Pointless Exercise

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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.

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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