metropolis," an online discussion group (http://forum.dallasmetropolis.com).

Gray told me the group's initial reaction to her was of pleasant astonishment. "We thought, 'Angela, oh, she gets it.' Finally here was somebody that really understands what we've been saying."

It didn't take long for Hunt to discover two things: 1) It was not true that the city needed the toll authority to build its lakes, and 2) it was not true that the road was going to go up on the side of the levees, away from the park.

Levees are big dirt berms, parallel but distant from the banks of a river, sloped on both sides. They are dirt walls designed to hold the water in when the river floods. Most of the year the Trinity River downtown is a trickle in a ditch way out in the middle of its levees, which are about half a mile apart through downtown. But during the fall and spring monsoons, the water jumps up out of the river banks and floods from levee to levee, as it has done already several times this year.

"At some point I talked to Gene Rice [Trinity project manager for the Corps of Engineers]," Hunt told me, "and I learned what their plans are. They were raising the levees, and they were going to extend the levees.

"I asked, 'How much dirt do you need to raise the levees? How much do you need to extend them?'"

At this point I won't blame you, dear reader, if you worry that Angela Hunt is starting to sound like some kind of obsessive-compulsive Super Wonkette. I, too, have had my concerns about her interest in dirt, as on the day she called me after tromping out onto the rain-soaked levees and questioning a work crew that was trying to patch a mudslide. For 15 minutes she provided me with a detailed description of the method by which tarps and layers of soil may be used to patch leaky levees.

I thought, "Angela and Paul need to get on their bikes, go down to the Meyerson and listen to some concerts."

But in fact Hunt's interest in dirt is all about getting to the central knot of the problem. We want the lakes. They say we have to accept the toll road inside the levees in order to get the lakes. And it's all about digging the dirt.

Hunt told me: "I kept thinking, 'Why can't we extricate these different issues?' People kept saying, 'Don't look too closely, but all of these issues are completely interwoven, and you cannot extricate them. But we can't really say why.'"

Finally one day Hunt asked Rice of the Corps: "How much dirt do you need to raise the levees? How much dirt do you need to extend them?"

Rice told her they needed a lot of dirt. Hunt thought, "Why can't the Corps dig our lakes?"

Aha! The Gordian knot is untied. We don't need the toll road in order to dig our lakes. The Corps and the Congress both have said repeatedly that the levee work along the Trinity is going to proceed on schedule and fully funded no matter what happens with the toll road. So the Corps can dig the lakes no matter what.

In the meantime the Corps announced that the "Balanced Vision Plan," devised under former Mayor Laura Miller that called for the road to be built up on the sides of the levees, was not going to happen. After Hurricane Katrina devastated New Orleans, the Corps nixed the idea of building a highway on the Dallas levees.

Hunt had already squeezed out of them an admission that no major highway had ever been built on or inside flood control levees before in the history of the United States. Post-Katrina, someone at the Corps must have decided against doing shake-and-bake experiments with a highway on top of the Dallas levees.

The city council presentation announcing the change showed that moving the road off the levees and closer to the river would shrink the downtown Trinity park from 136 to 91 acres, a reduction of one-third.

The problem for Hunt was that nobody in the public seemed to know or care about any of it, as she found in talking both to neighborhood groups in her district and to her colleagues on the city council.

"When I would go talk to neighborhoods, I just bluntly asked people, 'Well, what about this toll road down between the levees?' And I got these blank stares. 'What are you talking about?'

"No one knew about it. There was total ignorance of it, but once they got over that ignorance there was disbelief. 'Why would we put a toll road down there?' And it was very fast going from ignorance to disbelief to anger. That was kind of the flow of emotion that I encountered."

What she found among fellow council members was apathy. Proving my thesis that none of them even watch the PowerPoint presentations, most of them told Hunt they thought the road was still going up on the levee.

"I asked some of the new ones, 'What do you think of this? We're putting a toll road down there.' They really didn't believe it. They thought I was mistaken. They said, 'I think you're mistaken about that. It's going to be on the levees or right outside, some other explanation, but it's not going to be in there between the levees.'"

Even more upsetting to Hunt than the park shrinkage was a slide in a PowerPoint presentation informing the council that the Corps might impose new, tougher safety standards on levees nationally and that these new standards might interfere with plans for the toll road. The slide said that the tollway authority "hopes to get a waiver or exception to prevent further modification of their current plans."

