Pointless Exercise

If we really want to get those guys we've captured in Iraq to crack, the way to do it is with very long PowerPoint presentations. Or, as I have come to think of them, What's the Point presentations.

I sat through more than four hours of PowerPoint on the Trinity River plan last week at City Hall--the things with the home-movie screen and the laptop computer where the guy talks, and then what he says is printed out in big block letters on the movie screen, and he points to his own words with a laser pointer while he speaks them. The only way they could possibly make it more like a root canal would be to have a mime troupe acting out the letters of the words.

The big news last week? The Trinity River project will cost way more than any new tax base it will supposedly create. But you didn't see that in The Dallas Morning News, did you? And long before they ever got to that point in the presentation, the TV people had all fallen over in a dead faint, packed up their gizmos and left, so you didn't see it on TV, either. I fainted for a while, too, but I had nowhere else to go.

Costs more than any new tax base it will create in the next 30 years!

The purpose of What's the Point presentations is to make you forget what the point is so that when it's finally your turn to ask questions, you'll be so wacked out you'll ask things like, "Where do birds come from?" Oh, my goodness. At City Hall I thought I was going to die.

Way in the back of my mind I kept thinking: "Hey, wait a minute. They're showing pictures of this exciting new plan to rebuild the Trinity River where it runs through downtown Dallas, and it's got a big fat stinko expressway on top of the river."

I thought that was the point of the last five years of battle over this dumb deal. In 1998, they said they wanted to put a stinko expressway on top of the river. We got rid of the gang who were running City Hall. We elected this big scary bomb-thrower named Laura Miller for mayor, because mainly we just wanted City Hall to shut up and fix the damn potholes.

So now she's the mayor. She raised private money to bring in all these guys from Harvard to study how to do the river the right way. Finally they're showing us their What's the Point presentation. And it's still got this big stinko highway on top of the river.

I'm sitting there thinking, "It cannot be. Laura Miller is not up there proposing a big fat highway on top of the river."

Finally, four hours into it, the council members started getting a chance to respond. Sandy Greyson represents the nosebleed district, No. 12, so far north that everybody in it speaks with a Yankee accent. She pushed up her sleeves and balled her fists and went right to that big fat expressway thing.

First Greyson asked for--and did not receive--a guarantee that the highway being presented by the Harvard team, once it's on the ground and a fact of life, won't be fattened up and turned into even more of a road hog by adding lanes. She said she really wanted to get that information as soon as possible. Otherwise, she said, "We have spent a great deal of time, energy, effort and money to go from an eight-lane high-speed toll road to a six-lane high-speed toll road. I don't believe that's what the public wants."

Greyson objected to the way the whole stinko expressway thing was being touted: "The background material continually refers to it as a 'parkway,'" she said. "This is a toll road. It's not a parkway. It's a toll road, and it's a high-speed toll road. It's not a low-speed parkway. And that may be OK with this council. And that may be OK with the public. But I would at least like to call it what it is. Let's not spin it right away.

"Let's call it what it is, and let's see if the public indeed wants it and if this is what they voted for and this is what they want to see in that corridor."

Lois Finkelman represents District 11, mainly north of Forest Lane. Think of a crazy ex-hippie earth mother. Now turn around four times, squint your eyes, stamp your foot and concentrate on the exact opposite. I think you're getting Lois Finkelman.

But Finkelman was like Greyson: She waded into it kickin' butt and takin' names: "I have to tell you I was very disappointed with today's briefing," she said. "I appreciated the materials. I appreciated the pretty pictures. I appreciated some of the information. But I was very frustrated, because there were not any hard numbers."

She said she had sent a memo to the responsible city staff members months ago asking for exactly the kind of numbers she did not see in the presentation. "I was disappointed that this wasn't a more complete picture."

Finkelman pointed out that the pictures of lakes with sailboats on them that were part of the presentation left a raft of very important underlying issues unanswered: "What's missing in terms of the analysis of that is the hydrology of those lakes."

In fact, the way the proposed lakes actually work is extremely important in terms of what it will cost the taxpayers of Dallas to own and operate them--all missing from the presentation.

"What kind of sediment will or won't occur?" Finkelman asked. "How long will or will not those lakes be flooded, at what level of flood? How often do they have to be dredged?"

A huge irony for me is that I know Laura Miller went through exactly this exercise herself when she first went on the council and started trying to get a handle on the Trinity River project. She called Rob Allyn, the PR guy who'd produced the original television commercials in 1998 for the Trinity River bond election, and asked him where he'd gotten the data to support images of people sailing on a big lake downtown. She said Allyn laughed. He didn't have any data. His graphics people just got on their Macs and whomped up a pretty picture.

Now Miller's the mayor. Allyn works for her now. She's showing the council pretty pictures of lakes with sailboats on them with no hydrological data to back them up. And I'm in the back of the room half-dazed, talking obstreperously to myself.

Part of the presentation of the What's the Point guys from Harvard was a series of bar graphs, yellow bars and purple bars and blue bars, which they shuffled through kind of quickly: Here we see a lot of purple bars poking down, and now we see a lot of blue bars poking up, and white bars poking sideways, and the little red dot from the laser pointer is going 'round and 'round, and the glazed eyes of the council members are going 'round and 'round as if they are 13 cats watching the same butterfly.

I was sure I couldn't be seeing what I seemed to be seeing. Later at my desk I spent a good many hours poring over copies of the bar charts. Finally I did a conference call with the city's consultant in Dallas and the economist in Boston who had devised the charts, and who was kind enough to put up with my very considerable economic shortcomings.

But the point was exactly what I had thought the point might be when I was losing the point in the What's the Point presentation: All of the freeway and roadway alternatives being considered at City Hall will have very serious negative financial impacts on City Hall. All of them. For 30 years. And that's taking into account what seem to be fairly aggressive assumptions about development and new tax base that will be spurred by the road project.

Now, pause with me. You know how they always tell us that if we borrow money through huge bond issues for huge public works projects, the projects will "grow the tax base" by spurring development, and by George we'll get rich. And you know how we always wonder why, if we're so rich, we can't fix the potholes?

This is it. This was the answer, buried in the What's the Point presentation. And I'm not sure that any of the council people saw it, not even old Mitchell Rasansky who thinks he's so smart.

According to the study presented to the council: 1) You take all of the new development that will be spurred by the new highway and all of the new taxes that will be collected. 2) You subtract out the cost of building the road. 3) Over 30 years, the city comes out $35 million to $65 million in the hole, depending on which road we build.

The very best fiscal impact on the city is from building the park with no road at all--a negative hit of only $15 million over 30 years.

Sure, new freeways are great for the people who get to redevelop the land on their borders. They make out like bandits. Their land goes from zero to 60 in 10 seconds, with our gasoline.

But we lose. To say nothing of the fact that the road ruins the one thing we might have gotten out of this--the damn park.

This is why they can't fill the potholes. They keep giving away the store. And the worst news is that Laura Miller, the bomb-thrower we sent in there to clean it up, is already dancing the mad fandango with the big boys, showing us sailboat pictures and telling us a big old stinko highway is a garden path.

What's the point?

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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