Toll Road Backers’ Strategy: Pretend to Re-evaluate Its Worth

The plan is to get an outside group to rubber-stamp the current toll road design

trinity_river_toll_road

My column in the current issue of D Magazine tries to answer the question of why the Trinity toll road advocates won’t let this unpopular boondoggle die. Because I write these columns five to six weeks before they appear in print and online, time will always cause some portions of my column to be wrong/irrelevant/laughable by the time it appears. In this case, it’s the portion where I describe the strategy of the toll roads’ backers — the coalition of the willing.

Well, it’s not wrong. I say they will try to fund the toll road in phases. That’s still probably true. But it’s not the most immediate, important part of their strategy.

That would instead be the scenario currently being promoted by said coalition to various business interests around town, which goes like this:

  • Mayor Mike Rawlings, sometime in early November, announces a plan to take a fresh look at the toll road. He will proclaim that a group of outside experts shall spend a few months examining three aspects of the toll road plan: connectivity, aesthetics, and economic impact.
  • Which sounds great, except the outside experts will be working from a premise that suggests, “This toll road is going to happen and is necessary, so what is the BESTESTEST TOLL ROAD WE CAN POSSIBLY HAVE?” Which, as we all know, is a rigged game. No anti-tollroad experts shall be considered appropriately expert for this expert panel.
  • The experts will come back with a final plan, ready for ratification, before the next council elections — the timing is important, so that the current toll-road advocates on the council will be able to vote for it. In that way the mayor can, in the term he likes to use, “carry the ball over the goal line” before a possibly new, anti-toll road council is elected.

Of course, there are many things about this plan that would make any right-thinking person’s head explode. Chief among them is that the various funding groups involved have repeatedly told council members that no substantive changes to the plan can take place. The council can vote to end its interest in building the toll road, but they can’t come in and redesign it to be 10 bike lanes. Won’t happen.

Which is why, to my mind, this approach is so obviously an ass-covering exercise meant to give the coalition (Mary Suhm, Craig Holcomb, Michael Morris, et al.) a spray-coating of Teflon. My assumption is that the coalition thinks the current accusations against them — they they stubbornly insist on building an unpopular highway — will no longer stick because they can say, hey, look, we JUST STUDIED IT AND ANSWERED ALL YOUR CONCERNS.

Will this happen? I have no idea. From what I was told, the mayor hasn’t even been fully briefed on this plan (plausible deniability is a wonderful thing). But I do know several business types have been told by the coalition itself that this is the plan. I suspect once the results of this survey are done, we’ll know if what business folks are being told matches up with what really happens.

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