My Brain on Crack

OK, now I'm mad. Do you hear me, Wick Allison? Yeah, scary, isn't it?

Let me tell you how I feel about the big project to build parks, lakes and roads along the Trinity River downtown. I love it. We need more Austin here, less Waco.

It costs money. We have to borrow. We have to pay more taxes. It's an investment.

But look. This is also like a car deal. We went to the showroom in 1998 when we voted to let the city borrow $246 million for the Trinity River Project. We chose a fancy one—the Lexus SUV with the leather and the mag wheels and the two DVD players and the GPS navigation.

Now it's eight years later. They're trying to get us to take this Ford Escape with steel rims, cloth seats, a cheap portable CD player with earbuds and a map of Texas in the glove box. And the contract says we could owe them a billion dollars.

Wick Allison, the publisher of D magazine, has devoted his entire publisher's note in the December edition to a discussion of whether Jim Schutze—that would be moi—has been telling the truth or distorting the facts about the Trinity Project. He doesn't come right out and say it, but I think his implied conclusion is that Jim Schutze smokes crack.

So first off, let me take you back to what we saw in that showroom eight years ago. Before the 1998 bond election the "We Love Dallas" bond campaign committee published a brochure showing a sailboat regatta on a lake the length of downtown with a huge fountain in the center and promenades and terraces on the downtown bank.

The brochure's promise to voters was clear and explicit: "If you've ever taken a stroll down San Antonio's Riverwalk, sat by a lake in New York's beautiful Central Park, or driven along Austin's scenic Town Lake, then you know how valuable these recreational resources are to a city...

"With absolutely no tax increase to Dallas citizens, the Trinity River Project is the key to making 21st Century Dallas a world-class city—an 8,500-acre greenbelt bursting with new business and entertainment."

Fast-forward. Right now as the project stands, my calculations are that Dallas taxpayers are on the hook for an additional $1.125 billion, over and above the 1998 bond money. I had a big, long argument about this with the mayor, the city manager and two top officials several weeks ago. They said I had wrongly included $330 million for the Calatrava bridges.

I say I'm not wrong. But just for grins, let's take the $330 million out. So now the taxpayers are on the hook for $795 million extra, over and above what we voted for in 1998. Even with their correction for the bridges, the amount of money sitting on our tab right now is three times what we have already put in.

In previous columns, I have listed all of the features that have been removed from the project we voted for—little details such as the main water supply for the lakes, roads to get to the lakes, trails, the terraces, the promenades and so on. But let me go at this a little differently this time.

In response to my open records demand, Trinity Project director Rebecca Dugger provided me with numbers to show the ultimate cost of each portion of the plan as it exists now. She also gave me the amounts available from the 1998 bonds and all of the money that has been found from other sources to help pay for the project.

I put all this in a simple spreadsheet and figured the shortfalls. Let me just give you some highlights. According to the city's own official numbers, provided to me in response to a legal demand for them, the cost for building trails alone will be $36.149 million.

Of that, the bond money will pay for $10.256 million. The city told me it had found $7.067 million from other sources. That leaves a shortfall of $18.826 million for the trails.

Look at it again. The money we approved eight years ago now only pays for 28 percent of the cost of the trails. The city has persuaded other entities to pick up an additional 20 percent. That means you and I, dear local taxpayer, are on the books for an additional 52 percent or almost 19 million bucks just for trails.

I sat at a conference table in City Hall and challenged the mayor, the city manager, Dugger and Assistant City Manager Jill Jordan to show me where my shortfalls were wrong. I gave them my spreadsheets.

Here are samples of the things they did not argue with: a $16 million shortfall to make the river curvy instead of straight; a $50 million shortfall for park roads; a $19 million shortfall for digging out the proposed lakes; a $27 million shortfall for improvements to S.M. Wright Boulevard.

To me and in public, Mayor Miller has been offering an excuse for these shortfalls that strikes me as especially dishonest. Her mantra is that everything costs more these days. It's sort of the Neiman Marcus defense: Only a cheapster would be surprised that stuff costs more than it used to.

First of all, this argument ignores a crucial fact about the way the project was priced. I suspect the mayor just doesn't know this, because of her scary inability to focus on details, but all of these prices were determined with padding of at least 20 percent plus 4 percent per year for inflation. It's already in there.

And anyway, Mayor: A project that threatens to cost taxpayers 400 percent more than the original deal? You really think that's just inflation? Man, I'd like to sell you a car.

But here is where the mayor and D magazine publisher Wick Allison have a better case. They both say that three years ago when the mayor led a massive redesign of the project, it was clear the new version would cost a lot more money. Fancy new features like a whitewater kayaking course were added. Miller and Allison both say these costs were divulged to the public at the time.

Let me try to answer that one two ways, first with my idiot test, by which I mean the way I test myself. Hey, Jim: Do you remember a headline in The Dallas Morning News that said anything about, "Miller quadruples cost of Trinity Project to local taxpayers"?

Nah. I think maybe I musta missed school that day. Give me a demerit or something.

Now let's do the smarter test. Let's go to the actual language that was published by the city three years ago to explain how the redesign had affected the cost to local taxpayers. But first I have to explain something.

When Miller did her redesign, she divided the project up into phases. In 1998, nobody said anything about phases. But now we have phases. So hold that thought for a second. Here is what the official city document says about costs to local taxpayers under the new version of the plan:

"State and federal transportation funds were assumed to 'bridge the gap' between local funds and the cost of prior Trinity River alternatives. Under the Basic Phase 1 package, $461 million of state and federal transportation funds are needed. The Expanded Phase 1 projects that are found to meet regional transportation needs also should be considered for funding from these sources.

"All of these projects could be funded within the range of funding previously assumed for state and federal contribution to the Trinity Parkway."

All of these projects? What does that mean? Well, let's go back to the showroom in 1998. They showed us a lake the length of downtown with a fountain, sailboats, promenades, terraces. They said it was going to be like Town Lake in Austin, like Central Park in Manhattan. Since that's what they sold me and that's what I thought I was paying for, I will assume that's what is meant by "all of these projects."

But that means that the bland assurance in the city document—could be funded within the range of funding previously assumed—is a lie. It's a lie, because according to the city's own official numbers, even after we have had eight years to scrounge up every nickel of state, federal or private funding we can find, local taxpayers are still on the hook for hundreds of millions of dollars in new local tax money to pay for this thing.

And forget about phases. We didn't vote for phases. There were no phases in the contract. What is this, a used car lot? I thought we were at City Hall. Oh, sorry. City Hall is a used car lot, isn't it?

Allison deals with another point I have written about. I have said in columns that the mayor was duplicitous in slipping between $100 million and $200 million in Trinity Project items into the 2006 bond program without admitting to anybody that's what the money was for.

There's a certain bottom line on that one. The people of Dallas voted for the whole bond package by overwhelming margins, including the Trinity River stuff, whether they realized it was in there or not.

That's a wonderful thing, really. It shows the city has faith, hopes, dreams and ambition. Nothing could express all of that better than the Trinity River Project.

But the faith and courage of the voters are reasons why the voters do not deserve to be manipulated, tricked and lied to. I'd say Miller should come clean about these costs, but I no longer believe she can, because I don't believe she gets it.

Wouldn't it be great if somebody ran for mayor who did?

I don't do crack. I do children's Benadryl. One shot, every other night or so. Then I fall asleep and dream of Wick Allison grinning maniacally with his bow tie in flames. It brings me peace in this holiday season.

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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