Why the Trinity toll road died, and why the city is so surprised

The news yesterday that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers said that the Trinity River levee system isn’t especially safe has pretty much put the kibosh on the Trinity toll road. Even Dallas’ Only Daily Newspaper, which has rarely seen anything but sunshine and happy days when it comes to the highway, acknowledged this: “toll road plan in doubt” read the headline.

And the idea that building the road is one way to fix the levee system, while certainly novel, is something that horrified city officials threw out when they heard the news. It’s not practical, but given how much time and effort city manager Mary Suhm and Mayor Park Cities have put into this, they had to come up with something.

The danger now is that Leppert and Suhm will refuse to face facts, and try to save a highway that will never be built. In the process, they could jeopardize the part of the plan that is so important to Oak Cliff’s rejuvenation, the parks and flood protection. Now is the time for the neighborhood’s leaders, inclduing toll road supporter councilman Dave Neumann, to stop this from happening.

After the jump, why all this happened — and why city officials are so shocked:

There are two keys to this discussion. First, Dallas’ leaders have very little perspective. They see Dallas, and figure it’s the center of the universe. Nothing that happens elsewhere matters much. This is a peculiarly Texas frame of mind, and it’s one of the first things that those of us who are from elsewhere notice. Texas truly is the only state that used to be its own country.

Second, despite all of the social, economic and political changes that have taken place in the U.S. over the past decade, the political elites here (and in much of the rest of the country) still have a difficult time understanding what has happened and that these changes are significant. In many ways, they still want to party like it’s 1999 – Bill Clinton is president and the federal government’s idea of oversight is mostly benign neglect. Sept. 11, Hurricane Katrina, federal budget deficits and the collapse of the banking system are things that happened to someone else.

In that scenario, it makes perfect sense to build a highway inside a floodway. We’re in Dallas, and we know what’s best for us. The role of the federal government is to make it happen. We’re willing to accept the risks, because we don’t believe that anything bad will ever happen to us. When Leppert called in a favor to force the Corps’ hand a couple of weeks ago – the infamous Kay Bailey Hutchison letter – he was partying like it was 1999.

But it isn’t 1999. It’s a brave, new post-modern world, and the Corps understands that in a way few people here do – including those of us who think the toll road is a bad idea. The New Orleans levees failed during Katrina, and the Corps’ job is to make sure levees don’t fail. So it’s going to make sure the same thing doesn’t happen to other levees around the country, and that includes the Trinity levees. You can argue about whether politics is involved or if the Corps is overreacting, but it won’t change anything.

This should have been obvious to everyone, but, as the noted philosopher Paul Simon says, we believe want we want to believe and disregard the rest. In the past couple of months, there have been a variety of news reports from across the country detailing the Corps’ crackdown on unsafe levees. In Illinois, if a 100-year-old lock and dam system isn’t rebuilt, flooding could devastate much of southwest suburban Chicago. In California, county officials in Bakersfield readied an evacuation plan in case earthen dams failed. And this week, the Corps released a list of unsafe levee systems. Trust me: Stories about locks and dams don’t start showing up in unrelated, different places across the country unless someone, somewhere is trying to make a point. Which would be the Corps.

In other words, the entrails were there to read, if we had been willing to read them. But we were convinced the fix was in, and I’m just as surprised about this as Leppert and Suhm are. I’m willing to bet that even my pal Jim Schutze is surprised, and he has been the most adamant that the Corps would never agree to the toll road.

So what’s next for the city? Officials should acknowledge the highway is dead, agree to use the Trinity bond money to shore up the levees, and look for another site for the highway. I understand Industrial Boulevard is available.


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  • DA

    Great information. Yes, please bump this to someplace visible — I found it via the Twitter feed.

  • kim adams

    Actually I think Dallas would move forward much faster with the leadership of Fortworth. They seem to be moving right along with their river projects. Dallas on the other hand is so out of touch. We do have the lookout completed on the Oakliff side. I am not sure what we are looking for but it’s done. The Trinity referendum was such a farce to begin with. The corp never approved anything before the referendum. We could have taken some of that wasted money on the “vote on the tollway” plan and fixed those awful leaks caused from the rats eating the pipes along central express way. That would do alot to project a greener image than filling everything with rocks.I wonder how other cities control that problem with their vegetation. no rats?
    Now we are goint to bury Woodall Rogers and landscape? Maybe no rats in Uptown?
    Speaking of rocks, how about those red desert rocks filling the median along Sylan in Kessler. Thankfully someone pulled the desert Yucca. Anyone think of local Texas plants? and dirt?

  • Jake

    Great article Jeff. I noticed this story doesn’t have a very prominant place online. I had to look all over the place. I finally just used your link. At least keep the park!