Hunt for Truth

You just never know. You go to these incredibly boring City Hall meetings in a back room with people mumbling about fill dirt, and you think it is never...ever...EVVVer going to end. And then BAM! The big bomb goes off.

Last week I attended a meeting of the Dallas City Council Trinity River Committee. Why? Because it is my destiny to be bored. Normally I need a quadruple jolt of Starbucks to make it through one of these things. Even then, I have to do things like think about my last visit to the Great Trinity Forest in order to scare myself awake.

But just when I was afraid I might fall asleep and never again achieve consciousness, city council member Angela Hunt took the microphone and ripped the top right off the whole Trinity River Project. Sparks were geysering all over the place.

Go ahead. Tell me I just liked it because she said things I agreed with, but look, Hunt was scoring points way out ahead of anything I have ever said.

Here's the thing about her. Of the entire city council, including past councils with the exception of former member Sandy Greyson, Hunt is the only one who has ever dug deep into these facts on her own hook.

The rest of the council know nada! Including the mayor. Because they want to know nada. Hunt knows todo.

She told the committee the project that voters approved in a bond election nine years ago has been completely hijacked. What was supposed to be a beautiful downtown lake has become a plan for an ugly mud puddle beneath a cloud of exhaust from an expressway that nobody voted for.

"I just want to be very clear," Hunt said. "We are cutting our park that we sold to Dallas residents with sailboats and promenades and trails by one-third to accommodate this toll road."

She grilled city staff on the metastasizing costs: "In February 2005, the toll road cost $690 million. It morphed into $930 million. That's a 35 percent increase."

Now the entire road has to be redesigned because of post-Katrina concerns about damage it might do to the levees that protect downtown from flooding.

"I don't see anything in this briefing about how much the re-engineering will increase the cost of this project," she said. She asked Trinity Project director Rebecca Dugger, "Do we know when we're going to know?"

Dugger, who is always honest, said, "I haven't talked to them yet about cost."

And then Hunt pretty much took their heads off over an issue nobody in the public even knows about yet: Our wonderful City Hall, led by our supposedly environmentally conscious mayor, is secretly hoping that FEMA and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will give Dallas a "variance" allowing it to stick with old pre-Katrina regulations—you know, the level of protection that wiped out New Orleans.

You got it. Goes like this: The feds study New Orleans. They figure out what happened. They tell everybody else in America how to avoid it. But they let us stick with the old mistakes. And that's a good thing?

Hunt went after that one with a ball bat. I was totally awake.

"My question is, number one, has this come before the council or is this going to come before the council, because I think we as a city should say whether or not we support having the pre-Katrina guidelines. I sure want the post-Katrina guidelines for a levee."

Earlier in the meeting, council member Ed Oakley, who is chair of the Trinity Committee, had snickered about the safety concerns of federal officials.

"It looks like they're covering their butts," he said.

Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan had suggested maybe some of the feds just aren't too bright. "The Corps doesn't seem to understand," she said. Picking up Oakley's theme, she suggested the dumb feds are trying to make Dallas pay for something that happened way far away in whole 'nother state.

"It's an interesting kind of a situation," Jordan told the committee, "in which the Corps is trying to respond to something that happened elsewhere [New Orleans], and we're trying to do something completely different here."

We don't think of Dallas as flood-prone like New Orleans. But it is. The Trinity River drains an immense area, and it is aimed straight at downtown like a gun.

"I think we as a city should speak loudly and clearly," Hunt said, "on the fact that we do not want to use pre-Katrina safety regulations. We want to use post-Katrina guidelines. Why would we set ourselves up for anything like that? It doesn't make sense."

And at this point, I'm guessing a lot of this doesn't make sense to you either. What's with the road? What does the road have to do with floods? Or having a lake down there? I'll get to that. But first let me make one tiny observation:

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze