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Rawlings Wants "Design Tweaks" for the Trinity Toll Road? Tweak This.

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Wednesday the mayor is holding some kind of meeting to see if people can come up with "design tweaks" to make the Trinity River toll road plan more palatable. Well, yeah, if shooting it in the head is considered a design tweak.

This idea -- to build a fat new expressway through downtown smack up against the banks of the Trinity River, cutting downtown off from its only significant natural resources and a series of parks and lakes planned for later -- has been around since 1998. That's the year the Spice Girls broke up. We hope we have a significant number of readers here who couldn't really read that well yet at that date.

Why has it been around that long and hasn't been done? Well, one reason leaps to mind. It's a monumentally stupid idea. It comes from the city's old leadership, which means about six old families. These are people who who are stuck in a very old time, extremely out of touch. They are disconnected.

What do I mean by out of touch? Well, one popular historical image for a person who was out of touch was Marie Antoinette, wife of French King Louis XVI, who play-acted the role of a French peasant in a make-believe rural village 10 years before getting her head lopped off by a real-life guillotine in 1793. My own favorite image of royal cluelessness is the family of Nicholas II, last tsar of Russia, who were rollerskating on the decks of Standart, their yacht, when revolution broke out in Petrograd in 1917. Say this for them, at least they were high-style about being totally out of touch.

I get the same clueless vibe but with considerably less panache from Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings and his upcoming effort Wednesday to find design tweaks for the proposed Trinity toll eoad. I wasn't invited, but in advance I want to offer my own top 10 design tweaks:

1) Forget it.

2) If someone brings it up, pretend you can't understand their language.

3) Do it maybe but only as an assignment for art class.

4) Stop talking about it and don't embarrass yourself anymore, because now you are embarrassing us, too.

5) I can't think of six more.

At least since the early 1980s, maybe earlier, the people behind this thing have wanted to re-develop the scaggy Trinity Industrial District along the river -- not a terrible idea, in itself. Since the early 1990s drawings have been floating around town of a lavish new high-rise community along the river. If anything, the basic concept was probably ahead of its time, pre-dating the whole back-to-the-city-center movement that didn't really get going here until the 2000s.

But being of the era and culture they are, the folks behind the Trinity River redo want to do it as a kind of gated downtown suburb, fancy-schmancy with its own private ingress and egress so the fancy people won't have to drive through unfashionable neighborhoods to get there.

The boosters say now with some truthfulness that the road they wanted in the first-place was only a "parkway" -- still the name they try to give the current plan. But, wouldn't you know it, they don't want to pay for their parkway. They want the government to build it for them for free.

But the government can't do that. The feds and the state have adopted standards based on a principle called "congestion mitigation," the idea being that our government should not put our tax dollars into a road if hardly anybody is going to drive on it and the only reason for it is to help some developer sell his deal.

So the next bright idea was to make it a toll road. But a study by a toll road analyst showed that the road, as a toll road, could not generate enough toll revenue to pay its own way as a modest four-lane parkway. The only way to get real income out of it was to beef it up to six to 10 lanes, raise speed limits, cut off access to the parks planned along the river and turn it into a truck route. So that's how we got to the current monstrosity.

And here is the real underlying flaw in the entire concept: the idea of walling off a planned development downtown with a freeway, making access to it super-exclusive, is old-school from the middle of the last century. It's the same concept we saw carried out in Victory Park, a major downtown development in 2006 spawned by this same ilk of leaders -- never a success, subject to waves of foreclosure, still struggling and for the same basic reason: like the development ideas tied to the Trinity toll road, Victory's basic scheme is based on disconnectedness.

In the suburbs, disconnectedness -- or exclusiveness as its fans might call it -- has always been the driver of premium prices. But the 21st century phenomenon of people coming back into cities is driven by a need for connectedness, a seeking of that same buzz that makes walking so much fun in London or New York, with everybody and his dog out there rubbing elbows, lots of action and surprise, all of it the exact opposite of the kind of Soviet state mausoleum feel you get inside Victory.

Over the years, the backers have offered a plethora of utterly phony-baloney justifications for the road, claiming at first it was needed as a detour while other downtown highways got repaired. But think about it: When did anyone ever build an entire new freeway as a detour for another freeway? When they created the immense High Five freeway interchange in North Dallas, guess what they used for a detour. A detour. You know, like you drive kind of over on the side for a while. They didn't build a new freeway through North Dallas.

The backers have offered all kinds of other justifications, none of which has ever stood the test of time, but you get the picture. They will say and promise anything. You can't trust a single word they say about it. They just want their road, and they think the rest of us are fools.

Last week City Council member Philip Kingston published a "naughty and nice" list of people for and against the toll road, which was both amusing and useful. Soon after, Dallas Morning News editorial writer Rudy Bush wrote a blog item taking Kingston to task gently for failing to include the names of the big behind-the-scenes backers. Bush's piece, however, pointed out two contradictory things about the toll road debate: 1) everybody always says "follow the money," because that's what they said in that movie about Nixon, and 2) It's hard to follow the money on the toll road, because building it would so obviously be detrimental to the interests of big landholders.

Yeah. That's the point. It doesn't make sense as a money deal, doesn't really add up financially for anybody, because it's not a money thing, not really. It's a cluelessness deal. Think of Marie Antoinette pretending to be a milkmaid. Think of the tsar and his daughters skating around the decks of their yacht to the merry accompaniment of a small orchestra while Petrograd falls. Continuing to pursue the Trinity toll road is the kind of thing you do if you have no inkling of the real world around you but you are very happy anyway.

Design tweaks? No, I don't think so, unless I misunderstand what a design tweak is. For instance: Marie Antoinette's eventual fate. Was that a design tweak?

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