The Vote No! Save the Trinity campaign sent a mailer to my house -- so I assume it went everywhere else, including your house -- with a picture of Tom Leppert on the front and a headline that read, “Don’t let Angela Hunt send a billion dollars down the river.” That’s not a precise quote, because I don’t have it in front of me and can’t find a copy. I already took out the trash.
The claim -- and it’s one Leppert has repeated in debates -- is that voting yes in the November 6 referendum on the Trinity River toll road will cost taxpayers a billion dollars. Leppert has been decidedly vague about where and why we would lose a billion -- for the road or for the park? But he has been emphatic about saying we will lose the billion.
So for the last week, Dallas Morning News transportation writer Michael Lindenberger has been calling people for a story about the billion dollars we will lose if we vote for Proposition 1. And on Page One of The News yesterday, we saw the product of his labors.
Let me just take this down for you. Jump along -- it's the weekend, what else do you have to do?
The news in the story, if you can untangle it from paragraphs two and three, is that we will not lose a billion dollars. The headline of the story, then, should be, “Leppert Found Big Fat Liar with Pants on Fire,” right?
But, no. The headline in the print edition was, “Millions tied to tollway,” with a deck of, “Dallas would likely have to spend more than planned for Trinity project if road voted down.”
Oh, man, why do I even read this stuff? It just makes my head hurt.
Here is one of the logic keys that you have to keep in mind in order to keep Leppert and The News from twisting your brain into a pretzel (so your brain won’t look like mine): We are only on the line for the toll road to the tune of the $86 million in city bond funds authorized by the 1998 election.
That’s all we pay. If the road costs more, other people gotta pay. We already put our money in. Deal’s a deal. We paid at the office.
The total cost of the road keeps flying all over the place. First it was $600 million. Then it went to a billion. A month ago the city said it was $1.2 billion. Later they said $1.3 billion. In a more recent debate Leppert said $1.4 billion. In Lindenberger’s story, the cost was back down to $1.2 billion.
Um, how much should we trust somebody who can only hit the target within $200 million? Seems like a thousand chimpanzees with a thousand calculators could do better than that.
But look: When the Vote No! people talk about what a good deal the road is, they are the ones who point out that we’re only in it for $86 million. The rest is gravy to us. They suggest the rest will have to be paid by the North Texas Tollway Authority.
So if we’re only in it for $86 million when the road goes in the park inside the levees, we’re only in it for $86 million outside the levees. Right? Deal’s a deal.
But Leppert keeps trying to suggest we will lose all of the funding for the toll road and then have to build it ourselves if we don’t put it inside the levees.
We’re never going to pay for the whole toll road. City Manager Mary Suhm has said that to my face. What, are we crazy? If it came to the city having to pay this gargantuan amount, the road just wouldn’t be built.
Angela Hunt makes the point that the tollway authority wants to build this road inside the levees no matter what it costs -- $600 million or $1.4 billion. So why wouldn’t they want to build it outside the levees no matter what it costs?
Lindenberger doesn’t pin any of this down. He lets the tollway authority get away with saying the cost inside the levees is $1.2 billion even though Leppert just said it was $1.4 billion. He lets the tollway authority get away with saying the cost outside the levees is $1.6 billion without an ounce of data or analysis to prove it. But then he says the additional cost, if the road goes outside the levees, will be $500 million.
Hey, now we have a real arithmetic problem. Let’s say we let them get away with the low cost inside the levees -- $1.2 billion. And then we add $500 million. Mr. Lindenberger, I keep getting $1.7 billion as the cost outside the levees. Not $1.6. Oh, well. It’s only addition.
Lindenberger throws in $12 million that he says we will lose for ramps off the toll road into the park. But, wait a minute here, Hieronymus. Why do we need ramps off the toll road if we don’t have a toll road? If we have a parkway and not a toll road, then we can have crosswalks.
He quotes Craig Holcomb as saying we will lose the million dollars a mile that the toll authority has promised to spend on landscaping. But last time this came up, Holcomb and company had to admit that permanent landscaping won’t be possible in the flood way where they want to build this thing, so we’ll have to have trees in pots.
Know what? I don’t want to see a million dollars worth of shriveled trees in pots out there turning to charcoal in the Texas heat. It’s a hideous idea. Poor trees! I for one will be thrilled to see the trees in pots idea go away totally and forever. I suggest the toll road backers put themselves in pots out along the levees and see how they like it.
Lindenberger quotes Trinity Project Director Rebecca Dugger as saying if the road goes away, the tollway authority won’t contribute $25 million in excavation work to digging our lakes. But Dugger must also have said to him, as she says to all reporters, that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will dig those lakes, so we probably won’t lose any or most of that money. But he doesn’t mention that.
The two biggest twisteroonies of fact in this story are these: Linenbarger reports as accepted fact that putting the road outside the levees will cost more than inside, because the city will have to buy land to put it on. But city staff are on record saying the outside-the-levees alignment is no longer more expensive than inside.
There are many reasons for that, especially the enormously expensive work that must be done to flood-protect the road inside the levees and to protect the park and river from pollution from the road.
I happen to know that some of the people he interviewed told him this and dared him to check it out. He didn’t do it.
The second thing is something some of his interview subjects also challenged him on: if this road really only costs us $86 million, no matter where it goes, and if it now costs the tollway authority way more than a billion, how is the tollway authority going to pay for it?
They just completed the same length of toll road up in Collin Country for a fifth the cost. How do they make this dog pay out if it’s going to cost this enormous amount more?
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All he had to do was ask them. He didn’t.
It’s not easy. I have been waiting quite some time for my answer to the same question, which I had to make in the form of a legal demand after the tollway folks declined to take my phone calls. But at least he could have tried.
So he winds up with a front-page story in which he stands on his head and talks pig Latin in order to suggest that the mayor’s telling the truth and Angela Hunt is going to cost us tons of money.
What can I even say about that? What can anybody say? It just gets more and more absurd, and some day it will finally be funny. But not yet. Not today. --Jim Schutze