Mayor Mike Rawlings is furiously juggling under that overpass.

Mayor Mike Rawlings’ Strange Case for the Trinity Toll Road

He's furiously juggling under the overpass.

Back in December, Mayor Rawlings met with the Dallas Morning News editorial board to make his case for the Trinity toll road. At the time, the story was reported by the DMN, with subsequent editorializing on FrontBurner by Jason Heid and Wick Allison. I was also tempted to write something about it at the time, but dropped the idea after the pieces by Jason and Wick appeared. Since then, however, I find myself going to back to re-listen to the audio recording over and over. It’s not that politicians don’t say crazy things at times. We all know they do. It’s the idea that someone, somewhere, thought the DMN editorial board would find this pitch persuasive.

What I’ve attempted to do below is step through the mayor’s case point by point.

Background

Rawlings: “I was having a meeting the other day, and people were telling me that my position has not been clear, and I was very offended about that because I thought that I was always clear, that I had always made myself terrifically clear…”

Hmm… When campaigning, Rawlings said he “couldn’t make a decision on his support for the tollway until he knew how much it would cost and where the money would come from.” The Dallas Morning News tells us, “details are so scant that more than 99.9 percent of funding sources are left unknown,” yet “(Rawlings) said he wants to put financing questions aside for now. He said there are a lot of projects in Dallas that would have ended up being mediocre if financing details preceded vision.”

Okay, politicians are allowed to change their positions, understood. In this case, Rawlings apparently decided after he was elected that he could support the toll road without knowing how much it would cost (estimates vary wildly) and where the money would come from. Fine. But why does he have to get pissed off if people are left confused because they accurately remember the past?

After making it clear that when people question him about the Trinity, it makes him angry, he outlines his two primary reasons for now being so passionately in favor of it.

 

Justification No. 1: The Myth of Voter Approval

Rawlings:First, the voters have approved this twice, as recently as in 2007.”

Sigh… This has been one of the biggest talking points used by Rawlings and his transportation head, Judge Vonciel Jones Hill. So let’s all go through this once again. The first vote in 1998 was for “the issuance of $246,000,000 general obligation Trinity River Corridor Project Bonds, the project to include floodways, levees, waterways, open space, recreational amenities, the Trinity Parkway and related street improvements, and other related, necessary, and incidental improvements to the Trinity River Corridor.” (Emphasis mine.)

So we have a package of six improvements, voted on as a group, with the “parkway” listed last. In other words, voters were denied the opportunity to make a straight up or down vote on the toll road as a stand-alone deal. If they wanted parks and flood control, they had to hold their nose and vote for the road as well. As stated by Craig Holcomb, “people who voted against the Trinity bonds weren’t opposed to the Great Trinity Forest. They weren’t opposed to an equestrian center. The controversy was about the toll road.” Interestingly, the same article notes “the Trinity bonds were narrowly approved — by fewer than 2,400 votes. Ten other bond proposals — for things like parks and playgrounds, a new police headquarters, a fire station, libraries and an animal shelter — won overwhelming public support. ”

Now, what about the second referendum, in 2007? Well, I think most readers are willing to concede at this point that a substantial amount of the “information” provided about the project leading up to the election later proved to be either untrue (the project was already approved and funded, it was necessary to rebuild the mixmaster and  eliminate Dead Man’s Curve, etc.) or substantially misleading. And the ballot measure was phrased in such a manner as to mean that a “no” vote indicated you actually supported the toll road.

These are the images voters were sold. This is not what the plans call for.

 

Rawlings:Nothing has changed as far as the road, the parkway, is concerned.

Uhhh… nothing except for everything. Unless, of course, 10 former presidents of the AIA Dallas, all highly respected experts in the industry, are simply wrong. We started with a “parkway.” The road design submitted to the Feds is a limited access, high-speed expressway without any discernible parkway-like features.

In fact, the evidence is just a mouse click away at the North Texas Tollway Authority website. How then did Rawlings reach the opposite conclusion? Well, if you listen to him closely, it sounds like he didn’t actually compare the plans himself.

Rawlings:I asked that. There’s some mythology around it, that this project has changed. It has not. I asked what was presented with the written word of that plan and a check means next to each one of those things. So what the voters voted on on the parkway has not changed.

Wait a sec. Instead of actually looking at what was presented to him, he evidently relied on some unidentified third party to prepare some sort of graded checklist and tell him it was all good. Who performed this critical analysis? And why didn’t he just look at the evidence for himself, which would have been just as easy (maybe even easier)?

Next, Rawlings throws out the idea that if one is against the new high-speed limited-access expressway design, one is a crazy anarchist or something.

Rawlings:To send a signal to the city of Dallas, to those people that participated in that democratic process, that democracy is NOT important, would be a terrible signal to be sent in the city.

Jason already dissected that argument far better than I could ever do, so let’s keep moving.

Next, the mayor attempts to frame the construction of the tollway as a matter of economic justice.

Rawlings:Coming together is more than ‘kumbayah.’ Coming together, is, as we have talked before, is making sure that we have economic parity, we have a middle class, and that we have a sense that everybody can get a piece of the pie…

If you look at where the biggest concentration of jobs is, in the city of Dallas, it is from the Stemmons Corridor through the Hospital District, up to Love Field. That is where the heat map shows where the jobs are. You can imagine whose filling those jobs, where they’re coming from: East and Southern Dallas. It is a direct route to be able to get there. I want those people to have those jobs, keep those jobs, get raises in those jobs, and get home to be able to do homework with their kids that night.”

A few observations raised by others: first, lower-income residents would likely not be able to afford a toll road (Chapter 4 of the EIS); second, the road doesn’t materially improve commute times from East and Southern Dallas; and third, a much better way of improving access to the area in question (at a fraction of the cost) would be to do a better job of tying the southern terminus of Riverfront Blvd. into the East and Southern Dallas street grid.

We now move onto Rawlings’ second major argument in favor of the toll road.

 

Justification No. 2: Claim Traffic is Getting Worse

Rawlings: “Traffic continues to get worse and worse, especially with the construction, but even before that, the concentration of the traffic jams coming to work in the morning is, I’ve seen the maps, is really sobering.”

This is where things start to get wobbly, once again. Rawlings tells the board he’s “a numbers guy,” at which point one would expect him to present the traffic data. Instead, he starts talking about some sort of citizen’s survey done in Southern Dallas which indicated that residents believed car mobility had deteriorated between 2011 and 2013. That’s the period when construction on the mixmaster commenced, so that result makes sense, but it doesn’t have anything to do with the toll road directly. Why not look at actual Stemmons traffic data? Fortunately, Patrick Kennedy has examined readily available TxDOT data, and found that traffic on Stemmons has been declining for years, from 282,000 vehicles per day in 1997 to 269,000 in 2012. In other words, traffic is actually getting better, not worse.

Rawlings then pivots back to his economic justice theme, explaining why solving this mythical problem of increasing traffic congestion on Stemmons with a high-priced toll road that won’t improve commute times will help “single mothers with kids who are living (in Southern Dallas) at the poverty level… the best way we can.” Left unsaid is how he then must feel about the single mothers living in East Dallas. Why do I bring this up? Because the same NTTA traffic studies being used to justify the toll road show that congestion on I-30 east of downtown will increase dramatically with construction of the toll road. So much for those single mothers, I guess.

 

Summarizing the Pro Toll Road Case

Rawlings:A lot of people say that the road is full of people going from Houston to Oklahoma City, and the truth of the matter is 67 percent of people come and get jobs in Dallas, and 45 percent are citizens of Dallas themselves, using that road. So this is a Dallas issue for Dallas people, and it needs to be debated by Dallas people. It has been voted on by Dallas people, and the result is what we are working with. It is my obligation as mayor to lead this process and the will of the people until I feel it’s just fundamentally going off the rails and that’s not the case. 

So if we set aside the fact that the parkway has gone “fundamentally off the rails” and been replaced by a high-speed limited-access expressway that has never been presented to or “voted on by Dallas people,” this looks pretty solid. Now, let’s hear what he has to say about the opponents.

 

Attack No. 1: Accuse Opposition of Paranoia

Rawlings: Opponents believe that the expressway plan is “the conspiracy of a great cabal to trick the citizens of Dallas and that someone’s going to make a lot of money off of this.

Well, I’m certainly willing to concede that the “cabal” is not “great,” but it is certainly secretive, so let’s dissect the rest. Is it a conspiracy to “trick the citizens of Dallas?” Well, it would certainly seem so. How else to explain the fact that renderings of the toll road shown to the public never match up with the real plans. Or that the plans are labeled “95% DRAFT,” at the same time the public is being told we have all sorts of flexibility? What about the claim that “someone’s going to make a lot of money off of this?” Let’s apply a 10 percent profit margin to a $1.5 billion project: that’s $150 million. I haven’t heard anyone step up to oversee and build this project for free.

How does Rawlings address this? He says… “I can’t even address that, so I don’t. Because I think it is foolishness, and it is not true.” He then goes on to blame toll road opponents for the fact that the recreational amenities in the park are missing.

 

Attack No. 2: Blame Opposition for Killing the Parks

Rawlings:I would suggest that that way of thinking (theorizing about a great cabal pulling a trick) is hurting one of our most important variables in this process, and that is private fundraising for the quality-of-life projects in this. Remember the Balanced Vision Plan has a lot of stuff there funded by private citizens. And right now, because of this theory that there are bad people doing bad things to the city, people are kind of shying away from that money. I understand that.”

This sounds exactly like what we heard in 2007. [As Election Day drew to a close, (Tom) Leppert said he worried that a vote against the toll road would have had dire consequences for the Trinity River park. Private fundraising, he said, had all but stopped in the past few months as the debate over the road raged. “There is about $100 million in outside funding that is required to do everything we want to do in the park,” Mr. Leppert said. “That’s all but dried up.”]

So what happened to private fundraising after the 2007 referendum? Best I can tell, not much.

Errr… Okay, thanks for that, I guess. Let’s move on to his next counterpunch.

 

Attack No. 3: Build a Strawman

95% DRAFT version

 

Rawlings:The second argument is that highways are inherently bad, something in the essence of the concrete, I guess, and that gridlock is good. We’ve all read those arguments that if all highways went down, economic growth would come up, and we would all walk to work and be happier individuals.”

Yeah, no. I actually haven’t heard those arguments at all. What I have heard is that the road is unnecessary, that one portion of one highway should come down, and that it doesn’t make sense to add billions in new transportation infrastructure when our existing infrastructure is obsolete and faces billions in unfunded deferred maintenance expenses.

Rawlings:This one is ironic, because it is ALL about economic development. So you can’t say it’s a cabal and at the same time espouse this one because it is ALL about money, and I understand the logic of that.

Uhhh… say what? I’m confused. I don’t understand the logic of that.

 

Attack No. 4: Portray Opposition as Enemies of Dallas

Rawlings: “What I’ve realized those individuals are talking about is their definition of Dallas is wrong. Or excuse me, not wrong, it’s different from mine … When THEY talk about Dallas, they are talking about a Downtown, Uptown, North Oak Cliff area. And I kind of understand their perspective: let’s not build more stuff, because that area is going to be critical. I don’t agree, but at least I kind of get that perspective. When you’re mayor of the whole city, then the perspective changes.

This attack seems really strange, considering Rawlings’ continued focus on regionalism.

Screen Shot 2015-03-08 at 4.27.48 PM

 

Attack No. 5: Ridicule Belief in GrowSouth

So we were suckers for believing this?

 

Rawlings: “The argument becomes, ‘Oh, Mayor, we care about those people, too, but it’s your job, and if we do this correctly, the jobs will actually move to those areas.’ That’s what many writers have said. I would love to run the 40 in 4.3 and have hands like Dez Bryant, but it doesn’t, it’s not gonna’ happen. Over the next couple of decades, that is not going to change.” 

Hmm… I would be very interested in knowing the identities of these mysterious “writers.” Seems I read somewhere (the mayor’s biography, perhaps?), that “GrowSouth has already been a catalyst for new economic investment, job creation, and public-private partnerships.” If South Dallas isn’t going to attract any jobs over the next 20 years, why doesn’t the mayor just call it a day and cancel GrowSouth in its entirety?

 

Attack No. 6: Portray Opposition as Racists

Rawlings:I’m sorry, but it smacks of segregation. It’s saying: you guys have your community down there, and we’ll have our community up here. And I think the whole essence of what we’ve all been working for is to bring the city together, not separated. When you start to separate it economically, that’s bad.

Here’s what the Environmental Impact Statement has to say: “Due to the greater economic burden of paying a toll, low-income motorists would likely be more reluctant to utilize the Trinity Parkway and instead use other non-tolled alternative routes.” And what about the fact that those without toll tags (which require auto-billing to a credit card or advance cash deposits) will pay a 50-percent premium for using the road?

 

Attack No. 7: Ridicule Opposition for Fighting an Unnecessary Battle

Rawlings:The second thing is the whole financial — whether this is financially feasible. This is where I REALLY get confused by everybody. Because I hear people that are against this say: “Wait, excuse me, forget about that, that this is dead! It’s not gonna’ happen! There’s no way its gonna’ happen. We’re going to have a funeral and its gonna’ be dead, because it’s not financially feasible.” And if I say, okay, then it’s not gonna’ happen, then why are we all worried about it? Because it’s not gonna’ happen! So, let’s, and you know what, economically, there’s some numbers that might show it couldn’t happen or it’s not gonna happen. It’s not going to be Vonciel and my call, okay? It’s going to be NTTA that ultimately makes that consideration about when and where it could be financially feasible. But I think, because the citizens, because of those first two reasons, we should power through that and understand it.

Okay, I just powered through that, and I don’t understand.

 

Attack No. 8: Portray Opposition as a Bunch of Liars

Rawlings:I think the people, first of all, that call this (the charrette process) a political maneuver are not being intellectually honest, because there is so much of this that has not been designed.”

Okay, except of the fact the road appears to have already been designed, I think I understand that.

 

Attack No. 9: Threaten to Cancel S.M. Wright Project

Dead Man’s Curve

Rawlings:The last, but not least is be careful when you pull the string on the sweater. Because who knows what is going to unravel. It is, as I hope you agree, the S.F… the, I always forget it … the S.M. Wright initiative was approved with the understanding that this parkway was going to be built. That was the commitment the RTC and Linda Koop made. That is critical for South Dallas. We’ve got to knock that one down, we’ve got to turn that into a boulevard. But we’ve got to have a way for those citizens to get on to the other side of town. And I think it’s an important fact, to just make sure we all remember that.

This is the good ole’ “fear, uncertainty and doubt” (FUD) strategy. Nearly identical to the strategy American Airlines used as part of its effort to maintain its stranglehold on D/FW Airport via the Wright Amendment, even down to the use of the word “unravel.” Here’s a typical example from Texas Monthly in 2005: “The legislation addressed the nightmare scenario … that one day Southwest … would want to fly long-distance routes from Love that would draw Dallas passengers away from D/FW. To retain them, airlines like American would have to start operating flights from Love Field, and the whole idea of a major hub airport could begin to unravel.”

Here’s what TxDOT has to say on the matter: “TxDOT has been petitioned to alleviate Deadman’s Curve, and to do that we are essentially addressing the southern portion of the Trinity Parkway,” (TxDOT project engineer Tim) Nesbitt said. “But whatever we do is going to be independent of the parkway. The project is independent of the Trinity Parkway.”

