Mooney River: Once Again, D Magazine Misses the Trinity River Toll Road Story

Hey, I was out of town last week when the August issue of D hit the streets -- well, given the magazine's target demo, perhaps we should say it hit the winding lanes and parkways -- with an essay titled "Let's Ditch the Trinity River Toll Road."

Wow. Pretty remarkable.

From the time of the original 1998 bond election forward, Dallas's only city magazine has been locked in grim competition with the city's only daily newspaper to see which one would be the Official Number One Journalistic Procurer for the Trinity River Project including the toll road. In December 2004 D Magazine even devoted an entire "advertorial" special issue of the magazine to pimping for the project.

Tim Rogers, editor of the magazine, has devoted a lot of typing over the years to calling me a liar for my own reporting on the project and especially on the toll road.

This is self-serving, I know, but I think I must point out that every single thing I have reported about the project and the road over the years has turned out to be true. Most of what D and The Dallas Morning News have reported has turned out to be untrue. Almost all of that is implicitly confessed in the essay in the current issue of D, which provides a list of reasons why the road is a bad idea.

I said almost.

The D Magazine essay, nicely written by a new guy over there named Michael J. Mooney, sidesteps the real issue -- what's really wrong with the toll road and the whole project. Notice please that I am describing Mooney's offering as an essay. That way he and I can avoid the unpleasantness that would ensue if I were to take his piece as an actual news story and then examine it for evidence of actual reporting, of which I would find none.

So let's call it an essay. It's OK, then, if Mooney did not go out and churn up a bunch of original reporting on the project, since he's really only expressing an opinion about the reporting that has already been done by other people.

It's odd, obviously, for a guy who's brand-new to the debate to have a big opinion about it, but odd is not a crime, especially in journalism. He does offer four reasons why the toll road is a bad idea. The problem is that he misses the big one.

First, Mooney says the official story -- that the entire Trinity River Project is dependent on the building of the toll road -- is not true. True. We can skip the road and get to the rest of the project even faster.

Second, he says there is no money for the thing. True.

Third, he says the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers will never allow a road to be built out between the flood control levees where it floods. Yeah, but why? He does not say. And fourth he says highways are bad for cities. True.

What Mooney does not bring to the table is the big fundamental reason why the road and most of the rest of the project are bad for Dallas -- a theme we have covered extensively at the Observer for 13 years.

As we first reported in 1998 -- based on interviews with flood-control experts all over the country and on their reading of state-of-the-art international flood-control findings and literature -- the Trinity River project has always been atrociously bad flood-control policy. The road is merely the worst example. It's all bad.

The core design of the project flies in the face of everything scientists and engineers have learned about flood control in the last half century. It is a dangerous plan based on outmoded thinking and dishonest huckstering.

For decades, flood-control experts have been warning us not to put additional structures in the path of floodwaters. Drawing heavily on knowledge from the Netherlands, where the world's most sophisticated flood-control policies have been developed for obvious reasons, the experts have been telling us to get out of the way of floodwaters, buy out and remove threatened buildings and never to build new levees or flood walls where they are not absolutely necessary.

There is a reason why the George W. Bush White House took this plan out of its budget, forcing Dallas to get it done with earmarks instead. For the same reason, the Obama White House wouldn't put it back in the budget. The toll road idea -- building a multilane high-speed limited access road out between the levees in the flood zone -- was over the top and bad enough, but the project itself is what's really wrong.

This plan has us building new levees downriver from downtown that will greatly endanger downtown and protect only speculative development property, not southern Dallas neighborhoods as former Mayor Ron Kirk falsely promised. The lakes and meanders and other embroideries were added on to get votes without the slightest comprehension or concern about their effect on flood control.

The mantra of the city manager's staff has been that we can build anything we want out there without any effect on flooding, just by excavating and removing an amount of soil equivalent to the structure we add. That's a stupid contention -- enough to get a first-year engineering student kicked out of class.

This is the sound of people talking when they have absolutely no idea what they are talking about. We have had horrible leadership on this issue from city staff -- so bad it calls into question the whole scheme of "professional" city management.

Every single thing we do down along the river exercises an effect on the water, and from the very beginning those effects should have been our first and overwhelmingly central concern. The staff should have known that. If they did know it and kept it to themselves, somebody ought to be indicted.

The thing D publisher Wick Allison forgot to tell Mooney was this: This whole project is stupid and dangerous -- thought up and pandered to the public by dumbbells and liars. That's the part -- the dumbbells and liars part -- that the people at D would like to traipse over as quietly as possible. And Mooney did just that for them.

But like I say, Mooney's piece was well written. I would offer only this advice: Next time you start a new job, Mr. Mooney, and the first assignment the boss hands you is a major restatement of editorial policy on a topic you know nothing about, ask yourself why you were chosen.

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