What, Him Worry? Neumann's Using City Dough to Fast Track a Dead Toll Road.

I just want to make sure we all understand the roll of the dice here.

City council member Dave Neumann of Oak Cliff wants us taxpayers of Dallas to front about $1.4 million to the federal government in order to keep the Trinity River toll road on the fast track. Why? Because right now it's in the ditch.

Basically there is no way the Trinity River Toll Road can be built under existing circumstances. There is an unfunded balance of more than a billion dollars to build it. No one has that money. Nobody is going to come up with that money, because the proposed road itself is a stupid idea. It could never repay the money. The federal government is cooling off a whole lot about devoting any money to it at all.

So Neumann wants the city to loan more than a million dollars in local money to the feds in order to keep the thing going, in the hope that the city will get paid back later if the thing ever gets built.

Let me break it down to you another way.

A guy comes into a bar. He says to you, "I will bet you $1.4 million that they're never going to build the Trinity River Toll Road. You let me hold the $1.4 million. If they don't build it, I keep your money. If they do build it, you get your money back."

Neumann wants you to stick your hand out and shake on that.

Meanwhile, the federal government seems to be betting the road will never be built.

Kevin Craig, the Trinity River project director for U.S. Army Corps of Engineers Fort Worth District, explained to me that the White House budget for the Trinity River Plan was cut from $1.3 million in the previous annual cycle to $700,000 for the coming cycle. The Corps is on the hook for $3.4 million if the plan is to progress to the next step -- a feasibility study to determine if it can even be done. The city is on the hook for the other $3.4 million cost of the study.

But the Corps only has $2 million to chip in -- the $1.3 million plus the $700,000.

Craig explained to me that the Corps' number could improve in the course of this year's Congressional budgeting. Maybe Congress will push it up a little higher.

But if that does not happen -- if the federal amount remains less than its required half-share the cost of the study -- Neumann says we should pony up that money. In a briefing earlier this week, Neumann pointed out the city will get repaid later when the project gets built. But I would offer a caveat. It's not WHEN. It's IF. And IF it does not get built, which would certainly be the smarter bet, the city will be out the $1.4 million.

Here's another possible strategy Neumann forgot to mention: Be patient. Everything is bad now. City Manager Mary Suhm has asked City Hall staffers to see if they can maybe kinda try to slash their numbers by 30 percent as she starts to prep the next fiscal year's budget. What's the rush? Just wait a year. Then the Corps may have the money needed for its share of the study.

Why would we risk $1.4 million in a terrible budget year to fast-track a project that is obviously doomed anyway?

Another little pickle to keep an eye on: Dallas County Commissioner Maureen Dickey and Lame Duck County Judge Jim Foster are pushing a plan for the county to create its own toll road agency. This follows some mutterings last year about the possibility of creating a new levee district along the Trinity.

The danger here, as other members of the commissioners court have already pointed out, is that somebody apparently wants to create a new taxing and bonding authority. I suspect it's somebody who has read the tea leaves as I have and sees that the Trinity River Toll Road cannot be built and will not be built by the agencies now in existence.

So ,they figure: Why not whip up a new agency?

If that's the scam, it's a fundamentally dumb idea. As we have seen, it doesn't make any difference which agency looks at this deal. The toll road itself is such a dumb idea that it just cannot be built. By anybody.

But that's also the core problem with this whole project. Somebody really powerful and really dumb is behind it. So of course the whole just gets dumb and dumber. Some day it will die of dumbness.

And on that day? We lose Neumann's $1.4 million wager.

It's not the kind of wager anybody, even Neumann, would ever make with his own money. Then again, he is the guy who lost $1.9 million without even noticing it.

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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