Michael Morris Is the King of DFW Politics, and the King Says the Highways Stay

Michael Morris, the Dallas Forth Worth area's No. 1 regional transportation planner, guru and playuh, was back in the news over the weekend and today for his decree that knocking down an overhead freeway in Dallas ain't gonna happen, no matter what the hippie wingdings think (not his precise words).

Morris, director of Transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments ('splain later), gave The Dallas Morning News a kind of airy wave-of-the-riding-crop quote: "There's not much our office is going to be able to do to help them and there's not much [the state highway department] will be able to do," he said of various groups studying demolition of I-345 on the east end of downtown.

The plan, to take down a rickety elevated highway and turn it into a boulevard, comes straight out of all the "new urbanism" thinking about downtowns and how to make them cool. The basic reasoning is that if you can't make downtown cool -- an inviting, walkable place to live and work -- you might as well make it go away, because otherwise the only thing downtown does is suck.

Morris would never admit it, but he comes straight out of the late 20th century thinking that says, yes, downtown does suck, and, yes, that's all it's ever going to do. So build as many freeways through it as you can so people won't get stuck in the suck.

But, wait. Who is he again? What does he work for, The North Texas Council of Committees of Central American ... uh ... what? Who cares what this guy says?

Oh, believe me. Eeeeverybody who knows what's what cares deeply. You can forget about mayors and city councils and state legislators and sometimes even congresspersons. Morris has way more stick than those guys.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments is what is called a metropolitan planning organization (MPO). In the 1990s, when the Congress passed the Intermodal Surface Transportation Efficiency Act (ISTEA), the act gave MPOs like the one Morris works for major authority to divvy up federal transportation money in their regions. The idea -- or what we might now call "the joke" -- was that the MPOs would lift transportation planning up out of the swamp of politics and make it "rational," whatever that word ever really means.

Look. Billions of dollars. Decisions about where highways go or don't go. A magic wand that makes land values in one place soar and values in another crater. Is that ever going to be not political? We don't think the people who own a whole bunch of land are going to slip upside their local MPO and put that little critter on a rhinestone leash?

If you look back over the years, in fact, Morris has been the old establishment's most aggressive politician on transportation issues, barnstorming in 2007 to save the Trinity River Toll Road, for example, when it was threatened by a referendum. If you compare what he has said about that particular project over the years, what leaps out is that Morris, an academic planner by profession, can muster highly technical-sounding, not to say deliberately inscrutable arguments to support any position, even when he has to change position 180 degrees.

When he started huckstering for it 15 years ago, Morris said the toll road would provide a crucial detour and "reliever" route during the state highway department's "Project Pegasus" rebuild of the old "mixmaster" freeway exchanges downtown -- a project he always painted as a kind of life and death heart transplant for downtown.

But in 2012 the state said there wouldn't be money for both Project Pegasus and the toll road. State highway officials also said Pegasus could be done without the toll road as a detour. Morris immediately told The Dallas Morning News that Pegasus was a piece of junk and a waste of money and that if only one project could be done it should be the toll road alone.

Build the detour but not the highway? Yup. You could almost see that rhinestone leash jerking.

There has been a slow awakening around the country to the problems created by funneling huge federal resources through obscure regional planning agencies with almost no visibility and little real political accountability. In 2009 The New York Times did a piece in which some people bitched that most of the nation's MPOs seemed to be under rural/suburban control at the expense of cities.

That same year, Morris was partnered up with Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price in efforts to slow down development of Dallas' big "inland Port" rail and shipping project in southern Dallas, painting the main developer as insensitive to racial issues even though that developer's minority participation rates far outstripped that of Morris' own organization. I found back then there were some people in the Legislature sort of worried or perplexed about a dude like Morris, who was supposed to be Professor Rational with pop-bottle glasses and chalk all over his tweed jacket -- above politics and all -- out there in the trenches slinging mud with the best of the rascals. But you know, that's Austin. Concern and perplexity seldom outlast the cocktail hour.

I don't think people get what the MPOs have become, and Michael Morris is the poster boy for it. They have become their own kind of back channel, a sequester where the money can be diverted and controlled by the rhinestone leash-holders.

Peter Simek has a good piece over on Frontburner about this latest Michael Morris brouhaha, in which Morris seems to slap the leadership of the city with his white parade gloves, telling Dallas it can study tearing down I-345 all it wants but the teardown is never going to happen. Simek concludes, "How many times does this guy need to be put in his place?"

Ah, but you see, there is the problem. He's in his place. And it's big. Let me ask you something: Why else would he talk like that?

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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