The new $115 million bridge upon which no person may safely set foot is not going without notice or attention at City Hall. According to good sources who speak to me regularly in return for my promise of confidentiality, the city department that brought us the bad bridge is about to be blown up.
Please be careful about what I just said. The department is going to be blown up. Not the bridge. Not yet.
For now, the Margaret McDermott make-believe suspension bridge over the Trinity River continues to stand. It is our massive municipal version of what the English call a folly, which, according to the Shorter Oxford English Dictionary, is “a name given to any costly structure considered to have shown folly in the builder.”
Notice it didn’t say in the architect. He got paid. We’re the builder.
It’s a good thing the agency responsible for this and other ludicrous follies is about to be obliterated. The problem is the people behind the agency — its overlords. They’re not going anywhere, and they are not changing their stripes.
The McDermott Bridge still can’t be opened to foot traffic almost a year after completion because the supervising engineer won’t sign off on its safety. It is only the latest and by no means the biggest folly in dollars or dimension brought to us over a period of years by an oddly arranged little city department called Trinity Watershed Management.
That’s the one that’s about to get blown up. City Manager T.C. Broadnax is going to explode it and use the human detritus as fertilizer by moving the top people to other city agencies. They’ll certainly bring the right smell with them.
But the problem in all this is not really those people. The ones who have been running TWM are worker bees. They have been following instructions from outside City Hall for years, mainly from the old Park Cities money people whom we might call the Party Party.
Think about it. A bunch of mid-level city employees did not dream up a fake suspension bridge across the Trinity River. That one has Party Party written all over it. In fact, guess what was the first thing the Party Party did when the project was announced 15 years ago? Had a party.
Trinity Watershed Management has been around forever. It used to be something more modest. For decades, its job was to mow the grass on the levees along the Trinity River downtown.
At about the same time the fake suspension bridge was just getting underway, City Hall transferred ownership of 10,000 acres in public lands along the river to TWM. The city assigned it the task of accomplishing the true Holy Grail of the Party Party, the building of a high-speed limited access expressway along the river.
It was TWM’s job to get the so-called Trinity toll road built. In a clear reflection of outside pressure, former City Manager Mary Suhm put people in charge of TWM who were not engineers but were favorites of the Party Party. Since those changes, TWM has been more or less the Party Party’s private bastion inside City Hall, an arm of city government that danced to the party tune more than the tune of the City Council.
Why did the Party Party want to build an expressway on top of the river? In the end, no one really knows. A small, determined group on the City Council — former member Angela Hunt, current members Scott Griggs and Philip Kingston — obliterated the argument that the Trinity toll road would reduce traffic congestion downtown. They blew it up, tore it down, proved with hard numbers that this massively expensive road project eventually would have made congestion and pollution downtown worse, not better.
A year ago, the anti-toll road group mustered enough support, mainly from taxpayers, to force the rest of the City Council to kill the 20-year-old failed project. Since then, no one has even dared count the hundreds of millions of taxpayer dollars already wasted on ancillary infrastructure to support the toll road by the time the project finally bit the dust.
It’s perfectly understandable that the people behind it would not want to get all particular and specific about how much money was wasted and whose fault it was. I think there’s a point at which even the people in the Party Party start remembering those scenes in Frankenstein movies when the peasants show up outside the castle in a drunken mob waving torches. It’s what castles are for.
The problem in this case is that the toll road fiasco was emblematic of a whole way of thinking about public resources. We have the example of the bridge upon which no foot may safely be set. So that’s two — the massive expressway that never was and the no-foot bridge.
But let’s not forget No. 3, the Cub-Scout-Erator, that fake concrete kayak whitewater feature in the river that had to be closed the same week it opened because it turned out to have the effect of a gigantic in-sink garbage disposal on canoes and canoeists.
No one was actually killed by it, but that’s because the city shut off navigation of the river. Now it’s being torn out on orders from the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, at a cost to Dallas taxpayers of $2 million for the removal alone.
I heard an interesting take on all of this recently from a champion of the Party Party. I do speak to such people, and I always find them charming.
This person told me — and I have reason to believe this may be the Party Party’s new party line these days — that there was never any real problem with any of these projects, only with people worrying about liability and people being political cowards. I don’t think I can argue with that.
People just worry about the liability involved in operating a Cub-Scout-Erator. In fact, if the thing had ever been up and running for long, I imagine it would have attracted thick shoals of hungry alligator gar just downstream from it and even bigger shoals of plaintiff’s attorneys upstream. It’s nature’s way.
And yes, people did eventually worry about the political liabilities if they had talked taxpayers into what turned out to be a $2 billion road folly. By the way, that line in Son of Frankenstein, addressed to Baron Wolf von Frankenstein, goes like this: “There's a mob at your gate. They have a strange notion that you had something to do with it.”
I might get the willies, too.
I thought the dissolving of TWM was handwriting on the wall for the department when the toll road died. I was wrong. Later I decided it would be handwriting when the fake kayak rapids died. Wrong again. So was the final blow the no-step bridge?
Here’s the problem. The Party Party is still involved in a major ego-driven campaign to control the river lands through downtown. At this point, it has withdrawn into a version of Castle Frankenstein — a private outfit called The Trinity Park Conservancy. The conservancy has a contract with another private entity whipped up by the Party Party called the Trinity Corridor Local Government Corp.
Under this double-walled private arrangement, the conservancy has been given authority to develop a 200-acre park on the river downtown. But it’s clear to me that the conservancy has no intention of remaining confined to that little rag of territory in a total of 10,000 acres of public land along the river. It wants out. It wants more.
Why? We’re back to where we were on the toll road. It’s not easy to say why. It just wants what it wants, and what it wants more than anything is to get what it wants.
The danger is in the dirt. For years now, all of that land has belonged to TWM. Now TWM is about to go to its everlasting bureaucratic reward. So who gets the land?
The rumors are strong now that the Party Party is trying to exact from the city manager a certain price for blowing up its private army at City Hall. In exchange for giving up TWM, the party wants the city manager to give the land to Dallas Water Utilities, a move that would effectively put the river behind a third wall of private protection.
Dallas Water Utilities is what the city calls an enterprise fund. Like Love Field Airport, it makes its own money. DWU brings in $660 million a year by selling water and is able to operate with very little revenue from taxpayers. In exchange for that self-sufficiency, DWU is considerably less subject to the direct political control of the City Council than regular city departments.
It’s not a park department. It’s not a recreation department. It’s not a natural resources department. It’s a water department. So what does it bring the table that would qualify it to own and control the entire Trinity River bottom?
Privacy. More privacy. Just what the river needs.
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Private power and influence are what brought us the failed toll road, the kayak thing and the weird bridge. Not one of those follies would have reached the point they all did had it been directly answerable to the City Council all along.
Well, let me qualify that. In the 20 years it took to kill the toll road, we have had some pretty stupid councils. So I will put it this way, instead: None of them would have lasted had it been under the thumb of the new element on the council.
Why then, with all of this behind us and the evidence on the table, would we allow the Party Party to sequester the river behind yet another thick stone wall of privacy? Isn’t this exactly the time to put the river right in the middle of the table where we can see it, where we can protect it from more follies and take the responsibility for it we should have taken all along?
Why do they want another wall? Who knows? Maybe it’s another party.