Nyah, Nyah, Nyah: We Told You the Trinity Project Wouldn't Work

For 11 years the Dallas Observer has been reporting the existence of serious, fundamental life-and-death design errors in the Trinity River project, a huge public-works undertaking to rebuild the river through downtown Dallas alongside a new highway and parks.

Above all else, this was to be a flood-safety project, but the Dallas Observer has quoted experts and cited scientific findings to show that building a highway between the city's flood-control levees will make flood dangers worse, not better.

The city's political and business leaders and the only daily newspaper in town consistently have dismissed those issues as goofy negativism.

In 2007, Angela Hunt, a freshman city council member, brought about a referendum on the project. With help from lots of other people, Hunt made a great case for killing the road.

But to win that election, she would have had to persuade voters in a conservative, pro-development city that their trusted elected and business leaders were lying to them. In fact, during the 2007 referendum campaign, a frequent refrain from pro-road partisans was, "How could we all be lying?"

Now we know.

Even at that, Hunt came close. But in the end the city voted to keep the highway project and tacitly to continue trusting its local power elite.

Now we are at a watershed. The federal agencies funding most of the multibillion-dollar project finally must fish or cut bait—give it the green light or give it the red. So far, things are looking red.

In the first week of March, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers confirmed the single biggest problem that the Observer had reported—danger to the levees that would be caused by construction in the floodway. Weeks later a draft environmental impact statement by the Federal Highway Administration revealed that Dallas officials were fully informed of federal officials' safety concerns before the 2007 referendum.

In spite of that knowledge, Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert repeatedly deceived voters before the election by telling them federal agencies had no safety concerns and in fact had already signed off on the project.

Now, as the truth begins to emerge, we are witnessing an entire political fandango by public officials and also by local media—especially The Dallas Morning News—in which they try to reposition themselves for the fallout.

Let's deal with the first bit of positioning first, because it's the dumbest and easiest to dismiss. Like a barker at a carnival gulling in the yokels to see a two-headed calf, the Morning News has been reporting an amazing phenomenon, an astounding freak of nature heretofore unseen by American audiences: Ladies and gentlemen, a geological layer of sand has been discovered beneath the Trinity River bottom!

This sand is important, the News tells us, because it might contribute to a certain instability which could, ahem, cause downtown to flood.

In this bit of carnie comedy, the News is joined by Leppert, by D magazine Publisher Wick Allison and by a host of City Hall mopes, all chanting, "Sand! Sand! Who knew?"

The Observer has reported for years there will be problems for this project related to soil. Soil conditions have been raised in lawsuits against the project. Maybe we should have guessed it would be sand in particular. Our first big hint should have been the huge industrial sand-mining operations along the banks of the Trinity River.

But the responsible experts had to know. The Federal Highway Administration draft environmental impact statement reminds us that sand layers are a basic element in the geography of this river. Anecdotal evidence—serious problems caused by sand in the construction of the Sterrett Justice Center 30 years ago—suggest that the existence of a layer of sand beneath the river bottom has always been an engineering concern and difficult obstacle.

Even in conceding that there is sand beneath the riverbed, the News and local officials have been notably imprecise about why a sand layer might be an issue. The suggestion in some News stories has been that the sand is "in the levees," sort of mixed in with other dirt. There also have been vague references to "seepage issues."

Seepage? No. More like Vesuvius.

In terms of what local officials and the Morning News should be telling you, this is all still a form of cover-up and deception that feels as if it ought to be against the law somehow.

When the floodway is at flood stage—water from levee to levee—the weight and velocity of that water create enormous forces. Those forces will dig down through the cracks and gaps that occur inevitably around any concrete structure you stick down into the dirt out in the floodway.

When that force of water hits a sand layer, it causes the sand to do something like boiling. The water can tunnel out in any direction through that boiling sand and burst up out of the earth far from where the water first encountered the sand.

