Last April I more or less crashed a big fancy $125-a-plate luncheon (Don’t worry, I wasn’t paying!) about the Trinity Toll road. I left that place in a mixed mood of both euphoria and panic. I always get both things at the same time.
I get the euphoria because I’m trying to believe something optimistic for a change, and it’s such a weird sensation. That makes me panicky, because I know from experience that whenever I start feeling all euphoric about something it means a piano is about to fall out of a tall building onto my head.
So finally last week something fell out of the sky on me. It may not have been a full piano, more like a large electronic keyboard, but … ouch! Damn!
The thing that fell was the news that the lovely, soft, sylvan meandering lane along the Trinity River that they had unveiled at the luncheon was complete bullshit, a lie, a con job and that they’re going to build the same damn big fat honking freeway they’ve always intended to build.
And of course, the worst part, the part I wish they could just skip next time, was the terribly convoluted, bending-over-backward-to-be-clever, fine-print-that-you-need-a-magnifying-glass-for cover story for why I should have seen this ahead of time and why it’s my fault that I was all prancing around strewing rose-petals after the luncheon that I wasn’t supposed to be invited to in the first place.
The pretty meandering road was designed by a bunch of hired consultants whom the mayor dubbed his “dream team." Last week in a PowerPoint presentation to the City Council, the city staff said, “Clarification was received from dream team that intention was to meander within existing ‘road corridor’ or the areas originally intended to have concrete for lanes and shoulders.”
Oh, my God. It just makes me want to go hide under my bed and never show my face again. Going back to 1998 and before, a semi-invisible group of powerful people in Dallas whom we will call, for simplicity’s sake, “The Empire,” have been scheming and maneuvering to build an immense tolled expressway, which we shall call, “The Death Star,” slammed right up next to the banks of the Trinity River through downtown.
Expressways go in straight lines wherever possible. The dream team said, no, they didn’t approve of that. Not at all. Too brutal, too blunt. The dream team proposed a road that was much more arty, soft and beautiful, gentle and curvaceous — a road that would cause people to prance and strew rose petals whenever they saw pastel renderings of it.
So now the electronic keyboard falls on my head: The road will be as curvaceous as possible but only within the straight-line contours of the freeway that they intend to build. Get it? It will be barely curvaceous at all, not enough to actually see the curves, but you might sort of feel them in the steering wheel, so that, if you drove down the road at the 55 mph speed limit they propose, you might think you need to take your car in and get the alignment checked.
Why do I have to get under my bed? Because this is exactly how this entire project has gone for almost 20 years, and I always wind up feeling embarrassed that I believed them again. In the late 1990s when they first started huckstering for it with TV ads, the ads showed great big lakes downtown with sailboats on them. They were putting ads on TV because they needed to get votes to support a bond issue.
I have to admit, I really loved that idea. I like lakes. I like boats. I like pretty-pretty. It made me feel kind of euphoric and … yes, panicky.
For months after the successful bond election, I went around with a kind of psychological football helmet on my head, poised for it, ready to be slammed to the ground. When that one did finally hit, it was the real deal, a full-sized piano, a grand piano, a Steinway.
They started talking about how digging out the lakes would provide the dirt they needed for the bench for the large tolled expressway they intended to build right where they had shown lakes in the ads. I’m clawing my way back up from a crater with dirt up my nose and bleeding head wounds, saying “What large tolled expressway? What do you mean large tolled expressway?”
The Empire’s answer back then was that everybody knew before the election that people would need a road in order to get out to the park. Apparently some discussions of that road had included the possibility of tolling it as a way to pay for it. They said some problems had come up designing it in such a way as to attract enough traffic to pay enough tolls to pay for it. So it just kind of got bigger and turned into a huge freeway blocking off downtown from the “park,” which now looked more like a wide shoulder.
The editorial page of The Dallas Morning News carried all the water for The Empire on that. Their line was more or less that roads had been mentioned before the election and tolls had been mentioned and so anybody who didn’t foresee the whole project turning into a toll road project was more or less a fool. That was when my gaze first started flirting with the space beneath my bed.
It’s like your parents handing you a brochure for a cool cave exploring adventure. They take you there, and somebody slams a helmet on your head and hands you a pick. Your parents tell you they never said cool. “We said, ‘coal.’ Now get to work.”
There’s a pattern. At various points along the way, The Empire pulls some huge humiliating trick on us, like, “We never said ‘lakes.’ We said ‘lanes.’”
A certain pressure of resentment builds, naturally. Former City Council member Angela Hunt comes along and tells us, “No, no, children, it’s illegal for them to make you work in the mine this way.”
So they pull back half an inch. The Dallas Morning News lets Brandon Formby write stories saying it isn’t true that we got drunk and voted to approve a massive freeway downtown and then sobered up and couldn’t remember what we had done. We never approved what they want to build.
They tell us, “OK, OK, you can have your damn lakes.” Two years ago The Empire said they were ready to start construction on “Phase I” of the lakes.
I was so elated. I have to admit it. I thought, “At least if we get the lakes, we’ll have something to celebrate.” But my gaze also turned nervously skyward.
This was Phase I, the first phase, as they said we certainly should recall, where the lakes would be very small — smaller than ponds but bigger than mud puddles.
Kaboom! Right on the noggin! Broken ivory everywhere.
At a memorable City Council committee briefing, council member Scott Griggs went after former council member and chair of the Trinity River committee, Vonciel Hill, who, as you may recall, played the part of Boba Fett, the bounty hunter working for Darth Vader. Griggs got Hill and Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan to concede that the little tiny “Phase I” lakes they were proposing in the Trinity River bottoms could not be expanded to come any closer than 200 feet to the river by federal regulations.
The teensy-tinesy lakes also could not be expanded toward the levees, same reason. They also could not be expanded to come any closer to the many bridges crossing the river where they might compromise the safety of the bridge piers. They also would have no water source unless it was pumped in from somewhere else.
So, in other words, there could never be a Phase II. To which The Empire answered that they had never said Phase II. They only said Phase I. And, yes, without getting into a whole debate on philosophy of language, everything does have a Phase I.
Are you starting to understand my euphoria/panic thing? From the very beginning, The Empire has found effective ways to make me feel giddy and strew rose petals. But it’s like a horse and the carriage. If I’m feeling giddy now, it means that when I walk around that next corner, I’m in for it.
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The mayor’s “dream team” deal with the softly meandering curvaceously sensual wet-lipped major cleavage version of the road was just whistling at me from an alleyway. It was a stall, a maneuver to get them through the next City Council election, then only weeks away. Once that election was behind them, they turned the curvaceous road back into a nun and laughed at me.
And that’s what this is about. The laughing. It’s not even about the toll road, ultimately. It’s about a leadership that thinks it is being clever when it engages in massive and elaborate deceptions of the public — bait-and-switch fine-print trickiness — and then gets back to doing exactly what it had always intended to do from the beginning.
All they had to do in 1998 was show us TV ads with a big freeway along the river, and then tell us why we should vote for it. All they had to do two years ago was tell us we couldn’t have real lakes. All they had to do last spring at that $125-a-plate luncheon was tell everybody that the road had to be straight.
All I have to do is remember never ever to believe a single thing they say, or never leave the safety of the under-the-bed space. Next time you see my hand sticking out, please remind me.