Sinking Fast

The Trinity River project is dead. Isn't gonna happen.

Some other river project may emerge. Dallas business leader Albert Black and Dallas City Council member Laura Miller are putting together a public forum to talk about alternatives. Environmental foes and plaintiffs in a lawsuit against the project say they still want to see something good happen along the Trinity.

But the existing $2 billion plan to rebuild the river--a complicated webwork of freeways, new levees, vast new bridges, and parks in the center of the city--has been mortally wounded. It will never overcome the serious flaws revealed in recent weeks. If anything, the river plan will ignite a political backlash as people gradually achieve sharp focus on what almost happened here.

The collapse of this enormous venture may become the most significant watershed event in the recent political history of the city. And more amazing than anything is that The Dallas Morning News may help that happen.

After years of stonewalling--of clumsy suppression within the Morning News and of mean-spirited bullying in the community--the paper finally published a solid, well-reported, truth-telling, front-page story informing readers that this hugely expensive public works project will have the effect of deliberately subjecting downtown to increased flood risk.

The Morning News story, by Victoria Loe Hicks, expressed the increased risk to downtown in terms of dollars: $37 million in potential property damage in a worst-case scenario that could be brought about by this plan. The story didn't try to express it in loss of human life, but most readers can connect the dots on their own. If the plan could cause vast destruction of property downtown, it could also kill people.

That stark truth is not going to slip smoothly down the gullet of the city's body politic. In fact, environmentalists and other foes of the Trinity River plan are already scratching their heads, trying to figure out how this much truth ever made it onto the front page of the Morning News in the first place.

Since Mayor Ron Kirk took office in 1995, public discussion of the Trinity River has been very tightly controlled, and nowhere more so than at the Morning News. The original ownership families of the News have longstanding holdings in river land in and around downtown.

In late April 1998, newsroom tensions over Morning News top management's heavy-handed suppression of the Trinity story finally erupted in a mini-revolt. A staffer at the time described the scene in the newsroom as one of extreme demoralization. "People are walking around saying, 'Oh my God, what kind of paper are we?'" the reporter said.

The News' clumsy efforts to stifle all criticism of the plan have earned it some scathing notices in the national press. The newsroom revolt was reported in some detail in The Washington Post and elsewhere, but apparently Morning News management was able to live with the embarrassment.

In fact, the paper's efforts to suppress all criticism of the plan were even extended beyond its own staff. In August 1998, two top newsroom executives, Gilbert Bailon and Stuart Wilk, summoned the leadership of the Dallas League of Women Voters to the Morning News building for a knuckle-rapping session after the League adopted an official stance in opposition to the Trinity project.

According to people who were present at the meeting, Bailon and Wilk threatened to suspend a long-standing agreement by which the Morning News published and distributed the League's "Voters' Guide" for free--in retaliation for the League's stance.

The League refused to back off its criticisms of the Trinity River Plan, which were based on its own exhaustive study. The Morning News eventually relented in its threat to punish the League.

But the refusal of the News to allow coverage of any criticism or even skepticism about the Trinity River Plan has continued to provide some odd moments in local journalism. In October 1998, a wealthy critic of the river plan grew so infuriated by the News' Sovietesque management of the story that he spent his own money to reproduce an entire Dallas Observer story as a full-page advertisement in the News. The story was also placed as a full-page ad in The Washington Post.

Beginning in early 1998, the Observer has reported a central criticism of this vast public works campaign: It makes flooding worse.

That central truth is what the Morning News finally reported on its front page on Labor Day. Loe Hicks, the reporter, based her report on internal memoranda and other documents she obtained through a broad public records demand on the Corps of Engineers. Her story provided a more explicit and detailed confirmation that this plan is a flood-control fraud.

How could that be? Why would that be? Why would the City of Dallas and the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers want to spend billions in taxpayer money on a flood control project they secretly know would make flooding worse, not better? Because it's not about floods. It's about a road. From its first coverage of the issue, the Observer has reported criticism that the Trinity River project is, in fact, designed around a freeway that road promoters want to build on top of new levees. The levees and the channels of the plan are designed to provide a free right-of-way and platform for the road.

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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