The moment has arrived when we must expand our thinking about the new and troubled Margaret McDermott Bridge designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava on the Trinity River downtown. We’ve got to add at least one extreme outcome to the far end of the spectrum of possibilities.
It may have to come down.
Still not declared safe even for foot traffic a full year after its completion and scheduled opening, the McDermott appears to be devolving into deeper and deeper controversy and recrimination among designers, builders, engineers and the people who paid for it. The city of Dallas’ latest letter to the project engineer reads less like an effort to solve a problem than an exhibit in a lawsuit.
Even more telling, the newly released correspondence between the city and the engineer, as well as a memo sent last week by the Dallas city manager to the City Council, both hint at problems that could be unsolvable. It doesn’t mean they are. But it means that in a year of intense pressure and scrutiny, no one has yet figured out how to fix them.
Two arches, both 340 feet high and 1,200 feet in length, loom over 10 busy lanes of freeway traffic on conventional concrete pier-and-beam bridges below. What does it mean for the immense arches to remain in place in a condition not certified as safe even for pedestrian traffic? Three City Council members whose districts are close to the bridge are worried:
“If it’s not safe for humans to walk across, is it safe to even stand there?” council member Philip Kingston of East Dallas and downtown asked last week.
“What happens if a cable breaks?” asked council member Scott Griggs of North Oak Cliff. “That’s a huge public safety problem.”
Council member Omar Narvaez of West and southern Dallas said, “I don’t know yet at what point we just sit there and go, ‘You know what, this is too much.’
“We’ve got to do something different, up to and including taking the arches down, if there isn’t a reasonable way to fix them. That would be a last resort — last, last, last resort — but if it’s going to cost us as much as the bridge did to fix the issue, for that amount we might as well build another bridge.”
Tearing down a bridge for which taxpayers paid almost $100 million — demolishing it before it bears even a single day of traffic — may sound crazy. But it begins to sound a bit more plausible when the McDermott Bridge is placed in its proper political and historical context.
It’s a very strange bridge — two immense arches looming over but not supporting two freeway bridges in order to create the false impression that the whole business is one big suspension bridge. It was brought to us by the city’s old, wealthy oligarchy of heirs and business leaders, the same people who brought us a 20-year failed battle to build an unneeded expressway on top of the river.
By the time the City Council voted last year to kill the Trinity toll road, Dallas already had expended sums probably in the hundreds of millions of dollars — if the city ever released the figures — on that ill-fated project.
A smaller but telling bit of evidence is the fake whitewater feature for kayakers — installed in the river in 2011, closed almost immediately as a public safety nuisance, now being torn out of the river at a demolition cost of $2 million. That came from the same set of people who brought us the Trinity toll road and the Margaret McDermott Bridge.
Those were sins of commission. But the overarching sin, one that dwarfs even the worst of the others, is of omission. It’s the city’s abject failure to this date and for a period of 20 years to deliver what voters were promised on the river in the first place, the thing they voted for in 1998 when they authorized the Trinity River project.
All of the grand speeches, the television advertising, the slick mailers — everything voters were told when city leaders urged them to vote yes in ’98 — turned on the promise of a grand public park in the river bottom. Some of those notions were half-baked, like manmade lakes with water pumped in from sewage treatment plants, and it’s a good thing they didn’t get done.
But what has been done instead is insulting — cheap canvas and aluminum gewgaws on an abandoned bridge, a badly designed canoe launch, a scenic lookout that looks more like an artillery turret and doesn’t look out on much.
Meanwhile, the real focus of the city’s old-line leadership has been on vanity projects like the two new Calatrava bridges. These bridges, the Margaret McDermott and the Margaret Hunt Hill, both named for philanthropic widows of business titans, are what’s left of an original concept that would have seen Calatrava-designed suspension bridges up and down the narrow river, all on a flat alluvial plane where no suspension is required by the topography.
Is it lucky we could only afford two? Or is it unlucky we could afford that many? In either case, the bridges came at a serious cost.
“Those bridges are a permanent monument to bad spending priorities,” Kingston says. He says they were built at a time when city staff was electing not to launch a program to replace to the city’s outdated traffic signals with new “smart” technology.
“Smart cities have smart signals, and it makes their surface streets handle so much more traffic,” Kingston says. He says the city’s commitment to build the expensive decorative bridges on the Trinity “happened during the exact period of time when staff was not updating our traffic signals. And the reason it’s interesting is that the price tags happen to be pretty similar.”
We reported here in January that city officials had eliminated certain stress tests during construction of the McDermott bridge as a cost-cutting measure. The engineering firm responsible for certifying the safety of the completed bridge, Huitt-Zollars, informed the city after construction was complete that untested cables in the arches were failing in high winds.
Last week, City Manager T.C. Broadnax sent the full City Council copies of correspondence (see below) revealing that important structural problems still have not been resolved and Huitt-Zollars still won’t give the bridge a green light to open.
The two Calatrava arches, designed to create the visual impression of a huge suspension bridge, provide no structural support to the two freeway bridges below them, one eastbound, the other west. Those are conventional, freestanding, concrete, pier-and-beam highway bridges that support themselves.
The cables hanging from the Calatrava arches support only narrow concrete hike-and-bike lanes at both sides of the freeway bridges. Engineers have been unable to find a way to keep the anchoring system for the cables holding the bike lanes from cracking in high winds.
In an especially petulant letter to Huitt-Zollars, Sarah Standifer, head of the city department that has oversight of the river, seems to suggest that the engineers are missing the boat. Standifer, who is not an engineer (job qualifications had to be amended so that she could be appointed), says, “Please expeditiously explore other options to address this current situation including, but not limited to shifting the primary load-bearing function from the cables to other bridge elements.”
I wrote to Standifer at the end of last week — a little late, maybe — to ask for clarification. I know that I personally had suggested in a column some months ago that the wobbly-hike-and-bike trails might be stiffened with two-by-fours sticking out from the concrete freeway bridges.
I hope that’s not what she has in mind because I, like her, lack any engineering background, having instead only a sort of wobbly English degree from a half-century ago, and I would not at all want to see people walking or riding their bikes, especially not carrying babies, on a high bridge that was designed by me.
I hereby declare for all persons to see and know that any recommendations I may have half-wittingly made in the past concerning bridge design were jokes, in no way warranted as authoritative or even sane, and any person deciding to sue me anyway is herewith and forever notified by this writing that I am protected by the South Texas principle of law known as the Rule of No Dinero. Standifer is on her own.
The bottom line in all this is not necessarily that the Margaret McDermott arches must be torn down. But the bottom line must include that possibility. It’s what Kingston calls “the nightmare scenario.” The nightmare of knocking them down is part of the scenario we must consider.
The origin of the bridge is important — the fact that it comes from a set of people whose ideas have all been such catastrophic failures in the past. As the problems with the bridge’s basic safety continue to go unresolved, we can’t help fearing that the Margaret McDermott is yet another nail in the coffin of their legacy.
If it is a failure, if it does have to come down, the McDermott Bridge will be yet another illustration of the same original sin that killed the others, which is to look on public works as vanities instead of as service to the public. It’s a lesson that goes way back.
In the words of the early 19th century English poet Percy Bysshe Shelley:
“Look on my Works, ye Mighty, and despair!
Nothing beside remains. Round the decay
Of that colossal Wreck, boundless and bare
The lone and level sands stretch far away.”
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