 

Attack No. 11: Accuse the Opponents of Attempting to Distract Voters

Meet Mr. Herring

 

Rawlings:I think that the folks who believe this is dead, okay, are spending a lot of money, and a lot of time, and a lot of social networking espousing things that are not germane to the argument of what is right for Dallas. It’s off topic. We’ve got red herrings there. But, I mean, it’s just politics. People espouse that. They’ve done a good job, and meanwhile we’ve been trying to just dig holes and get on with business.

Would be interesting to know, exactly, what things are not germane to the argument?

 

Attack No. 10: Strip Control of the Project Away From the Citizens of Dallas

Rawlings: “I’m not going to predict elections, okay? I’m not going to do that. I will predict the process that we go through. Because, if NTTA makes this call, it’s out of our hands. The road is done! At some point! Okay? Do you understand? Because we are gonna, we are entering into an interlocal agreement with NTTA where the project now becomes their project.” 

 

Defense No. 1: Pretend to Address the Aesthetics

Best-case scenario for altering toll road design?

 

Rawlings: “How do we make this thing aesthetically correct? … There is the foundational stuff, on the base, in the EIS plan that is there, that isn’t going to change, okay? There is a lot around that, you know, 30–40 percent, 50 percent, that can still be designed.”

Accompanying the EIS are highly-detailed “95% DRAFT” plans for a conventional, high-speed limited access expressway without any parkway features whatsoever. Readers should feel free to judge the Conceptual Schematic Drawings for themselves. Among the “foundation stuff … that isn’t going to change” appear to be the size and the placement of the road, the interchanges, the ramps, the walls, etc. Which are precisely the things that people are concerned about, no?

Rawlings: “There’s stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with the EIS, which is about 80 percent of this whole thing, that needs to be designed.”

The stuff that doesn’t have anything to do with the EIS would be the stuff not related to the toll road, so that is entirely irrelevant to this discussion.

 

Defense No. 2: Create the Impression That Everything is Really Confusing

Rawlings: “I have not ever seen anything visually that understands this. I went over to Gail (Thomas)’ place (the Trinity Trust headquarters) the other day, and you can’t really see. There’s so many little white lines, I don’t know what’s going under bridges, and it’s so macro you can’t tell that.”

The Trinity Trust is not in charge of designing the toll road, the NTTA is. What Mayor Rawlings appears to be referring to is a generic 3-D model that was built years ago.

Rawlings: “You can’t see from an engineer drawing exactly what it is. And there are a lot of, and I’ve got some drawings that have, you know, been put out there.”

As mentioned previously, the 95% DRAFT Conceptual Schematic Drawings have already been completed and submitted to the Feds for review and approval. That is what has been put out there.

Rawlings“But to me, I want to get that done. I want to look at it, and you know what? If it’s ugly, it’s gonna’ be obvious to everybody it’s ugly.”

The plans have already been done. They were submitted last year. They don’t appear to include ANY aesthetic design elements. They are but a mouse click away.

 

Defense No. 3: Tell Us We’ll Get Rich

It’s gonna rain money, folks.

 

Rawlings: “This project we’re dealing with could be … excuse me, the quote I heard, second-hand, was maybe the most important economic project in America today, because of what the growth that has happened. That this is gold, in however you want to define it: aesthetically, economic development, transportation.

As previously discussed, the road has already been designed, and it doesn’t appear to make even the slightest nod towards aesthetics. Where will the economic development take place? All of the land fronting the road is in the middle of the Trinity floodway and therefore undevelopable.  Noise and visual blight associated with the road and related interchanges will impact nearby landowners in a variety of undesirable ways.

 

Defense No. 4: An Astro-Turf Grassroots Organization

Rawlings:I think that you are going to hear in the coming months, people that don’t have money, that their voice has not been heard, to say let us proceed in a thoughtful manner.”

Who are these mysterious people who have been quiet for the last two decades and are now deciding to rise up? This should be interesting.

 

The Bottom Line

If you are the Dallas Morning News Editorial Board, what do you make of all of this?

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