The Trinity River toll road is dead. DOA. Cold. Clothespins on noses. The Trinity River toll road is no more. From here on out, it's all bad money after good and proof our city is led by fools.
Monday, the mayor of Dallas and a backup choir of politicians held a press conference in the flag room of City Hall at which they announced a "way forward" on the Trinity River project. Leppert said the city has worked with officials of the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers to overcome recently revealed problems with the city's 11-year-old plan to build a massive, multi-lane toll road through downtown.
The underlying reality—the corpse they were trying to rouge—is that the basic plan has collapsed around their ears. The Trinity plan calls for building a new highway between the flood control levees along the Trinity River in the one area of the entire city most prone to catastrophic flooding.
It's a stupid plan. It has always been a stupid plan. The Trinity River runs between downtown and Oak Cliff. The river floods in fall and spring. High mud berms along both sides of the river, called levees, keep flood water from tearing into downtown and Oak Cliff.
The area between the levees, called "the floodway" (for a reason) is like a pipe. It carries flood water off so the water won't rise too high, overtop the levees and tear up the city. A multi-lane toll road would be a huge mound of concrete dumped right out in the middle of the pipe where it would clog the pipe and push floodwaters closer to the top of the levees.
For a decade, the city has tried to deny this basic truth—that putting a road out there will push flood waters higher. In 1999, assistant city manager Jill Jordan assured the city council that the Trinity River project would provide the city with "several feet of freeboard," meaning even the biggest floods would remain several feet beneath the top of the levees.
But the Observer looked at reports produced for the city by Halff Engineering and found that a massive new highway out in the floodway would push floodwaters substantially higher, reducing the freeboard to less than a foot. Later it was decided the levees needed to be raised even higher.
On April 2 of this year, the Corps released findings showing that the levees protecting downtown Dallas are in unacceptable condition, with or without the toll road. They're broken and full of holes and tree roots. They're not as high as they're supposed to be. The soil beneath them probably includes a lot of river sand especially prone to washing away.
Very bad news. And whose fault is it? By law, the city has always been responsible for maintaining the levees. Therefore, the levees' current deplorable condition is the city's fault.
Simultaneously with the bad report from the Corps, the Federal Emergency Management Agency announced steps to withdraw certification of the Dallas levees—a potential catastrophe for downtown even without a flood. Then buying flood insurance downtown will become next to impossible.
The insurance issue alone is an enormous gun to the head for the city. The bigger gun, one hopes, is the very real threat of flooding, which would be worse than Katrina if the Dallas levees were to fail.
Most of the damage suffered in New Orleans from Hurricane Katrina in 2005 came from rising water in residential neighborhoods. A Trinity River levee break in downtown would produce a rampaging wall of water in the city's most densely developed districts.
But Monday, Mayor Tom Leppert wanted everyone to be happy and not worry. The toll road and that bridge are coming along just fine, he said. "We are here today to announce solutions, to address planning concerns and also to bring the Trinity River Corridor Project to fruition," he said.
He preached a doctrine that he has been hard-selling ever since the problems with the levees first emerged, seeking to de-couple the levee safety issue from the toll road. "Now I also want you to know there's an awful lot of false information out there," he said.
"I want to make one point very clear. We are not in this situation because of the Trinity River Corridor Project. That is simply false. The project and the condition of the levees under the new standard set by the Corps are separate and apart from each other.
"If we never had a Trinity River Corridor Project, we'd be in the same situation we are in now."
Most of that is transparently false, false on its face. First of all, the toll road and the levee issue are inextricably bound up with each other. The toll road, by blocking floodwaters, would increase the pressure on the levees. Also, the basic design of the road calls for it to cut through the levees at several points.
Cuts or penetrations of the levees are among the main concerns of the Corps. Allowing massive new penetrations for the toll road wouldn't just be problematic. It's not going to happen. There is no way under existing circumstances that the Corps of Engineers could sign off on the current design for the toll road.
In fact, the North Texas Tollway Authority conceded after the press conference Monday that it has ceased work on design of the toll road and won't take it up again until these issues are resolved. NTTA spokeswoman Sherita Coffelt told me the design work can't resume until the levee issues are resolved.
Think about that for just a second. The mayor of Dallas states with a straight face that the current crisis with the levees is not linked or related to the plan for building a major highway between them. An hour later, a spokesperson for the agency that would actually build the road concedes that design work has stopped and cannot resume until someone figures out how to resolve the problem with the levees.
Someone is not telling the truth.
It's difficult to imagine a circumstance in which telling the truth could be more important. Compare it to other City Hall issues. No matter who gets the candy concession at Love Field Airport, nobody dies. But if Dallas pushes this levee safety issue just an inch the wrong way, the results could be horrendous. It's disconcerting when officials tell us things that clearly aren't true about the river.
Let's go back to the second part of what the mayor had to say in his de-coupling remarks. He said we would have this problem anyway, even if we had never launched a Trinity River project.
In one sense, he's right. The condition of the levees is a problem that has been settling in on us for decades, as the levees themselves have settled and eroded. The Corps of Engineers is far from blameless.
Corps officials have admitted to me that almost all of the major structural penetrations and cuts in the levees criticized in their recent report were approved by the Corps back when they were done. The city is in trouble now because the Corps, in the era since Katrina, has changed its standards. That isn't the mayor's fault.
But in another sense he's wrong. Really wrong. The city is in this predicament entirely because of its obsessive focus on the Trinity River project and particularly on that stupid toll road. Give me two seconds to explain.
Public entities—city halls, legislatures, Congress—all incur the same kind of opportunity costs that private enterprises do. There's only so much money, so much time in the day and, even more important, so much capacity for focus.
If you focus on the wrong thing, you can't focus on the right thing. Because City Hall has wasted so much time and effort on this stupid toll road—and because it has been so busy glossing over flood control issues in order to sell the road—City Hall hasn't done what it should have done first in providing for public safety by fixing the levees.
So now we're going to have to go back and fix the levees after the fact. Even council member Angela Hunt, a staunch critic of the toll road, said after the press conference that we have no choice on the levee issue. We have to fix them.
This brings us to why the toll road is dead. It is dead because it was already on life support, way over cost, way beyond schedule, and now all of those difficulties have been multiplied by 10.
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Leppert said in his speech Monday that an "extremely aggressive schedule" for completing the research on the levees is 20 months. That's the research. Then we have to start doing whatever it is the research shows is needed to fix the levees.
The toll road is already years beyond its initial schedule and more than a billion dollars in the red. Even without the new costs dictated by the levee study, the price for the toll road is a billion dollars above the available funding and probably well above the cost of other less precarious alignments not inside the levees.
The people who have pushed this road from the beginning only want it if it's inside the levees. It isn't a good road for mitigating congestion anyway. It doesn't go where drivers want to go. The purpose of the road is to promote real estate development, and the real estate its backers want to develop is right outside the levees, right where the road would have to be built if it can't go inside the levees.
If it can't go inside the levees, the backers won't want it at all. The turn of events revealed Monday—the story inside the story—is that it can't go inside the levees. So it's dead. Somebody say a prayer. Let's shake the dirt off our boots.