Just Pretend the Calatrava Bridge Really Is Opening, Sit Back and Listen to Lyle.

Last Sunday The Dallas Morning News published a special section designed as a program/brochure for all the parties planned next weekend, anchored by a Lyle Lovett concert, to celebrate the opening of the city's new Santiago Calatrava bridge over the Trinity River.

But the bridge won't open Friday. It isn't done being built. You could drive off the side and get killed. So the Dallas Police Department has refused to allow traffic on it, in spite of the Morning News special section and Lyle Lovett.

Is it wrong to laugh? Yes. Is it mean? Yes. Do we laugh? Of course. The whole thing — all the hoopla and the Morning News and the pretentiousness, all for a bridge opening as if it were the end of World War II — and then the bridge isn't even open.

Maybe it wouldn't be so funny if it didn't remind us of the last great Trinity River project opening, for the so-called Dallas Wave. That was only last May.

The Dallas Wave was another fantabulous Barnum & Bailey feature of the Trinity River project. Opening parties were held, news conferences called, photo ops provided with couture-wearing Park Cities ladies in high heels on plywood at a fly-blown mud flat just below downtown.

The object of all that celebration was a bleak concrete dam set down in the turbid brown waters of the Trinity supposedly to re-create a whitewater kayaking feature one of the couture ladies had seen somewhere in Colorado. At a cost of $4 million in tax dollars, the Dallas Wave was an effort to persuade the public that the Trinity River project really was all for them — and don't look behind that curtain at the $2 billion toll road their men-folk want to build on top of the river to promote the redevelopment of the old Stemmons industrial corridor.

The party face of the Trinity River project has always been the domain of The Trinity Trust, a group of Park Cities ladies, their architects and decorators, and in the true spirit of the Park Cities the big thing for them has always been ... the partaay!

Poor design, bad construction, a screwball idea in the first place: Nobody quite knows yet why The Wave came out so poorly, but the city banned boats from it almost immediately after experienced paddlers began reporting that it was capable of killing whole families in canoes. Nary spade nor jackhammer has touched it since.

This is not to say the city won't open the Calatrava bridge some day. The state highway department has said they will have it fixed so people won't drive off the side by the end of March.

And in the meantime, who really cares? When it does open the bridge will carry a dozen or so cars a day across the river to an industrial area best described as a burnt-over hellscape. No pedestrian traffic will be allowed on the new bridge, probably to discourage refugees.

In fact, only as bread and circuses could something like the "signature bridge" plan make any sense in the first place. Why else would a major American city even consider knocking down a half dozen or more perfectly good bridges to replace them with faux suspension bridges? That sounds more like the plot for a dystopian science-fiction novel about mass psychosis.

But we have to remember how the project was first broached to us. In 1999 when the idea of replacing six existing bridges and building an additional one first came up, Dallas lawyer David Laney, a pal of Morning News Publisher Robert Decherd and at that time chair of the Texas Transportation Commission, suggested broadly that the state would probably pick up most of the costs.

And not too much later, the Dallas City Council was presented with a briefing saying the first bridge, the one that isn't opening this weekend, would be free. No, better than free! Armed with a report from some post-office-box outfit called Insight Research, city staff told the council a huge office building would be built next to the new bridge — only if it was a Calatrava! — and pay so much in taxes that the city would make a profit on the bridge.

Wow. How could you turn that down?

The Observer demanded to see the report under the Texas Public Information Act. The city refused. The Observer appealed the city's decision to the Texas attorney general. Eventually we went the old-fashioned route and had somebody slip it to us out the back door.

Guess who the developer was who was going to build the big office tower that would turn the Margaret Hunt Hill bridge into a profit center? The city!

Two things about that. No, make that three things. One, the city can't commit to building a huge new office tower without some kind of a vote. Two, the city doesn't pay taxes to itself. Three, now that the bridge is almost done, have you seen any signs of a big office tower going in?

