Tom Leppert on the Trinity River Toll Road, Again Slicing the Truth with a Razor Blade

I'm doing an informal poll. Is there anyone left out there who gives a rat's ass what former Dallas Mayor Tom Leppert did or did not say about the safety of the Trinity River toll road project? Wait. Wait. I'm looking. I've got my binoculars on. A-ha! I do spy at least one rat's ass out there. That was all I needed. Here I go then.

On the op-ed page of today's Dallas Morning News, Leppert and a couple other mopes he somehow Shanghaied into this deal with him have written a pay-walled column in which Leppert says he did not lie to the voters before the 2007 referendum on building a toll road in the (glug-glug-glug) flood zone between the flood control levees along the Trinity River.

Why would anyone be crazy enough to build a highway in a flood zone? Yes.

In today's piece, Leppert says he never told anybody that the flood zone route had been officially approved. He says he said the flood zone route had not been officially disapproved.

Try to concentrate. This is tough. It's harder to follow than a courtroom scene on The Good Wife.

Here's the drill. In 2007 when we had a chance to vote on this thing, opponents of putting the road in the flood zone said the flood zone was a bad place to put the road because it's the flood zone. It floods.

Leppert told voters there was no problem. He vowed on repeated occasions that all of the relevant officials and their engineers had studied the proposed route in the flood zone and had "signed off" on its safety and viability.

Voters believed him. In November 2007 Dallas voters narrowly approved building a highway in the flood zone, a thing on which the city will look back in future decades and feel the way I feel now when I see pictures of my pants in the '60s.

A week before the election in 2007, Shelley Kofler at KERA radio had a story in which Leppert could be heard saying: "The Corps has signed off on the safety issues. They have signed off on the environmental issues. They feel very comfortable with it."

At a League of Women Voters debate before the election, Leppert said: "The reality of it is, as I said, that both the Army Corps of Engineers, TxDOT and the NTTA have studied this. They say it's safe. They say it's environmentally sensitive, and they say it's economically viable. All three of those, and they're the experts, we have acknowledged them as being the experts on this, every single one of them has said this is viable and it works. It can be done. There's no reason not to believe it [can be] done."

As Kofler reported in her piece, Leppert's repeated assurances to voters that the glug-glug plan had been studied and approved already by all of the relevant agencies was untrue. Kofler quoted Gene Rice, project manager for the Corps, who said the Corps hadn't even seen plans for the toll road and hadn't signed off on jack.

"We have made no determination at this time on if the project will be acceptable or not," Rice told Kofler. "We are still working with the transportation interests to try to make sure that it could go in safely if it goes in, but no determination has been made or will be made for several years."

Now, if you look very very closely, you will see the little crack of wriggle room into which Leppert is now trying to wriggle himself, and, by the way, in order to visualize this, it's OK for you to go ahead and try to imagine me putting on those '60s pants again.

Leppert told voters in 2007 that the Corps had already decided to sign off. Rice said the Corps had not decided to sign off. But Rice did not say the Corps had decided to not sign off.

Get it? Decide to sign off. Decide to not sign off. Not decide to sign off. Not decide to not sign off. No, I don't get it either. But I guess Leppert does, which, in and of itself, scares me a little about this man, who is, as you know, a Republican candidate for the U.S. Senate.

In his 2007 interview with Kofler, Rice tried to make plain that it was by no means a given the Corps would ever decide to sign off: "For us this is a very complex project," Rice said. "We have never dealt with people putting facilities into the floodway itself. We have never had anybody that I know of in this district want to put a major road in our floodway."

So he was saying they might never sign off. But maybe when somebody says they might never sign off, you could sort of take that to mean they might sign off, because when they said never they also said might, which is like not-might-never-ever. Yeah. Hang on. I need a drink of water.

OK, I'm back. Here we are in Leppertland. The basic dynamic is this. In 2007 Leppert was talking to voters. He was speaking in the context of an election, not a cleverly written TV courtroom drama or a Lewis Carroll novel. He gave voters the clear impression that there were no remaining safety, financial or engineering doubts left about putting the toll road out in the glug-glug-glug zone.

That was not true.

Now years have passed. Suddenly last week after collaborating in this lie all this time, The Dallas Morning News, a very strong proponent of the glug-glug idea, decided to come clean with readers and admit that Leppert (not The News) had deceived them. In an editorial under the headline, "Overblown optimism about toll road did voters a disservice," The News finally admitted that, "Leppert and his allies offered a rose-colored, best-case scenario instead of allowing voters to make a fully informed decision about a significant and expensive project."

Now today we have Leppert's rebuttal, in which he calls The News' editorial "outrageous," and offers the following arguments in his own defense:

"No one in the Corps or the Federal Highway Administration or the North Texas Tollway Authority has ever told us the project was not safe or we could not get this done," Leppert writes.
Elsewhere he says:
"There are always doubters, and their concerns frequently challenge us to make the project better. But none of those concerns have reached the point of telling us this can't be done."
But his big point is this:
"Clearly, some bureaucrats within our project partners voiced concerns in emails. But ultimately, none of those partners have concluded that the tollway is unsafe or unachievable. And time after time, senior federal officials have not only said it is possible, they have assured us and others at the city that they are committed to seeing this project implemented."

Look. In 2007 he said the agencies had "signed off." Since then he has back-pedaled on what that phrase was supposed to mean, and I guess you could take "signed-off" to mean "not-signed-on" or something. But here's all Leppert and the other mopes who put their names on today's op-ed piece had to do:

Say who signed off. Tell us their names. We'll ask them what they meant. But we need their names. These are public officials. They can't sign off in secret. So name them. We'll check it out.

Personally, I look forward to calling them. I have my question all ready. "Sir or madam, prior to the 2007 Trinity River toll road referendum in Dallas, did you or did you not not sign off or sign off not or in any way not sign on, sign on not or sign off and on?"

You know, we had a guy here who did a profile of Leppert once, and he wrote that Leppert had all of these framed "fly with eagles" motivational sayings on his walls. I should see if I could get something made up that he could put on his wall with a great quote from the duchess who lives just outside the caterpillar's forest in Lewis Carroll's Wonderland.

"Be what you would seem to be, or, if you'd like it put more simply, never imagine yourself not to be otherwise than what it might appear to others that what you were or might have been was not otherwise than what you had been would have appeared to them to be otherwise."

We can talk about this more later or later more. Right now I believe I need a long nap or a smart whack in the head.

KEEP THE DALLAS OBSERVER FREE... Since we started the Dallas Observer, it has been defined as the free, independent voice of Dallas, and we'd like to keep it that way. With local media under siege, it's more important than ever for us to rally support behind funding our local journalism. You can help by participating in our "I Support" program, allowing us to keep offering readers access to our incisive coverage of local news, food and culture with no paywalls.
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