Not Just Kneecapping It, Anchia Wants to Make Sure Trinity Toll Road Won't Kill Us

Hang on. We had a piece here the other day saying State Representative Rafael Anchia had introduced legislation in Austin to "kneecap" the proposed Trinity toll road project in Dallas, and, true enough, that's what Anchia's bills might do.

But in addition to blocking certain state funding from being used for this most hated of all public works projects, Anchia's legislation also seeks to restore basic levels of human safety and social responsibility if it does get built. That may be the more important part of what Anchia is trying to do.

As it stands, the Trinity toll road is arguably the most dangerous project of its kind proposed in the nation today in terms of the potential threat it poses to life and property and because it has been exempted from basic safeguards normally brought to bear against such risks. That's a point often lost in the furor over other aspects of the plan.

See also: Dallas State Rep. Anchia Files Bills to Kneecap Trinity Toll Road

The Dallas chapter of the American Institute of Architects published a FAQ list yesterday explaining its opposition to the Trinity toll road project. Mention is made in that document of the role of Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans in 2005 in forcing certain changes in the design.

This aspect of the project -- flood safety -- is a convoluted and disturbing story. In truth the Dallas toll road has been in trouble with the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers over flood control issues since long before Katrina, beginning right after the original authorization election for the Trinity River project in 1998.

At the time of the 1998 bond election, Dallas was still planning to build the toll road on top of the levees. Right after the election the Corps of Engineers issued an edict flatly denying permission for that design to be carried out.

The corps told Dallas the levees are needed to protect downtown from potentially massive flooding should flood water "overtop" the levees and tear them down quickly by erosion. The corps said slicing and dicing the levees to use them as a road support system could dangerously weaken them.

So Dallas decided to build its toll road on the sides of the levees. Then in August, 2005, Hurricane Katrina and subsequent flooding killed 1,836 people and millions were left homeless along the Gulf Coast. Subsequent studies blamed much of the damage in New Orleans on shoddy levees. Congress ordered the corps to carry out a national levee safety survey.

As a result of that survey, in 2009 the corps "decertified" the Trinity River levees as they stood, meaning the Corps no longer believed the levees could protect downtown Dallas from catastrophic flooding, even without a highway built into their sides.

Dallas immediately joined a coalition of cities to lobby Congress in an effort to force the corps to back off, and eventually the corps announced it was promulgating a new definition of risk. Under the new definition, the Trinity River levees were deemed less risky.

Texas Senator Kay Bailey Hutchison, meanwhile, succeeded in getting Congress to exempt the Trinity River project from major provisions of the National Environmental Protection Act. The corps then announced that it would no longer offer any opinion at all on the safety of the Trinity River levees, leaving that up entirely to Dallas and its own hired engineering consultants.

So where, exactly, did all of that leave us? Last year when the city finally unveiled the completed basic design for the toll road, it was a 535-foot-wide roadway jammed up against the banks of the river in places. Drivers on the roadway supposedly were protected from drowning in a flood by a jury-rigged system of walls, but engineers hired by the city said even that system would depend on "very good forecasting" and an emergency evacuation plan.

The city of Dallas and the proponents of the toll road have gone to almost unimaginable lengths -- using paid lobbyists to hound the Corps of Engineers into a corner, persuading the congress to take a meat-ax to federal law governing the project -- in order to exempt this project from the typical review and analysis provided to citizens everywhere else in America where a project like this impinges on flood safety.

Half of what Anchia is seeking to do in Austin is financial. His bills would prevent backroom reach-arounds to finance the Trinity toll road from the pockets of unwitting toll- and taxpayers elsewhere -- a worthy cause.

But an even more urgent part of what he's trying to do, it seems to me, is restore some basic level of human safety and responsibility by calling for a state-level environmental review.

Look at it this way. Think about the job the city does maintaining the streets you drive on every day. Think about some of those debates you see on TV, like the recent one in which council member Vonciel Hill called angrily for reduced ethical standards.

See also: Dallas City Council Guts Already Ineffective Ethics Complaint System

Now ask yourself if you trust Dallas City Hall to operate a highway on the river that depends on "very good forecasting" and some kind of oogah-horn to warn you to get off the road the quickest way possible to avoid getting drowned in your car. The entire system has been exempted from normal American environmental safety. And if you ask the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers if the system could collapse, they tell you it's not their job to answer that question.

Now tell me Anchia isn't on to something.

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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