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What Two Sentences in The WSJ Suggest About the Future of the Trinity River Project

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Wilonsky sent me an interesting Wall Street Journal article this morning by Jonathan Weisman talking about the shift of power that would be brought about by a Republican-backed ban on congressional earmarks. The great irony is that an earmark ban shifts power and leverage to the Democrat in the White House.

But why is Wilonsky bothering me with this on Saturday morning while our respective families are still asleep? I read on down. A-ha!

An intriguing reference to Dallas and the Trinity River Project!

Weisman writes: "Congress has spent $106 million this decade for a floodway project in Dallas, though no administration has requested it. Republican lawmakers won't be able to fight for it next year."

He's making a point that may be sort of academic for people elsewhere, but it's life and death for the Trinity River Project.

It is a project of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, the quasi-civilian branch of the army in charge of flood control. Weisman points out that all Corps projects are earmarks, sort of: They're on a list that traditionally has been negotiated by the White House and the Congress.

The Trinity River Project has always fallen in a particular sub-class. No White House has ever supported it, from Bush to Obama. In fact, in kicking it off the list the first time, the George W. Bush White House suggested that the Corps had fiddled the basic underlying assumptions used to justify the whole thing.

That was the nut of an early unsuccessful lawsuit to stop the project, arguing that it was never really a flood control project anyway. The contention of the lawsuit (thrown out by a federal judge who said he wasn't a flood control expert) was that the Trinity River project had always been a speculative road project designed to enable real estate development but camouflaged as flood control in order to get a big federal subsidy for the road and the developers.

Bush wouldn't back it. Neither would Obama. That has to tell you something.

And that would seem like a big local story, wouldn't it? And yet over the years The Dallas Morning News, a big backer of the project, has made scant mention of the fact that revolving regimes in the White House think the Trinity River project smells bad.

So how has it been funded? Well, that's Weisman's point. He singles it out as an example of a subset of Corps projects that have never had White House approval but have survived anyway entirely on the basis of congressional earmarks. Dallas has always gone to Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson, to Sen. Kay Bailey Hutchison, to the entire delegation in fact and said, "Stick that thing back in the Corps budget for us."

But Senate Republicans, including Hutchison, have endorsed a Tea Party-inspired ban on their own earmarking powers, and the ban may reach a vote of the full Senate right after Thanksgiving.

So where would that leave the Trinity River Project? Unfunded. Maybe. And what part of the project are we talking about? Not the toll road, as it turns out. The proposed crazy toll road out where it floods is not a Corps of Engineers deal.

We are talking about the levees -- the raising of levees downtown and the construction of new levees downriver of downtown.

You mean the levees that are no good any more? The ones that have to be totally rebuilt or a huge swath of land in the center of the city will be too dangerous for development?

Yup. Them's the ones.

Let's assume that in a reasonable nation and a reasonable city in a time of reason, the outcome is not going to be the abandonment of downtown Dallas. We're going to work something out.

The fact remains that this earmark ban is going to toss the whole issue of levees in Dallas out on the table in a big junk-pile of unanswered questions. We are looking at two projects: 1) The Old Thing, the one we voted for in '98 with the lakes and the solar-powered water taxis, and 2) The New Thing, the one that happened in April of '09 when the Corps decertified the Dallas levees system, basically saying, "Before you do the solar-powered water taxis, you need to do something about the fact that your levee system may kill you."

Oh, that.

Even according to the city's absurdly low-balled estimates, the New Thing, at $150 million, will cost the city more than the Old Thing. Some knowledgeable observers think the New Thing will cost 10 times the $150 million the city is predicting.

Then you have this whole cheese-ball deception that our mayor, The Board Room Jester, has been perpetrating - that the two things are either totally separate (his first line) or that the Old Thing will help pay for the New Thing (his new line).

The point this The WSJ story makes is that projects like the Trinity River Floodway Extension, which have been supported entirely and only by congressional earmarks, are going to be screwed if the Congress votes to kill congressional earmarks. The whole New Thing/Old Thing picture here is up in the air. Who the hell knows?

We're never going to get any straight talk about it from the Jester. He was put up to run for mayor by the interests that wanted that road. He will never ever admit that the road is crazy and the project is in a mess.

And we're not going to get any good information about it from the city's only daily. So I don't know what to tell you. Read The Wall Street Journal and keep clicking on Unfair Park.

Take it back. I do know what to tell you. You know what the real bottom line is here? It's that our mayor and our only daily newspaper fiddled while Rome burned. One way or another, they kept showing us those damned solar-powered water taxis, while the basic infrastructure that makes it possible for downtown Dallas to even exist was crumbling away behind them.

It's on their watch, their shoulders. This mess is their legacy. Think of the mayor, think of the News, just think of Nero with those flames rising higher. Mayor Tom Nero. The Dallas Morning Nero. That about does it.

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