My Brain on Crack

Page 2 of 3

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.

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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