Lyle Lovett, folks! Think of it that way! Lyle Lovett is going to be here.

Last week The Dallas Morning News brought some very sobering news to its readers. It seems the cost of the bridge that isn't opening this weekend has skyrocketed from $117 million to $182 million. Oh, my gosh. Skyrocketed! But the News left out a sort of important detail. The original cost of the bridge was supposed to be only $57 million, not $117 million.

The Margaret Hunt Hill is the only one of the seven originally planned make-believe suspension bridges that is not a replacement. It goes where no bridge has gone before. Critics argue that's because no one wanted to go there, but let's not go back into that. It's a new bridge. Maybe the other six will never be built. We can only hope.

At the time this one — the one that isn't opening this weekend — was first being bandied about, state highway officials told the Observer that a regular old "plain vanilla" highway bridge (Who knew they had flavors?) would cost about $40 million. Not too far down the road, city officials began announcing what seemed like sumptuous private donations, including $12 million from Hunt petroleum in exchange for naming rights.

So let's assume we put in $28 million (our budgeted contribution), and we get $12 million or so from the state and federal governments, plus $12 million from the Hunts to name it for their grandma. The bridge only costs $57 million, we're told. Plus we're going to get rich from it anyway. So, you know, man, we need to be high rollers and just do this thing.

The big slap-the-spit-out-our-mouths moment came in 2006 when the bids to build it came in. The low bid, from Williams Bros. Construction of Houston, was $113 million. As our governor might say ...


Dallas City Manager Mary Suhm, a librarian by training, assured the public she had jaw-boned Mr. Calatrava into making several very significant engineering changes in the bridge to cut costs, including replacing steel decks with concrete decks, welded joints with bolts and expensive American steel throughout with a great buy on steel someone had found at a mill in Italy, plus generally squeezing down the fake suspension part to a smaller arch.

No one has ever suggested that these changes had anything to do with the ultimate appearance of the bridge now — sort of a slightly larger than normal McDonald's arch made of PVC. No one seems to be worried about the bolts or the cheaper steel. Probably everything will be fine with that. Maybe you don't want to slam on your brakes real hard in the middle of the bridge. Just use normal caution.

The scary thing, anyway, was the sand.

In 2009 they started drilling huge holes in the river bottom to sink the piers that would actually carry the weight of the bridge. If it were a real suspension bridge — even if you want to call it "cable-stayed bridge," whatever — it wouldn't need all those piers, which would be the point of building a suspension bridge in the first place, but ...

Lyle Lovett, right here in Dallas! If you start to feel your mind becoming disturbed in any way, think about Lyle Lovett. We're almost done here.

So they're out there in the river with a big drilling rig, boring a hole for a bunch of concrete to make a pier, and all of a sudden the whole drilling rig goes whomper-jawed and starts tilting around like a carnival ride.

This was another case where the city didn't want the Observer to see the official report. The Morning News, of course, never asked. Finally we got our hands on it, and it said the following:

"During the drilling of piers for Bent 6 (located 300' from the wet side toe of the west levee), the contractor reported that large quantities of sand in the formation liquefied even though slurry was being used to hold the excavation open."

Translation: They've bored into a stratum of liquid sand that's shooting into their bore hole so fast they can't stabilize it even by pouring in a concrete-like slurry compound.

Later in the report, the contractor reports sticking a huge pipe or cofferdam into the hole to hold the liquid sand out. Then they couldn't get the pipe out. So they just left it in there.

It's fine. No one has ever suggested in any way, shape or form that this bridge is going to fall down, certainly not during the Lyle Lovett concert, which is the main thing.

The tickets, by the way, are $200 at the cheap end, up to $100,000 if you want to be a "signature sponsor." The Park Cities ladies have offered to allow signature sponsors to put something with their names on it in the "favor bag" for the party.

Favor bag. Kind of gives you a flavor, doesn't it?

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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