In 2007 We Voted for a Toll Road in a Flood Zone. Remember What Else We Did That Year?

Last night's Trinity River toll road debate in Oak Cliff was a barnburner. A crowd of 450-plus broke into repeated emotional applause for City Council member Scott Griggs, who delivered a series of speeches attacking the road that were a cross between Winston Churchill and Tom Cruise -- powerful to the point of being positively electrifying.

Also loudly applauded were urban planner Patrick Kennedy -- since when does an urban planner get foot-stomps and cheers? - and architect Robert Meckfessel (or an architect, for that matter?). Both men delivered clear coherent rebuttals to the very foggy arguments of the pro-toll road side.

See also: Tearing Down I-345

On that side, the pros, former council member Craig Holcomb was shaky-voiced and cranky, sneering at the crowd for preferring, he said, emotion to facts. Former City Manager Mary Suhm was mainly silent. North Central Texas Council of Governments Transportation Director Michael Morris did the best job of the three at keeping his cool, but eventually even he became so rattled that he announced for the first time ever he was reducing the cost of the toll road from $1.8 billion to "less than a billion." The sense of some in the room was that if they had been able to keep the meeting going longer they might have been able to bring Morris' cost estimate down to $9.99.

See also: Former Trinity Toll Road Defenders

For all that it was a really substantive exchange on both sides, and I'm going to get into some detail about it in a column for next week. Meanwhile, yesterday before the meeting I was thinking about something I knew would come up in the debate. And it did. We heard again the assertion that the voters have voted for the road twice and the matter was laid to rest in the road's favor in the 2007 referendum.

And that is true. The last time voters endorsed this project was in 2007, when they voted 53 to 47 percent in favor of building an expressway between flood control levees on the banks of the river in an area subject to flooding on a twice annual basis. That is, voters voted not to build the new expressway outside the floodway where it wouldn't flood.

So, 2007? How has that year held up generally against the test of time? Hard to gauge, because it's sort of caught just on the knife-edge between a time too close for real perspective and a time too far back for clear memory. I got to wondering if there were any benchmarks we might use that would help us put a value on 2007 -- you know, what we were thinking back then and what we know now.

Maybe the biggest story nationally in that regard was the economy, which we had believed up until that point to be booming beyond belief, bullet-proof and headed nowhere but up forever. Sadly it all fell through the floor that year beginning with the collapse of the housing bubble.

So, looking back, instead of everyone being smarter and luckier than ever before, what we really had was a whole lot of people living in houses they couldn't possibly afford and then huge banks taking crazy gambles on fraudulent investment schemes. By the time it was all over, 2007 was one of those years we might remember as a bucket of ice water on our heads. Several buckets.

Funny what you do remember. I remember that was the year we found out some of America's cutest toys -- Thomas the Tank Engine, Big Bird, Elmo, Barbie, Dora the Explorer and the Easy Bake Oven -- were made in Chinese prison factories and were subjecting tots to high levels of lead, not to mention loose batteries and severe burn hazards. And I could have sworn Thomas the Tank Engine was English! From 2007 on, every time our son told us he couldn't understand a word we said, we looked at each other and nodded, both thinking, "Thomas the Tank Engine!"

It was a perplexing year in sport. Barry Bonds knocked down Hank Aaron's record to become baseball's home run king, only to get himself indicted for doping. In fact every time a bit of good news popped up, it seemed to go sour within the hour.

A survey found that after a half-decade of soaring obesity rates, American adult obesity was finally leveling off. Then a few days later some egghead at Yale said it was just because it wasn't possible for Americans to get any fatter. "It's possible that we're just up against a ceiling," said Kelly Brownell of the Yale University Rudd Center for Family Policy and Obesity.

Jeez! I remember reading that and thinking, "Yeah, why don't you jam your Rudd Center up against your own ceiling and leave the rest of us the hell alone?" You know? It was like the knock-down story was the emblem of the times.

Of course here at the Observer we tried to spare our readers that cycle of hope and despair by just doing the despair story in the first place. That was the year we published what I still think was one of the most definitive anthropological studies of Dallas ever done, Andrea Grimes' hauntingly evocative piece, "$30,000 Millionaires: Douchebags in the Mist." I wish I could go back in time and find out which way the douchebags voted on the toll road. Idle curiosity, that's all.

See also: Douchebags in the Mist

It was a funny year in local politics. Then Mayor Tom Leppert was pushing for ethics reform, because of course Leppert, the main champion of keeping the toll road between the levees, wanted people to know they could trust their elected leaders. Meanwhile leaders were nervously awaiting the outcome of a huge FBI raid in which battalions of feds had trundled off stacks of file boxes on two-wheel dollies into vans in the City Hall parking garage.

Now, wait, don't get mixed up: That was not the federal corruption trial in which City Council member Al Lipscomb was convicted of bribery. That was a little earlier, in 2000. But, wait, it also was not the ongoing federal corruption probe of County Commissioner John Wiley Price, a major defender of the toll road. That's still ongoing.

In 2007 we were still waiting for action in the federal corruption probe of city councilman and toll road champion Don Hill, who eventually was given an 18-year-sentence in 2010. It's hard to keep some of it straight, I know. Support for the toll road is about the only unifying theme.

See also: Don Hill Still Doesn't Get It

In 2007, The Dallas Morning News, a ferocious champion of keeping the toll road in the flood zone, endorsed Mike Huckabee for president in one editorial and in another severely castigated Dallas Inland Port developer Richard Allen for thinking local officials were out to get him.

Indications now, of course, are that the most recent federal corruption probe was inspired at least in part by the belief of the FBI that local elected officials were out to get Richard Allen. Oh well, lose some, lose some.

What else did voters do in Dallas that year? They elected Vonciel Jones Hill and Dave Neumann to the City Council -- hurrah, hurrah. And they also elected the guy whom everyone from the New York Times to CNN believed was possible presidential timber after Huckabee was done -- Dallas County District Attorney Craig Watkins, another one for the footnotes.

So that was 2007, the year we voted narrowly to build a highway in the flood zone along the river banks. It's history. And we all respect history. Right? More on that meeting next week. It was truly something. After it was all over, former Observer reporter and former mayoral spokesman, Sam Merten, now a city council candidate, was heard wandering out over the parking lot muttering like Marlon Brando, "The lies! The lies!"

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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

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