Not One Word in this Story About the Trinity Toll Road Makes a Bit of Sense

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I think we’ve actually reached the point where nothing, not one single thing that anyone, very much including myself, has to say about the so-called “Trinity toll road” can be understood by anyone, by which I mean any human being, living, dead or unborn.

Yesterday Brandon Formby had what I think was probably a very good story about the Trinity toll road in The Dallas Morning News. I offer the hedge word, probably, because I was not able to understand a single word in the story, even with labor.

But I appreciate that at this point, after this controversy has gone on for 18 years, none of us is expected to understand any more. A quick refresher for you:

In 1998 the people of Dallas voted to build a park with sailboat lakes along the Trinity River through downtown. Somewhere in the campaign literature it said there would be a “parkway” — a road through the park.

The voters approved $246 million for the overall project after being assured they would incur no additional costs. If the parkway proved more expensive than previously thought, it might be built as a toll road and pay for itself.

Within months after the election, a major shift in the funding of the project took place in which money was diverted away from the lakes and park and into the road. A traffic analysis was carried out showing that the road could only pay its own way as a toll road if it were fattened into an expressway with few or no access points into the park, operating at high speeds so people could save enough time to make it worth paying a toll.

But that seemed crappy. We had voted for parks and sailboat lakes, not a big fat highway. How could a parks project become a big fat highway project?

Somewhere in that period, Michael Morris, the regional planning czar who oversees federal and state transportation funds, remembered something he had forgotten to mention during the 1998 election. The whole reason for the road, he said, the reason why it absolutely had to be built, was to serve as a “bypass” or detour for the aging freeway interchanges downtown, which could not be repaired without the toll road in place first.

Some years later, even though no work had begun on the toll road, state and federal money became available for some of the major freeway interchanges downtown, so some interchange projects began without the toll road. That meant — you really need to start taking notes — that the bypass argument for the road had been bypassed. It was no longer operational.

Aha! Morris remembered something he had forgotten to mention when he was talking about the bypass: The whole reason for the toll road, the real reason why it absolutely had to be built, he said, was to carry traffic from the terribly over-burdened older freeways themselves downtown even after the interchanges had been fixed.

But City Council members Angela Hunt and Scott Griggs took Morris’ own traffic projections, noodled through them, spread-sheeted them, sketched them out and came up with an analysis showing that even a fat superhighway toll road along the river, totally obliterating the parks and the lakes and so on, would do almost nothing to relieve traffic on the old freeways.

Why? They went different places. The only way the toll road could get people off the older freeways would be for those people to change jobs or move to new communities. So fat chance.

Morris said he had forgotten something else. When he was talking about a reliever route, he had neglected to mention the real reason for the Trinity toll road, the reason why it absolutely had to be built. Dead Man’s Curve (cue music).

Dead Man’s Curve was a dangerous, too often perilous stretch of U.S. 175, the C.F. Hawn Freeway, at the interchange with Highway 310 in southern Dallas, named after the 1963 hit song by Jan and Dean, (I was cruisin' in my Sting Ray late one night, When an XKE pulled up on the right…)

Morris said Dead Man’s Curve could never be repaired and made safer (“We both popped the clutch when the light turned green. You should have heard the whine from my screamin' machine...”) unless the Trinity toll road was built first. Some years later, however, funds became available for the Dead Man’s Curve project and it was undertaken even though the toll road had not yet been built. (“But I'll go you one better, if you've got the nerve; let's race all the way, to Dead Man's Curve”)

OK, you can stop taking notes now, because … just stop. It won’t do either one of us any good.

After the Dead Man’s Curve argument died, Morris said he had forgotten to mention earlier that poor people, mainly black and Hispanic, would not be able to get to work if the toll road were not built. So for a while the toll road was kind of a civil rights project. I really don’t know what happened to that argument. I think it was too embarrassing.

Then the mayor became fearful that a deeply irritated electorate was going to just kill, expunge, vacate, erase and murder the whole thing in the last council election. He convened a committee of urban designers paid by rich people to come up with pastel paintings of narrow winding roads through beautiful parks that people could be shown during the election campaign.

I think it was somewhere about in here that the toll road became more of an art project. I know it reached a point where every time I tried to ask questions about traffic projections, the rich people sneered at me like I was some clod standing around an art museum staring at a famous abstract painting saying, “Yeah, but what is it?”

Now this latest wrinkle, reported yesterday by the very excellent transportation writer, Formby, at the city’s only daily newspaper. Reading it was just like, whoosh! .. shazzam! … right over my head. No earthly idea what he was talking about. But I liked his style.

It appears that Morris has remembered something he had remembered once before but had subsequently forgotten. He has re-remembered that the Trinity toll road is needed to act as a bypass to handle overflow traffic from the downtown freeway interchanges. Certain money, however, has become available to fix the remaining downtown freeway interchanges without the toll road being in place.

I think this means that the interchange argument has been interchanged. The interchanges will be fixed, Morris told Formby, in such a way even less overflow traffic will flow over the old freeways in search of bypasses.

Please, don’t feel badly about this. I told you: We’re not supposed to be able to understand a single word of it.

The question for Morris, then would be this: If there will be even less overflow traffic from the downtown freeways after the last freeway exchanges are fixed, and if Morris’ own numbers in the past showed there would be only enough overflow traffic to barely justify the toll road in the first place, and if Hunt and Griggs' analysis of Morris’ numbers showed there would be even less traffic than what Morris had predicted on the toll road, why do we still need the toll road?

So it can be smaller.

Formby asked Morris this question, I think. And I think Morris said the real reason we still needed to build the toll road with even less traffic on it was so that it can be smaller. Morris told Formby the proposed freeway interchange repair project “aids me tremendously and technically in being able to support a four-lane (Trinity toll road) facility” instead of a six- to eight-lane road.

But the overflow. The bypass. The reliever route. Dead Man’s Curve. The civil rights project. No, wait, I know: What about the original argument that the parkway can’t be a toll road unless it is built as a fat high-speed highway with no access to the park so people will pay the tolls? What about that argument?

Sure. Good point. But, wait. Just a day or two. Be patient. I suspect there will be something new that Morris forgot to tell us. I know I won’t understand a single word of it — not one! But for some reason I’m on pins and needles anyway. I now find listening to Mr. Morris exciting, for what I suspect is some deeply sick reason — a spell of some kind. Anyway, if anything new does happen, I promise to keep you misinformed.

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