Looks Like Nearly Everybody Is Against the Trinity Toll Road Now. Does that Matter?

Reaching for a badly mixed metaphor, I guess I would say those of us personally involved for a long time on the opposition side of the Trinity roll road issue feel right now like we're breathless flies on the wall with our fingers crossed and our dukes up (flies have three sets of extremities, I think).

On the one hand, we never thought we would see this much informed opinion against it. On the other hand, we know how little this project has to do with informed opinion.

We have learned a grudging respect for the advocates. Opinion against them, especially smart opinion, is just another barricade to blast their way through on their way to a goal they have sought for a half century.

May 4, The Dallas Morning News published a letter-to-the-editor from prominent Dallas architect Robert Meckfessel renouncing the plan. An op-ed piece in the paper followed on June 1 from architect Larry Good, saying he, too, was jumping ship. Both Good and Meckfessel had been forceful voices in defense of building a highway along the river near downtown in 2007 when the plan was temporarily threatened by a referendum.

In announcing his own change of mind and heart, Good's tone was almost contrite: "I have changed my mind," he wrote, "and now confess publicly my opposition to building this highway."

Then I realized that D Magazine publisher Wick Allison also had turned against the road. I went to see him, because I have always liked Allison and worried he might have suffered some kind of trauma. What I got instead was a really smart lecture on why Dallas needs a whole new vision of the role of roads in is future.

See also: How D Magazine's Wick Allison Changed His Mind on the Trinity Parkway

On June 12, Ralph Hawkins, chairman of HKS Architects and incoming chairman of the Dallas Regional Chamber (of commerce), joined former Trammell Crow Company (huge real estate) chief executive Don Williams in a Morning News op-ed piece denouncing the plan to build a high-speed limited access multi-lane toll road on the banks of the river between downtown and Oak Cliff. The day that one ran, I was on my way up to the Ozarks for a solo canoe trip, pulling into a motel the evening before I was to launch. My cell phone rang, and I saw that it was former City Council member Angela Hunt.

She asked if I had seen the Hawkins/Williams piece, and I said I had. Funny conversation, her back in Dallas, me on the motel tarmac overlooking green foothills, lots of excited jabber punctuated by awkward silence. The thing is, Hunt, more than I, has been to this hog auction before. She's the one who put together the 2007 referendum. Some of the very people coming out against it now called her a liar, a fool and worse for revealing flaws in the design, flaws they now recognize and base their new positions on.

I don't remember that either one of us was interested in that aspect -- the head-snapping turnarounds -- when we talked last June. So what? People change their minds. They see old facts in a new light. It's called debate in a free society. What, we don't want people to change their minds? We've never done it?

But Hunt has been through another deeper and scarier aspect of this whole saga -- the breath-taking reach, power, ferocious determination and stubborn invisibility of whoever it is. Whoever it is. That's our name for them, her and me. We should shorten it. We could call them Whotiz.

In 2007 Hunt was able to line up academic experts in other parts of the country who were willing at first to talk about the sheer insanity of barricading the river with a freeway at a time when cities around the world are spending billions to undo just this kind of mistake made 30 and 40 years ago in their own downtowns. She even got so she knew the drill: Talk to expert. Persuade expert to explain publicly why it's a bad idea. Expert says no sweat, of course it's a bad idea. I'll be there with bells on.

Wait a week. Expert calls back. No can do. Too busy at this time. The lesson eventually was this: Sure, they're academics, and we think of academics as being intellectually independent. But these are academics in the fields of engineering and civil design, and those are client-based fields, eventually. If Professor X isn't worried about pissing off Dallas or the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, talk to the chairman of his department. He or she is worried.

Whotiz sees it coming. They have their own drill. They reach out and make sure the message is received. Those of us opposed to the project have had to imagine what that message must be, but, based on many identical outcomes over many years, we guess it's something like this: You come to Dallas and talk bad about this project, forget about ever working on any project that involves Texas or federal money.

Far from dismissing the real perils people face in speaking out against the Trinity Toll Road, I know all too well how scary it can be for them. If you don't believe me, take a look at the op-ed piece in the daily paper today: a passel more architects are calling for the plan to be abandoned, but only after they offer a cringing profession of loyalty to all things Dallas. The tone will put you in mind of a puppy curled on the floor with its tail between its legs, head twisted up with that corner-eyed look that means "please don't-beat me too terrible bad."

On the ground here in Dallas the principal puppy-beaters working for Whotiz have been the North Central Texas Council of Governments, a federally sponsored planning agency supposedly set up to ensure rational use of federal transportation funds, long ago co-opted by the people whose real estate schemes depend on long-range planning for use of federal money. In 2007 and today, "The Cog," as it is called, has been the political assault force for the Toll road.

Earlier this month Brandon Formby and Rudy Bush at the Morning News reported that The Cog was working on a plan to put together piecemeal funding for a preliminary segment of the toll road. It would be a means of implanting the first piece of the road in the body of the river. That one segment might be enough to forestall or cut off other uses, mainly recreational, that might conflict or at least compete with the road. That first segment also would serve as a financial/political commitment that could be counted on to metastasize later.

The segmental approach means that, far from giving up, Whotiz sees the consensus gathering against it and is determined to head it off at the pass. The piece-at-a-time plan is all the proof anybody should need that Whotiz will push this plan forward in spite of and in defiance of any rising tide of public opinion against it.

They're going to tell you that the people of Dallas have voted for their road, twice, by the way, and they will be telling the truth. I can go on and on here about the lies told in those elections, but I guess that's what people who lose elections always say. In 1998 and in 2007, they won, and they have that going for them.

But think back for a moment also to the people who have come out against the road in recent months. All of the things I said above about the incredible pressure brought to bear on critics in the past applies to them, and maybe more so.

These people are right here, not in Boston or Stanford, and they need clients, bankers and advertisers right here. It takes real courage -- no, I mean it, real courage -- for people in their positions to say what they are saying now.

So here's the thinking among us flies on the wall. First of all, hurrah. Hurrah for the courage. But secondly, do they truly know what they're getting themselves in for? Do they know hard Whotiz is going to come back on them? Has it started already?

Everybody in this picture is over 21. Everybody should know. But experience has taught us flies that they don't always know. That's why we have our fingers crossed and our dukes up at the same time. Forgive us for horrible metaphors, but we've got 2,000 of our eyes focused on the growing consensus and the other 2,000 looking out for that damned swatter. I was about to say our hind fly legs are ready to jump and dancing a jig, but that might stretch the metaphor too far.

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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