City Hall

So Many Retirements, So Little Toll Road, and Isn't That Just Rubber Ducky?

Wow, time for the big announcement on my part, I guess. Certain people have been asking. Certain things have been happening. So I need to say something about my retirement.

When I talk about things happening, I am really talking about important events in the history of the city. City Manager A.C. Gonzalez is retiring at the first of the year at age 65. Call me Mr. Johnny-One-Note Tunnel-Vision Obsessive-Jerk-Face if you like, but when I look at the long City Hall career of Gonzalez and the many contributions he made to this city in his time, the one thing that really stands out is that he failed to get the Trinity toll road built.

If you are new to town, the Trinity toll road is a massive public works project debated for almost 20 years – no, really, almost 20 years – to build a high-speed multi-lane tolled expressway through downtown along the Trinity River. I have devoted the last 20 years of my own career to opposing this project because of an engineering flaw that I sometimes describe as “the bathtub problem” or “Battle of the Bathtub.”

The bathtub problem is this: Twice a year the Trinity River floods, sometimes almost filling up the 50-feet-deep more-than-20-mile long flood control levee system along the river like a huge bathtub. In hydrodynamic engineering terms (please excuse my technicality), the bathtub issue is that, if you put the road on the bottom of the bathtub and then fill the bathtub with water, the road will be underwater.

Now I should tell you in full personal disclosure that I have been widely, deeply and vehemently criticized over the last 20 years for holding fast to the bathtub-based view. In 2007 The Dallas Morning News published a story by Rudy Bush saying that I do not have an engineering degree (true), that I have multiple birthdays (true, long story) and that my “hatred of the plan” (hatred?) has caused me to “abandon (my) traditional role as journalistic observer” (never really knew what that was, so maybe).

And D Magazine. Oh my goodness. They said I was a liar and I had no integrity and all kinds of stuff. We’ve sort of patched things up pretty well since then, but it was rough at the time.

Here’s the thing. Just for grins, let’s say it’s all true: I am a lying non-engineer with 100 birthdays. I still say if you put the cars on the bottom of the bathtub and fill the bathtub with water the cars will be underwater.

I should also tell you in the spirit of disclosure that the proponents of the Trinity toll road idea have modified the basic design several times, in part I think to address the bathtub problem. Now their plan is to put the road part of the way up one side of the inside of the tub.

Call me a stickler, but I say halfway up one side of the tub is no good, if you fill the tub with water. Even almost all the way up the inside of the tub still sucks, in fact, because if you’re in there in your car when the tub fills up with water you’re still going to have to swim for it.

But enough with the highly technical engineering talk. And I will explain the birthdays some other time. It’s not that interesting. It’s only two damn birthdays. I’ll explain it in a minute.

Meanwhile, I do not wish to diminish the many great things City Manager Gonzalez did get done in his three years in the post, in part because I have not been made privy to them, but I do know that getting the Trinity toll road underway was one of his main mandates when he got the job. I am deeply grateful that he didn’t.

Also retiring soon is John Scovell, president of Woodbine Development, who, as right-hand man and consigliere to oilman Ray Hunt, was the private sector person most entrusted with the task of getting the toll road built. He also is leaving the scene not having done it, and I am deeply and personally grateful to him for that as well. Scovell is 70.

Another champion of the Trinity River project who has announced a retirement is Gail Thomas, founder and longtime head of a nonprofit group called the Trinity Trust, but I call it the Trinity Trust Us the Bathtub Thing Is Wrong. I don’t know how old Thomas is, and I’m not going to ask, because she always looks like a great 38, and I don’t want to be disabused.

As a founder also of the Dallas Institute, Thomas has been a voice and force for enlightenment in the city. I’m glad she’s taking a powder with the toll road still unbuilt, because now I won’t have to talk to her about that any more.

Another retirement coming up on the first of the year is John Crawford, longtime CEO of DowntownDallas (all one word, how cool), an advocacy group. Crawford was a strong supporter of the toll road gang, and I am pleased to say that he also is leaving the scene with the job undone. He is 74.

While so many key figures in the Battle of the Bathtub are retiring, new faces are coming on the scene every day, and more and more familiar faces are already against the tub. Former City Council member Angela Hunt, who led an unsuccessful referendum in 2008 to get the road out of the tub, is still very much at hand and in play. Current council members Mark Clayton, Sandy Greyson, Scott Griggs, Philip Kingston, Adam Medrano and B. Adam McGough are all opposed, meaning they are within two of having enough votes to shoot it in the head.

An enormously encouraging move by the council recently was the appointment to the regional mass transit board of Patrick Kennedy, an urban planner and outspoken opponent of old-fashioned, Eisenhower-era, automobile-based thinking. I was alive when Eisenhower was president, considered him a hero and know in my heart that even he would not have put an expressway on the bottom of a bathtub.

Finally, we are all looking forward to the arrival next year of T.C. Broadnax, who will become the city’s first-ever city manager hired from outside the city rather than promoted from within the indentured ranks of City Hall. No one has any real idea what he will do, which is a very positive step forward.

I am shopping now for a set of miniature metal toy cars and trucks to send to Broadnax with a card asking that he arrange them on the bottom of his bathtub, fill the tub with water and see what happens. I think as city manager he should be in the tub himself at the time so he can save the tiny imaginary people.

What does that leave? Ah, the birthdays. And my own retirement. My mother was a very bright, somewhat eccentric person who did not believe in what she considered culturally mandated celebrations. Christmas in our home involved more religion than loot. Birthdays were sort of do-it-yourself. My parents lived on a fairly primitive fishing island in Chesapeake Bay when I was born, and apparently birth records must have been sort of DIY also.

Anyway, when she did finally get around to having a birthday party for me, probably because somebody in the church insisted, I was already a few years along, and she got my birthday wrong by a week. The error was recognized later when I had to send to Virginia for a birth certificate. At any rate, it was a very good catch for Rudy Bush to make in that piece he wrote about me for the News, and I have always secretly admired him for it.
I do not publicly discuss my actual specific age now for reasons of vanity, but in very general terms I can tell you that I probably am a lot younger than a lot of guys I know. Definitely younger than some.

I think I may have mentioned at the top that certain people have been asking me about my retirement plans. An interesting thing about that: The people who seem most interested are either at City Hall or working for nonprofits or as consiglieres or whatever – the very kind of people I would have thought would never retire until they got that toll road built. But they did.

I am flattered that they think about me at all, even though the question sometimes sounds more like, “When are you going to retire or get run over by a bus or something?” However it’s really intended, these expressions of interest in my end-of-life planning have spawned some serious thought and consideration on my part.

Of course I have talked it over with my wife, Mariana. She has asked all the right questions, like, “If you retire, will you be at home even more?”

Then just last week in connection with some reporting I was doing on the Dallas police pension issue,  I spent some time working with online retirement calculators looking at various savings amounts and retirement ages to see what would be required financially.

The upshot is that after talking it over with Mariana and taking a number of factors into consideration, I have gone ahead and chosen a retirement date, which I am now prepared to announce. I am going to retire either January 1 or January 8 in the year 2046, at the age of approximately 100, give or take a week.

Of course until then I will be fighting as hard as I can against construction of the Trinity toll road, and I can promise you two things on that front. When I go, it will not have been built, but someone will still be trying to build it.

By the time I do get run over by a bus or whatever, most of the proponents of the road will have preceded me in going on to their own everlasting rewards. I will want to know by then why they wanted to put it on the bottom of the bathtub. Sadly, though, I will be in heaven, so I will not be able to find them.
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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