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Toll You So

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On November 6, 2007, a referendum to kill the Trinity River toll road failed at the polls. I was for the referendum. The side I was on lost. I think I was fairly open about what my attitude would be from then forward. Sour grapes.

What's wrong with sour grapes? I like sour grapes. They suit my personality. Where the Trinity River Project is concerned, go ahead and put me squarely in the sour grape column.

I also said something right after the referendum that was more significant, I do believe, than my personal grapes. This road will never be built. Not the road they're talking about—a high-speed, multi-lane, limited-access throughway between the flood-control levees, right along the river. It will not happen. And other major elements of the project also will not happen.


Trinity River Project

Why? This all has to do with issues that were fully aired before the referendum. Mainly, no one has ever built a major highway between flood-control levees before anywhere in the country, because it's a stupidly dangerous idea, sort of like building an orphanage on top of a dam. Why would you do that?

Right now, at this particular juncture, I just want to point out that all of the things that have happened since the referendum are bearing me out and making fools of the political leaders pushing this project, especially our mayor, Tom Leppert.

Is it only sour grapes? Maybe it's more: I want to be sure that some kind of record is kept. A certain focus must be maintained along the way, so that when the ridiculous elements of the project do collapse into an inevitable puddle, the public will see clearly which folks are to blame.

The Trinity River Project, by now, is really a bunch of big public works projects all lumped together, some of which are absolutely wonderful. The dream is to transform the big, ugly, neglected sump along the Trinity where it flows through downtown and Southern Dallas into a vast, grand Central Park for the whole city.

Ultimately the vision is for small lakes, a white-water kayaking stream, formal and informal public gathering places, miles-long paths through forested areas, and more. Some pieces of that vision are going to come true, and they will be wonderful for the city.

The problem is that other pieces—notably the toll road down the middle but also the so-called signature bridges—are ill-conceived, dangerous and insanely expensive in ways that threaten to suck the air out of the rest of the project.

Bridges first. In all, three major bridges are to be built across the Trinity, all designed by Spanish architect Santiago Calatrava. City Hall insists it already has the money for two. The third one's a toss-up. But whether they really have the money depends on the price.

You may remember that a few weeks after the election, Mayor Leppert orchestrated a major media event to show he was pushing for speedy completion. The Dallas Morning News quoted him as saying, "None of the timetables that are sitting out there are acceptable.

"We are going to be going forward much more aggressively. For us to be successful, we have to move forward very quickly."

Fast-forward with me to August 26 when the Morning News carried a story revealing that construction of the first so-called "signature bridge" in the project has been delayed at least 10 months. That story included the following line:

"Asked whether the delay was reasonable, Mr. Leppert, a former top construction executive, simply raised his eyebrows and called it frustrating."

The Morning News story conveyed the impression that the Margaret Hunt-Hill bridge was being held up because Cimolai Costruzioni Metalliche, an Italian company hired to pre-fab some of the steel, "had difficulty creating a model of Mr. Calatrava's design."

Really? Maybe you're like me. You have to wonder how hard it can be to make a model? Ah, but it turns out the story is a bit deeper than mere model-making.

I'm not casting aspersions on the Morning News. Yet. It's a daily paper. They can't cross every t and dot every i. In fact, like most daily newspapers around the country, they've laid off so many copy editors by now, they probably can't even dot every t and cross every i. But in this case, they really got the story wrong.

I spoke at some length with Bill Hale, who is the district engineer for the Dallas district of the Texas Department of Transportation. Hale explained that the model in question is not a scale-model or a rendering or anything like that: It's a computer model to test the engineering of the entire design.

"They have to make sure it can handle the stresses," he said.

Now we have to dip back again in time to recall that the bids for building this bridge, which Calatrava had estimated would cost $57 million, came in at a low bid of $113 million.

The lesson to be drawn at that point was simple. Calatrava is notorious for low-balling the costs of his designs. The city should have seen the handwriting and realized it couldn't afford this extravagant architectural folly.

Remember, please, that most of the sexy items in the overall plan for the Trinity are "unfunded"—the trails, the white water, even the water in the lakes, for example. No money for that. The citizens of the city are still to be taxed for their share (the lion's share) of those elements.

