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

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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.

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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