Mayor Tom Leppert Should Just Fess Up: The Trinity Toll Road Is Dead And Done

Ireland, South Africa and Sierra Leone have all committed to "truth and reconciliation" as a process for healing wounds of history. Even Canada. So why not us?

Dallas' grand obsession with a star-crossed and now collapsing public works project has finally brought the city to what may be a truth-and-reconciliation moment. Events of the last couple weeks have made it obvious even to the hold-outs that the Trinity River Project authorized by voters in 1998 is not going to happen in the form promised.

In order for any of it to happen, the city will have to achieve some kind of reconciliation over why the original version failed. I don't happen to have a big personal appetite for the reconciliation part. Not my job. But others do.

Over the last few months on several occasions, I have called city council member Angela Hunt, the principle architect of the 2007 Trinity Toll Road referendum, to try to get her to say, "I told you so," and she won't do it. Our conversations were not off the record, but I was not taking notes, so I can't quote her precisely. What I offer here is paraphrased:

Everybody paying attention sees the truth by now about Dallas' 12-year-old multi-billion dollar project to rebuild flood control levees along the Trinity River through the center of the city, build a major high-speed highway out between the levees where it floods, create lakes and parks and then overlay the whole thing with a series of faux suspension bridges.

Ain't gonna happen.

City officials and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers have been trying to piecemeal the bad news in recent months. First they had to concede that Dallas doesn't even have enough money to do the basic minimal fix for the 23-mile levee system—a series of mud berms, the only thing standing between the city and catastrophic flooding during our biannual monsoon seasons. The city said last week the cost will be $150 million. People I'm talking to say we should think more in the range of $1 billion.

Last week Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert finally conceded that there is no money to fund the huge gap in costs for building a highway between the levees where it floods.

Meanwhile the Corps has been forced to back off its long stubborn assertion that a highway can be built out between the levees without having any effect on flood control. Who believed that anyway?

In his statement reported in the April 16 Dallas Morning News, the mayor tried to make it sound as if we just have to be patient and wait for the money to show up. But that's nuts. Put the whole thing in this context: The North Texas Tollway Authority, which says it absolutely does not have the billion dollars needed to bridge the funding gap on the Trinity Toll Road, has more than half a dozen other toll road projects planned or under way and fully funded.

The Trinity Toll Road is not unfunded because it's waiting. It is unfunded because it's a loser. It has already competed with other toll road projects of its time, and it has lost.

Here we start to get into the really tough part about reconciliation. You can't do reconciliation by skipping the truth part. And the truth—the full truth—is not all just wonky numbers crap. It is also about the way this city and some of its leadership have viewed dissent in the long years of this debate.

Forget writers. We get paid to do this stuff. Think about elected leaders. Those are people who step out of their private lives, climb onto the public stage, take a position and then wait for the masses to cheer and strew palm leaves or curse and hurl fruit.

That takes courage. For most of them. Sometimes they do it to get consulting contracts for their girlfriends, but most of them do it because they care about community, and that caring and willingness to take the guff set them apart. Even ... oh, ugh, do I really have to say this? ... Tom Leppert has a certain courage and commitment. I might need a microscope to find it. But it's there somewhere.

Here's the problem. Leppert and the other partisans for this project, very much including The Dallas Morning News, have been petty in the extreme in their treatment of the city's main elected dissenter, while still trying to camouflage their own failure.

Leppert told the Morning News last week, "Let's be clear, there is no strategic change."

But that's not true. It's hugely untrue. Everything being conceded now about the project represents enormous strategic change. The assertions and promises the mayor made during the 2007 referendum were not true: The Corps and the tollway authority had not "signed off" on safety and funding issues. Obviously. The toll road is now dead because of safety and funding issues.

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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