The city skirts that fact every little chance it gets. On September 10, the city will unveil a scale model of the whole project. On its Web page the city invites people to "see the large model that accurately depicts major components inside and outside the levees including replicas of the Calatrava signature bridges."

I checked with Rebecca Dugger, head of the city's Trinity River Project office. She confirmed my suspicion that there will be no labels or legend or other indication on the model to show which elements have been funded and which are just pie in the sky. She said, "We felt that labels would be a little too cumbersome."

OK. My point here is that the city did not have any extra money lying around for the Hunt-Hill bridge when the bids came in double what the dummies had been telling people it would cost. But rather than back down, City Hall got Calatrava to say he could re-design the bridge to cost $69 million, close to half as much.

Amazing. The city said some of the savings would come from "value-engineering" and from using Cimolai to fabricate some of the elements.

Now come back to the present with me, if you will, and my chat with Hale of TxDOT. The modeling endeavor, he explained, is not being done by Cimolai. It's not their lookout. It's being done by a contractor working for Calatrava.

Calatrava has to get the model to work, before he can tell Cimolai what to build. That's the hold-up. Think about it. The bridge is going to be 10 months late, because Calatrava couldn't get his engineering model to work. Now it works? We hope. But at what cost?

A significant element in the hold-up, beyond the wobbly model, is money. Hale said there have been negotiations between various contractors involved in building this bridge and their bonding companies. That's a bit of inside baseball, but it's worth understanding in this case.

A contractor promises to do a job for a set price when he signs the contract. But the client makes him provide a bond, which is basically a guarantee from a third party, usually a big insurance company. The bonding company guarantees the price. In other words, if the contractor can't complete the job at that price and the job winds up costing more, the bonding company will make up the difference.

I asked Hale if the negotiations to which he referred meant the contractors were having trouble coming in at the prices they had agreed to. He said he thought that might be the case, but he said everything has been worked out.

I just want to make sure we mark this moment. After all the mayor's public-relations talk about how fast he was going to push the project, the signature bridge part of it just slipped a year. And the slippage may well have to do with basic engineering and money problems.

That's not nothing.

I found another interesting development while poking around. I wondered how the North Texas Tollway Authority was coming along with its design for the Trinity toll road, now that the location of the road between the levees has been approved by the voters. I read recently on the Observer's blog, Unfair Park, that there had been significant delays. Sherita Coffelt, spokeswoman for the tollway authority, confirmed for me that they haven't actually started on the design yet. She said the authority has delayed until next year the public hearing that is the official first step in choosing a path to put the toll road on.

What? They haven't decided where to put it yet? Wasn't that what the referendum was about?

Right. The people voted to put it between the levees. Sure. But Coffelt told me the authority had to delay the process of officially and finally choosing a route because of some little, itsy-bitsy problems they're having with the environmental impact study or EIS.

They have to finish the EIS before they can have a public hearing to launch the process of officially choosing a route. It's like the house that Jack built. You have to go in steps. But the EIS is a big step. Any number of agencies—the state or federal highway departments, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to name three—could put the kibosh to the whole thing, depending on how it comes out.

I'll tell you why it's taking so long to do the EIS. Because this whole thing is about Katrina and what happened to New Orleans. Katrina happened because the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers allowed local politicos and development interests in New Orleans to pressure it into building sub-par levees.

The levees here are dirt walls along both sides of the Trinity River designed to hold back flood waters from downtown on one side and Oak Cliff on the other. The area between the levees is called the floodway. It's the pipe, so to speak, that carries the water away.

The city's plan is to build an expressway down the middle of that pipe. There is no way to do that without clogging the pipe. If you clog the pipe, you risk pushing the waters higher until they spill over the levees, then rip the levees down and send rampaging floods through downtown or Oak Cliff or both.

The fact that the toll road is being held up by the environmental impact studies is serious and scary. The fact that the Calatrava bridge is being delayed by engineering and money problems is significant. And, if I may say, hilarious.

But the really important fact, embedded in all of this, is that we have idiots steering the ship. You may call that sour grapes. I think of it as a fine wine, aging in the barrel. I'm planning my little tasting for some time in 2012. That's my motto. No sour grape before its time.

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