Hunt was appalled that the city would allow the toll authority to seek weakened safety standards for downtown Dallas. If the Trinity levees ever give way, the damage both in property loss and life will far outstrip Katrina in New Orleans, because the Trinity levees protect our downtown, not residential neighborhoods.

Why was this 10-mile road so important to its backers? Why did the city's wealthiest and most powerful men support the toll road from it inception, funneling cash into the pro-highway campaign at $100,000 a clip, according to the most recent campaign finance reports? The answer is money.

In 2002, a study commissioned by the city council found that the toll road had almost no economic value to the city. It would not spur economic development in downtown, Oak Cliff, or the poor, predominantly black and Hispanic neighborhoods near the river, The Dallas Morning News reported.

But there was one neighborhood that stood to benefit enormously from the toll road. "It is the aging warehouse district where the new highway would intersect Stemmons and State Highway 183," Morning News reporter Victoria Loe Hicks wrote. "Without the tollway, that area would see little or no economic development, the study predicts. With the tollway, it would be a good candidate to sprout sleek, suburban-style office campuses."

And who exactly owned much of the land down there? Real estate tycoon Harlan Crow and oil and real estate billionaire Ray Hunt, according to the Morning News.

When Angela Hunt confronted her fellow council members on those issues, she says she ran into a brick wall. "They said, 'Look, Angela, this toll road has been planned for a long time. This is the only place it can go. It's on track. And you don't want to destroy the project. We can't really change this now. It's too late,' and 'Blah-blah-blah.'

"So I knew that if we were going to make a change it would not be through the political channels. There simply weren't eight votes to make the type of change that needed to be made.

"But I knew from reading the charter that a referendum was an option."

When Hunt started openly discussing a referendum as a possibility, some of the old Trinity crowd felt their first and last pangs. It wasn't that they thought she was reaching too far. But they wondered if this woman in her mid-30s, who didn't grow up in Dallas, really understood what was going to happen to her if she challenged the downtown power elite in so direct and serious a fashion.

Mary Vogelson, who held that meeting in her home in the fall of 2006, was also a reigning expert on how Dallas deals with mavericks.

"It's not pretty," Vogelson said. "They know better than to go directly at something they can be caught at. So they go for whatever you hold near and dear."

She said the Trinity group tried to tell Hunt: "You will be ostracized. Whatever project you might want to do next, that's what they will go for.

"I admired her, but she had not a clue how vindictive and mean and ugly and closed the people who run this city are. We told her, 'Anybody who comes out publicly and supports you is going to lose his job.'

"She asked us, 'Who is willing to contribute money and help fight this fight?' We said, 'Not anybody with money.'"

Vogelson and the rest of the group knew how difficult it was going to be and how important to raise money. "You pay to play in this town," Vogelson told me, "and I mean all the way to the wall."

They didn't want to make unnecessary missteps. That brought everyone to delicate questions of timing. The group could announce an intention to gather signatures any time it wished. Once it actually began to gather signatures, a clock would start at City Hall: By law the petition circulators would have 60 days to complete their effort.

The legally required number of certified signatures was 50,000 to 55,000—whatever turned out to be 10 percent of the registered voters in the city. It was more than twice the number that had to be gathered for the recent referendums on the "strong mayor" charter changes.

In the fall of 2006 the group found it had an immediate problem in Hunt herself. The following May 12 Hunt would have to stand for re-election to her council seat. So far she had no serious opponent.

"Mary Vogelson brought this up," Hunt remembers. "She said, 'Angela, we're a little worried.' I said, 'Well, what are you worried about?'

"Mary said, 'If you step out on this, they're going to run somebody against you. It's going to be tough on you.'

"I said, 'Well, I don't care about that.' They said, 'Well, we do care about that, because you have more influence on the council than off.'

"I thought I was being brave by saying I don't care. But they pointed out that that was being kind of stupid."

Vogelson remembers it almost that way. She was concerned that at earlier meetings she and the other battle-hardened veterans might have been a little hard on Hunt in trying to warn her of the difficulties ahead.

