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With the Trinity Toll Road Dying, It's Time to Get Truthful About Flood Control

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I have a piece in the paper this week about D Magazine publisher Wick Allison and his turn-around on the Trinity River toll road -- now he's against it -- for which I genuinely admire him. I have been around people his age in the past, and my impression is that it's often very difficult for them to accept new ideas.

He defies that stereotype, and for that he is a credit to his generation. It wasn't the greatest generation, but, you know, maybe it was OK after all.

See also: How D Magazine's Wick Allison Changed His Mind on the Trinity Parkway

But for all of this to turn into a true South African style truth and reconciliation on the Trinity River project, we would still have to dig deeper into the history and genesis of the project. Allison's opposition to it now is based mainly on his perception -- a correct one, I believe -- that it's a lousy real estate play. The people who have wanted it done all this time believed a major dedicated roadway was the key to enabling redevelopment of the land along the river downtown.

That's a very mid-century concept based on antique notions about what makes a modern downtown tick. In my interview with him, Allison points to evidence all around us in downtown Dallas that big freeways kill urban development rather than make it happen. His vision of a whole new order of downtown development is based on making the big freeways go away, not building a new one.

That's all well and good. I think he's right. More to the point, some very credible and important experts are coming to the same view, including architect Bob Meckfessell, a major supporter of the toll road in the past. But the problems with the Trinity River project go way deeper than its shortcomings as a real estate play.

Remember that this entire multi-billion-dollar project to rebuild the river's floodway through downtown was originally pitched to voters as a flood control project. An immensely important flood control project. U.S. Army Corps of Engineers engineering studies show that a levee failure during a major flood on the Trinity River in downtown Dallas would produce devastation far outstripping what Katrina did to New Orleans in 2005.

Our very first reporting on the project here at the Observer in 1998 was based on expert sources who said the flood control plan itself, especially the design of new levees, was wrong and flew in the face of national flood safety policy, serving mainly to enable the building of this road we now agree we don't want or need.

But don't take it from us. Two years after that first story was published, the George W. Bush White House agreed with us and took the Trinity River project out of the presidential budget. Bush's director of the Office of Management and Budget, Mitchell E. Daniels Jr., committed his findings to a letter in which he described three fundamental flaws in the plan: 1) a failure to look at a simpler, much cheaper fix that would have provided far superior flood protection to downtown Dallas; 2) a fiddling of the corps' own rules and regulations for determining the economic benefits of the program; and 3) a failure to look at ways to solve downstream flooding, especially in the heavily polluted area of Cadillac Heights, without building new levees.

Since 1994 federal flood control policy has been based on research showing that new levees drive and increase flood devastation rather than reducing it. It's a principle that may seem counter-intuitive at first. Why not just build more walls and push the water away from us? Basically it has to do with piling up more and more water instead of letting it spread out and soak into the ground. A ton of research in the early 1990s showed that in the end you can't beat Mother Nature.

Let's go back to looking at the Trinity River project as a simple real estate play, which is how it started. Now we are starting to agree that it was a dumb real state play. But we also need to recognize that it was a dishonest real estate play built on deliberate misrepresentations to the public.

This idea came from people who were not very smart. And they were dishonest. And they are the ones who drove the flood control aspects of the project. Think about it. Forget the real estate play. A bad real estate play can't kill you, but a bad flood control project can.

There are other powerful lessons in this project, one of them being that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and the Federal Highway Administration can be counted on for nothing -- nothing -- in terms of providing for long-range public safety. And it's not their fault.

The powers-that-be in Dallas repeatedly took the North Texas congressional delegation by the ear and led it squealing back to the trough whenever federal money and legal authority were needed to paper over the plan's dramatic cracks and flaws. When the lawmakers get involved, the administrators take a powder. That's part of the underlying story here.

The thing we need to focus on now is flood control on the river. This has been a bogus dangerous flood control plan from the beginning. Taking apart the toll road is only the beginning. We have to get back to bare dirt.

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