Think about it. Imagine you are one of the powers pushing this multibillion-dollar public works project for the last half-century, especially the six- to eight-lane freeway they want to build next to their own property along the river. And you have your own polls. You know the support is extremely thin. You do not want a candidate for mayor—extremely popular, even beloved in the city's heaviest-voting, most conservative district—out there giving people the idea they should have a chance to vote this thing down.
But a major impetus for a new vote of the people may already have presented itself anyway. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers announced recently that the city's plan to build the new freeway on top of the mud levees along the river is a no-go in the wake of Katrina. That means the highway has to go out in the river bottom and up on bridges for most of its length, which changes everything, especially the money.
It may be that we're only going to have enough money and space for one or the other—the road or the park. And a choice like that screams referendum.
Last week I chatted with a bunch of mayoral candidates about the river as a mayoral issue. Thomas C. Leppert of Turner Construction (don't feel bad, nobody else has heard of him, either) is the public works establishment's candidate who is not gay. He said, "I believe that the project will generate significantly more benefits than people anticipate right now, and those benefits will be as much in the quantitative sense as they are in the qualitative sense in what it does for the city in the way it brings people together."
Ed Oakley, the other favorite of the public works construction crowd, said: "Jim, I will be talking about it. I am chair of the Trinity River Committee and I believe in it. I know you don't, but I do. It will be part of my platform."
Things got more nuanced the deeper I went in the stack of candidates. Darrell Jordan was keenly aware of the recent Army Corps of Engineers announcement. I asked him what he will say if it turns out we can't have both the highway and the park.
He said, "I think flood protection is the No. 1 priority. There are differences of opinion about how to accomplish that. But I think the park was an essential part of the deal that got the voters to approve all this, and I don't think the road particularly was."
Hey, you may not think that's a big deal, but I smell revolution in it. The people who want that road would ditch the park in a nanosecond if it came down to a choice between the two.
Max Wells brought up the r-word before I did, but not as anything he thinks is needed right away. He talked about the way the project has been expanded out into multiple so-called phases. He said before we get beyond the first two basic phases, we need to let people vote on it again.
Gary Griffith was the one who spoke to the road-versus-parks issue with the most passion. First, of course, he said he hopes it won't be a real issue. He wants the city and the Corps to figure out how both can be done within the available parameters.
"But if we were confronted with a road or parks, I will clearly be with parks, because that's what I have championed. That's been the centerpiece of my life as a park board member and as a steward of White Rock Lake, which I have taken very seriously."
All these guys hope they won't have to stake out a position on road versus park, because that's the kind of issue that sheds blood one way or the other. Go for the park, and all the big public works construction money lines up against you. But forget the park, and you risk looking like you've pulled a fast one on the voters.
At the heart of this dilemma is a quirk of history invisible to most people. Most residents of the city who were around eight years ago when the Trinity River Project was approved in a referendum remember it as primarily a park project, because that's how it was sold in a major advertising campaign. What they don't know is that it originated in smoke-filled rooms as a highway project to boost real estate values along the river. The parks were lipstick.