"She asked to meet us again," Vogelson told me. "We were trying not to discourage her. Bless her heart, she wasn't discouraged. She and Paul came together and said, 'Hey, we want to do this.'"

So a certain plan was agreed upon. Hunt and her husband would proceed with their brave crusade. But the battle-scarred vets would exact a few conditions.

On March 14, two days after the final filing deadline for the May 12 city council election—that is, two days after anyone could legally file to run against Hunt—the group, now calling itself "TrinityVote," held a press conference on the Trinity River bottoms announcing its intention to seek a referendum on the Trinity toll road.

I went. I saw all of my old friends and sources, but I saw dozens of people I had never seen before in my life—many of them young and fresh-faced—people who did not look politically battle-hardened at all.

I spoke recently with one of the new people who had shown up that day. Nathan Morey, 29, is a first-year law student, now at St. Mary's University in San Antonio. He was living in North Oak Cliff at the time of the press conference.

"I go to all the parks," he said. "I love the trails in Fort Worth and Arlington.

"I had been following what Dallas was going to do with its portion of the river. I was one of those people who was sort of fooled.

"I thought the road was going to be the parkway, because on one of the city-sponsored Web sites, you see this image from an Oak Cliff vantage of the parkway coming down and having a regular street intersection with Zang Boulevard right as it crosses the river. There's, like, crosswalks right across the street.

"When I found out it was going to be a freeway, I was a little upset. And that was when Angela was making a stink at City Hall about the flood control and the safety standards.

"I e-mailed her, and she e-mailed me back and said, 'OK, come to the river bottoms.' And they had that press deal down there. I guess that's where I got hooked into everything."

In the legally required 60 days, Hunt and her allies gathered 91,000 signatures calling for a referendum. To put that in context, that's 6,000 more people than voted in the last citywide election, which was the June 16 mayoral runoff.

Harlan Crow, among other big-money Dallas types, hired professional "blockers" to stop Hunt's petition gatherers from getting the legally required number of signatures. They failed. Hunt and her group had finally won. It was a phenomenal accomplishment.

So right now I'm not sick of it at all. The Trinity River movement now is a much bigger and more inclusive ball of wax than it was before Hunt. It includes many young, energetic and idealistic people like Nathan Morey, who bring freshness and energy to the game.

Angela Hunt, Sandy Greyson, former city council members Donna Blumer and John Loza all occupy the center, bringing officeholder experience and an interesting blend of civic-minded conservatism, greenness and diversity.

But I have to admit the ones I'm soft on are the old originals. Ten years ago former Mayor Ron Kirk insulted them as hippies and weirdos and predicted they would all blow away after their 1998 defeat at the polls. His arrogance was one reason they kept meeting through all those bleak years.

Now they're the battle-hardened pragmatists of the team, the ones who pushed Hunt into putting off the announcement until after the filing deadline had passed. They're the ones I was starting to have trouble facing a year ago when I was going through my General Custer's drummer boy phase.

Now, Hunt and her allies seem to be on a roll. At debates around the city, at forums in urban pioneer Oak Cliff and affluent Jewish North Dallas, audiences have laughed and clapped for Hunt's side, groaned and jeered at Mayor Tom Leppert and the pro-toll road team.

In the last few weeks, the city has admitted the road may also become a truck route. Not only were those plans kept secret for years, the city actively denied there would ever be trucks on the toll road through the river park. The Allen Group of California, which is developing an enormous new rail and trucking center in southern Dallas, has emerged as a major funder of the pro-toll road campaign.

A YES vote in the referendum will force the city to take the toll road out from between the flood control levees and out of the planned river park downtown. There will still be a low-speed "parkway" in the park, just not a multi-lane high-speed toll road. A NO vote leaves the toll road inside the levees and the park.

I have no idea how the election will come out. No idea. But here is what really amazes me. Twelve months ago the city's plans for the Trinity River project were rolling down the road without a bump in sight. Now the toll-road backers are looking at the cliff.

The November 6 referendum and the battle leading up to it have become the O.K. Corral and Alamo combined, the biggest shoot-out ever in Dallas local politics.

The immediate outcome will be one thing. Either we will have a highway in the park downtown or we will not. But this also is about much more than that. It's really a question of whose city it is. This is about much more than a fight over a road. This is a fight over destiny.

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