Trinity Toll Road Isn't a White Deal. It's a Bad Deal.

You can't really understand Dallas politics without grasping the concept of the white-people deal. It's a key element. I'll give you an example.

In 2000 a professional lobbyist named David Dean and his wife, Jean, bought a 1916 Georgian Revival home in the Swiss Avenue Historic District and announced they were going to build an addition on one end. A protracted and nasty legal war ensued between the Deans and historic preservationists. The Deans won.

One of the battles in this war was fought before the Dallas City Council, which had to endure lengthy technical testimony on streetscapes, templates, facades and even fascia boards. It's pronounced FAY-sha.

At one point the council took a recess from these deliberations and retired to their little break room in the back to sip coffee and munch sandwiches. A white council member told me later that a black council member, standing next to him at the sandwich table, smiled, shook his head and muttered half under his breath, "Fascia boards. Man. This is really a white-people deal."

In this still very racially separated city, there really are white-people deals—issues so removed from the lives of people who live in the city's mainly minority neighborhoods that everybody might as well be debating the weight of rocks on the moon.

But the idea that issues can be segregated by race is just as corrupt as doing people that way. The best recent example is the Trinity River toll road.

In 2007 during a referendum to force a new alignment for the road, influential African-American leaders took to the hustings to defend the existing route. The referendum was defeated and the current alignment saved. Ever since, the same black politicians—especially city council member Dwaine Caraway and Dallas County Commissioner John Wiley Price—have claimed proudly that their own efforts and the black votes they raised provided the margin of victory.

The current alignment carries the road past properties slated for redevelopment in downtown Dallas on a route isolated between flood control levees along the Trinity River. But at the southern terminus, in black South Dallas, the proposed route jumps back over the east levee into the neighborhoods, where it dumps 155,000 cars a day—its highest volume anywhere on its eight-mile length—into a street-level connection with Highway 175.

This area of the city has been sliced and diced by highway projects for half a century—the high-flying, no-exit kind that carries roaring 24-hour cavalcades of traffic overhead, and also the cheap-built back-of-the-hand kind like the infamous "Dead Man's Curve" at the intersection of South Central Expressway and Hawn Freeway two miles southeast of Fair Park.

Price, Caraway and other black leaders who campaigned to protect the current alignment of the Trinity River toll road promised minority voters the road project would mean jobs for them. It's a promise that always hooks the hearts of people living in islands of biting poverty, surrounded by what looks to them like a sea of affluence.

In one Southern Dallas census block area affected by the toll road project, the population is 74.7 percent minority; 81.7 percent live below the federal poverty guideline; median household income is $6,928. If you tell people in that census block that a big city project might throw even a single bone their way, they'll vote for it. On one condition.

It's a white-people deal.

I mean this: Except for the bone, the project is viewed as neutral or even irrelevant to people in Southern Dallas, sort of like the fascia boards on Swiss Avenue.

I don't think I'm a racist, but I am just as capable as the next white guy of seeing things in a too-white way (which some people would call racist). On things like this, there's usually a simple reality check. Talk to somebody black.

I'm lucky. My job allows me to call really smart interesting people. So on this one, I called the Reverend Gerald Britt Jr., a longtime Dallas clergyman, always one of the city's most thoughtful observers, now vice president of public policy at Central Dallas Ministries.

I ticked off a list of big-ticket civic projects from the American Airlines Center to the toll road and asked him if it was unfair of me to suppose that all of them were viewed in Southern Dallas as mainly white-people deals.

"No, I don't think you're wrong," he said. "But hopefully that kind of thinking is what we are about to change."

I didn't choose Britt at random. He is at the center of a fascinating development involving the toll road. For the first time I know of, we have an objective outside analysis of one of these big white-people deals telling us that the project is not neutral and not without consequences for minority communities.

According to a 2,000-page study published last February by the Federal Highway Administration, certain aspects of the proposed toll road project will exacerbate a history of environmental racism in southern Dallas. And that's not just an opinion. It's an official finding under the law triggering a set of consequences and required responses.

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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