Mayor Mike Gets the Answer He Wanted on the Trinity Toll Road. But Don't You Believe It.

Dallas Mayor Mike ("I'm a toll road guy") Rawlings has pitched a bunch of numbers to the media that he says prove Dallas should build the Trinity toll road before it fixes the existing freeways downtown. But thanks to some very handy detective work by three anti-toll road city council members, you can look for Rawlings' argument to come apart like a cheap suit in the weeks ahead.

In fact, people may even wind up truly shocked and awed if the data behind Rawlings' pitched turn out to be as deceptive as they appear at first blush. I have a long set of questions in right now to Bill Hale, district engineer for this part of Texas.

Hale is who I know to ask, but putting it on him may be unfair. He's a straight-shooting engineer. But the numbers Rawlings is using came from the Texas Department of Transportation in Austin and appear to have been influenced by the North Central Texas Council of Governments, an agency with oversight over regional highway spending. Anyway, I'm starting with Hale because he's honest, and we'll see where he takes it.

Luckily, at the same time Rawlings was asking TxDOT for numbers to compare Project Pegasus (fix the old freeways) with the toll road (build a brand-new one next to the river), city council members Sandy Greyson, Scott Griggs and Angela Hunt were asking TxDOT their own questions.

The answers they got and the detective work/analysis they have done with those answers allow me today to pull up the skirts on what the mayor and TxDOT are saying.

What was the question again?

Two highway projects. Haven't done either one. No money. One is called Pegasus. It's a total rebuild of the existing freeways and interchanges in downtown to make them fatter and more smoothly flowing.

The other is the Trinity River toll road, which would run from about the old Texas Stadium site in Irving to Highway 175 in Southeast Dallas.

So the question was this: If we get some money, which one should we do first? Which one will move the most cars and reduce the most congestion at the least cost?

Rawlings has presented the press with a TxDOT analysis that he says proves that the toll road is the winner. But the council trio have come right back at him with their own analysis.

As the days ahead tick by, more and more reporters will get a chance to look at the the latter data and pick apart the document Rawlings has offered. My guess is that it's not going to be a pretty picture for either Rawlings or TxDOT.

Let me just give you a thumbnail. The question was, Pegasus or toll road? But when you bore down into the TxDOT document, that's not what they have done.

They pretend to offer comparative data for how many cars each one will carry, but in fact all of the numbers they present assume that both projects are built at the same time.

Let me try to explain. Say you have a chicken farm. You deliver your chickens to the restaurants in your old Chevy chicken truck, which is kind of beat up and needs new rubber and maybe a transmission. Your brother-in-law and partner wants to buy a new Ford chicken truck. So you tell him to pencil it out, come back and tell you which plan will deliver the most chickens for the least money per chicken -- repair the Chevy or buy the Ford.

He comes back with an analysis that shows that fixing the old Chevy won't really help deliver that many chickens. But halfway into the conversation, you find out he's basing his analysis on the assumption that you do both -- fix the Chevy and buy the Ford at the same time.

He says, "See, the Chevy won't deliver all that many chickens." But that's because he's assuming half the chickens will go in the Ford.

What, is he an idiot? No, he wants that new Ford, and I guess he thinks you're an idiot.

That's exactly what the TxDOT analysis does. It shortchanges all of the numbers for Pegasus because it assumes we will do both projects, and a bunch of traffic will be diverted off Pegasus onto the toll road.

But, wait! We don't have the money! We said the question was one or the other. What, are these people idiots? I refer to my answer above.

You could chalk this up to some kind of gigantic mistake, I guess, maybe something that got into the water cooler down there at TxDOT headquarters in Austin and caused an epidemic of brain aneurysms, but you have to put this mistake in context with an entire fabric of deceptions in the rest of the document.

The TxDOT document that Rawlings hangs his hat on states flatly that the toll road will make money from tolls and Pegasus won't because it can't be tolled. But the data the council people got from TxDOT shows that TxDOT has not one iota of evidence that the toll road will raise any money at all from tolls.

Think about it. Texas Stadium to southern Dallas. How much are you going to pay for that ride? The only technical studies done on projected toll revenues for the road in the past have shown measly scant income, way too little to pay for the road or even a significant share. So it's quite a leap for TxDOT to claim toll money as a major advantage for the Trinity road now.

And there's a thumb on the other side of the scales. The TxDOT study claims in a footnote that no lanes can be tolled on the Pegasus project. It presents no supporting information. But in the data it gave to the council trio, TxDOT conceded that 80 percent of the traffic through Pegasus will be pass-through, people going all the way from one end to the other to get around downtown, instead of people jumping on and off to downtown locations. In addition, Pegasus gets rid of all those screwy left-hand exits downtown. So that should be ideal toll country: tons of people who can stay in a left-hand toll lane or lanes and go right through from one end to the other.

In fact, it sounds so ideal, we have to wonder if somebody doesn't want us to see those numbers. What if Pegasus has the power to out-toll the Trinity up one side and down the other?

There's all kinds of fascinating stuff in what the council members got. You remember the big argument saying we have to build the toll road first as a detour for Project Pegasus? I always said I didn't remember anyone in history ever building a new freeway as a detour for another freeway, but they continued to insist it would be way too expensive to build detours otherwise.

So Greyson, Griggs and Hunt asked TxDOT what it cost it to build detours for the Dallas High Five interchange, the LBJ rebuild from Interstate 35E to U.S.75, and the I-45 Houston projects.

Guess. You can't get it right. Guess how much. Same price all three projects.

Zero. Zip. Nothing.

They rerouted traffic on existing roads. In fact, when I saw that information, I remembered when they rebuilt all of Central Expressway without building any detours. Oh, no, what a horror! We're all gonna die, right? They rerouted a lot of that traffic down Live Oak, a block from my house.

For years it was kinda extra busy over there during rush hour. That's it. Children grew up, wed, had children of their own. The earth turned smoothly on its axis except for some stuff with Madonna.

There is more and more and more in this document. I think it's going to turn out to be really terrible, even reprehensible. They assumed we'd do both projects, and then they compared them. Can you even believe that?

Why do I keep thinking of the Lovin' Spoonful song: "Did you ever have to make up your mind? Pick up on one and leave the other behind?"

This would be like, "Did you ever have to make up your mind? Marry them both and pick the better behind."

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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