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.


Trinity Toll Road

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.

That's where I start wanting Hunt to turn the knife, but she won't. I am still stunned and sickened when I look back at the callowness of the mayor, who stripped Hunt of all committee assignments on the council as punishment for her dissent on the Trinity project.

He personalized the issue during the referendum with his mailer urging voters: "Don't let Angela Hunt send more than $1 billion down the river..." That's the billion dollars, of course, that he said he had, which we now know he didn't.

I have difficulty getting around that stuff. Hunt does not. In repeated conversations in the last month or so she has told me—warned me, I guess—that she intends to offer what I would call political cover to the mayor and other partisans on the other side of this debate. She does not call Leppert a liar. She calls him a salesman.

If and when anybody asks her, she is going to say that a lot has changed since 2007. She will call special attention to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers national levee inspection program that flunked the Dallas levees after giving them excellent grades for decades.

She's going to say stuff happens, things change, and looking back in bitterness accomplishes nothing. I know she believes the tension between her and Leppert is all City Hall inside baseball with little or no meaning to the general public.

Ehh. She could be right.

What the public does want—what the public was sold from the very beginning in 1998—is a big park. Some kind of park downtown. People sort of accepted the idea of building a toll road through the park because it got rammed down their throats by the rah-rah chorus at the Morning News. But the romance and vision and sizzle of this whole thing from the very beginning has been the idea of a really cool park.

The danger—and this brings us back to the truth problem—is that the park never really meant squat to the people who pushed this project in the first place. They wanted the road.

Rich old white people in Dallas do not go to parks in Dallas. They believe parks are things you find at the end of airplane rides. And then you hire a guide, an outfitter and a chef, so you won't feel like you're just, you know, outdoors!

A whole new generation of people—more than a generation, I guess, a demographic swath—is now here in the city, most of them living in the center city, who do get parks. They would love to have a place where they could take dirt bikes or canoes and get out into the out of doors.

They are not horrified by sweat and can even deal with mosquitoes and the occasional tick. Water moccasins might be a learning curve, but they can get over even that challenge in order to be outdoors. So far they haven't been at the table.

That's the problem. In his remarks last week, Leppert seemed all too ready and willing to ditch the park. As Sam Merten has reported on our news blog, Unfair Park, the city has already started spending park money on the levee repair in order to shelter some of the money it still has around for the road.

Here is the two-part truth we need to get to in order to get anywhere close to reconciliation. 1.) The road through the park is dead. 2.) People still want the park.

Dallas Congresswoman Eddie Bernice Johnson has called for a summit of local leaders to discuss the road-between-the-levees issue. The Trinity River Project from its inception has been almost entirely a creature of congressional earmarks, and Johnson is the most powerful person in Washington in terms of earmarks for this project.

In 2007, when people still thought Leppert was telling the truth about safety issues and funding for the road, 47 percent of voters voted with Hunt and against the levee alignment. I have to believe, given what we now know to be true and untrue, that Hunt's side would sweep the field if the same election were held today.

It would be productive and right for her to be at that table if and when Johnson does convene a summit. Hunt sees a way ahead in all of this that does not involve recrimination and loss of face for the other side. If the other side were smart, they would grab that deal right now.

Now if this were strictly up to me and my druthers? Oh, well, let me be clear. I hope the road-lovers don't take the deal. I hope they fight this out to the last drop of blood. I know you can't have reconciliation without truth, but I bet we could get to some truth without all the reconciliation. That would be swell by me.

Remember that the argument in favor of putting the road between the levees was that everyone except for a handful of dissenters supported it, and obviously the solid official majority cannot be wrong. The lesson is that most of the elected officials, all of the chambers of commerce and everybody at The Dallas Morning News absolutely can be wrong. Dead wrong. All they have to do is go over to the wrong side and line up. That's the truth we need to see in this eventually.

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