Puppet Samba

How cool would it be to have a beautiful urban lake downtown, surrounded by pocket parks and amphitheaters, where a person could carry a bag lunch on a cool day and maybe even rent a canoe? That's what we voted for in 1998 when we narrowly approved the Trinity River bond issue.

So why is it that the Dallas City Council two weeks from now will vote instead to approve an eight-lane freeway and a mud hole?

I've got numbers to prove once and for all that this road is not needed. It fails every test of necessity, and yet it will not die.

There are two pieces of really bad logic that keep getting quoted to justify building a gigantic freeway in the river bed where we were told we were going to get a beautiful "central park." One is that the new freeway will provide a detour during the upcoming reconstruction of the old tangle of freeways downtown called the "mixmaster."

Nope. Not true.

At a city council briefing in May 2001, state highway engineers surprised the city council by telling them that the massive rebuilding planned for the mixmaster would not be helped by constructing a new highway along the river. The two things are separate and practically unrelated. When they work on the mixmaster, the state will provide temporary detours, as it has done at the "high five interchange" at Central Expressway and Interstate 635. Generally speaking, no one ever builds a new freeway to act as a temporary detour, especially this one, which will ruin forever the city's ability to develop the river as a unique recreational destination.

So after the detour argument became inoperative, the road boosters backed off to a more nebulous assertion that this new highway will be a "reliever." It will relieve things. Ask them what it will relieve, and you'll never get a straight answer. It's just a "reliever," almost as if it will relieve everything from traffic congestion to sinus pressure.

Let's cut to the chase here and go to some basic black-and-white numbers that really tell the tale on this deal--the traffic volume "warrants" for federally supported freeways. The road the council is going to approve along the Trinity won't come close to meeting the federal and state standards.

The feds maintain a specific set of standards to decide which proposed road projects deserve federal subsidies and which ones don't. A bit of background: Since the early 1990s, it has been federal law that the only good reason to build a freeway in an urban area is to reduce traffic congestion and cut down on pollution. Want federal and state money for a new freeway? Prove it will siphon off X amount of traffic from older roads. Then you can get the money.

But to do that, you have to put the road between places people already want to go, from this crowded place to that crowded place. That's how you get traffic volumes. And that rules out the old-fashioned use of road money, which was to act as a can opener for developers: Developers always want to use roads to generate new traffic to an empty place nobody even knew about before the road was built but where they own land.

The North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) publishes a table of traffic volume warrants in effect for this region to determine how much traffic you have to have in order to qualify for a certain size of freeway built with federal and state highway money. In order to qualify for the eight-lane freeway the road hustlers want to plunk down where you and I thought we were going to have a park, they would have to show that the Trinity River highway will attract between 138,000 and 184,000 car trips a day.

But NCTCOG's numbers for the eight-lane Trinity highway show its projected daily volume down around 103,000--substantially out of range for the road planned for the Trinity. In fact, when you put a sharp pencil to these numbers, the Trinity road starts to look seriously out of place. At eight lanes, with the amount of traffic the engineers hope for, the Trinity road will be carrying fewer than 13,000 trips per lane, which will put it beneath the range of a rural freeway.

Why would we build a rural freeway in downtown Dallas, especially when it is soaking up most of the money we thought they were going to spend on our lakes and parks? And right here is where we will run up against the next piece of seriously slippery logic in this deal: The road backers will be quick to say, "Ah, but this isn't really a freeway. It's a toll road. And toll roads don't have to meet the federal traffic volume warrants."

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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