One of the best descriptions of a sand boil I have come across is in John M. Barry's 1998 book, Rising Tide: the Great Mississippi Flood of 1927 and How It Changed America, published by Simon and Schuster and a winner of the Southern Book Critics Circle Award and the Lillian Smith Award. In this excerpt he is writing about New Orleans more than 80 years ago:

"On Esplanade Street 100 yards from the levee, the cobblestones suddenly broke apart and a cone of earth shaped like a miniature volcano thrust upward and water began to shoot out of it. It was a sand boil, caused by the tremendous pressure of the water pushing its way underneath the levee; the muddy water it spewed forth meant that earth from the levee was being shot into the air."

That's the danger. Not squishy soil. The danger is a sand boil ripping apart the levees and sending a rampaging flood into Downtown Dallas. That's not a joke or a fantasy. That's real. And the danger is not merely from concrete that pierces the levees themselves. It's from any new concrete poured to the depth of the sand layer anywhere in the floodway.

Sort of in the background of this story in recent weeks has been a discussion of workarounds that engineers might come up with to solve these problems. The most commonly mentioned is a diaphragm wall, kind of like a concrete skirt built in front of the levee to stop a sand boil from burrowing through.

What the News and local officials have been loath to discuss is the magnitude of construction that could be involved. In fact, council member Mitchell Rasansky was effectively silenced when he tried to bring it up in a recent council meeting.

Here's the problem. A diaphragm wall is a concrete structure. It causes the same problem a bridge pier causes—gaps and cracks in the soil around it. A short diaphragm wall, say 100 feet in front of a bridge pier, could make things worse than the bridge pier did.

So how do you resolve that? You do it by building the diaphragm wall the entire length of the levee system. Rasansky, who was an adamant supporter of this project and critic of Hunt, was upset because an engineer had given him what was probably a low-ball estimate of the cost for such a wall—a billion dollars.

The tollway is already slated to cost a billion dollars more than the North Texas Tollway Authority, which would build the road, can hope to borrow. This would make it two. And I suspect more like three.

So now we get to the really important level of repositioning for Leppert, the News and a host of other local business and professional leaders and groups who backed this thing: It is absolutely possible that the feds will end up telling Dallas the highway cannot be built and the already partially constructed "signature" suspension bridge over the river must be unbuilt.

Ironically, it won't be the failed toll road that makes an international story of this debacle. It will be the bridge.

Dallas hired Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava to design a kind of Disney World make-believe suspension bridge over a ditch that could be jumped by motorcycle, because Dallas wanted to be taken seriously by the outside world. The first shipment of prefabricated steel for the bridge arrived last week in the Port of Houston.

What if Dallas can't take delivery? What if the bridge can't be built? What if the concrete undercarriage, already in place in the floodway, must be removed?

Hey, I'm a many-years newsman. Let me tell you. You tell me that Santiago Calatrava, one of three or four of the world's most famous architects, found some town in Texas and sold them a prefab suspension bridge they can't put up because the soil isn't right, and the city's sitting on a pile of steel in some yard in Houston?

That's a story. Sorry. But that's a great story. It has what we in the news business call "legs." That story will walk around the world.

It's not the real story. It's just the best story. The real story is the one that runs beneath all of this folderol and always has—an important, fundamental story that doesn't make us look stupid, just human.

This whole Trinity River project story from the beginning has been about a community of human beings trying to figure out their relationship with nature. We lost nature somewhere along the way. The streams and rivulets and seasonal creeks all around us went underground into pipes and conduits, and we forgot that they were even there, somewhere deep beneath out feet.

We forgot what rain is supposed to do. It's supposed to seep into the ground, not slide downhill into the river. We thought we had killed nature, and we were proud of that.

The wake-up call was Hurricane Katrina. The engineers within the Army Corps and the engineers at the highway administration know exactly what Katrina told us. Those corpses floating down the streets, the old folks who drowned in their wheelchairs: All of that was nature telling us, "You don't kill me. I kill you."

The really important repositioning here has nothing to do with who was right or wrong all along. That part will take the historical equivalent of five minutes.

The deep end of this story is how we as a city reposition ourselves with nature. In the very end, that story has a happy ending, because we will figure it out. And the other great thing—we'll be so much better in the humility department.

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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