What Can We Learn About the Trinity River Project From Yesterday’s Dallas City Council Meeting?

What started as a presentation of the plan the mayor’s urban design “Dream Team” created for the Trinity River morphed into a workshoping of byzantine parliamentary procedure.

The Trinity River Project -- the one from the 19th century.
The Trinity River Project, that is, the one from the 19th century.

Purely as a piece of political theater, yesterday’s Dallas City Council meeting had something for everyone. There were surprising plot twists, contentious debates, great dialogue, and even moments of hilarious buffoonery. What started as a presentation of the plan the mayor’s urban design “Dream Team” created for the Trinity River morphed into a workshopping of byzantine parliamentary procedure.

There was single item on the council’s agenda: a motion to create a team study the Dream Team’s plan, which by the end of the afternoon had a new moniker, the Beasley Plan, named after urban designer Larry Beasley, who headed the Dream Team. But that one agenda item was amended twice, after an additional substitute item was introduced and defeated. Adding to the intrigue, the first amendment was a pure political play introduced by staunch road opponent council member Philip Kingston, who moved the council to vote to affirm the so-called Alternative 3C engineering of the Trinity Toll Road, the plan for a massive highway. The second amendment, put forth by council member Lee Kleinman, softened the blow of Kingston’s amendment, offering the council a way to affirm and not affirm the plans under review. It was all bit complicated, farcical, and, in the end, very much an inconsequential waste of time.

There were political points to be scored, for sure. Kingston wanted to demonstrate that the council has never — and wouldn’t — actually affirm the road laid out in Alternative 3C. Kleinman and Gates protested that Kingston was playing games and trying to manipulate the council (or put their “balls in a vise,” as Kleinman put it at one point). But if you walked away from yesterday’s meeting believing that Kingston was the one muddying the waters, you would have to ignore the fact that the entirety of yesterday’s proceedings was an act of orchestrated showmanship. After all, what was under review was a mock-up plan for the river created over the course of five days that provided political cover for supporters of the toll road to look like they were reaffirming the park ahead of May’s election. They were voting on something no one really knew any details about, or, as the mayor put it, “We have just met this beautiful lady, and I’m not going to get married today.”

Furthermore, Vonciel Jones Hill, perhaps the toll road’s most vocal supporter, will create a team to study the now-named Beasley Plan. Beasley suggested the city create oversight groups to help ensure that what happened to the Balanced Vision Plan — a park-sensitive road that swelled over the years into a plan for a massive highway — doesn’t happen to his new plan. But this is a democracy, and everyone knows oversight isn’t about the creation of an oversight group, it is about making sure the people named to that group actually intend to provide oversight.

By the end of the meeting, however, the creation of the group hardly seemed to matter. The stakes of the Trinity Toll Road debate had not really changed since before the meeting began. That’s because Hill is term limited-out come May, and political forces have already lined up behind candidates for the six open seats in the next election, turning the campaign into a mini-referendum on the Trinity Toll Road. If allies of the quartet of anti-toll road council members — Kingston, Scott Griggs, Sandy Greyson, and Adam Medrano — succeed at the polls, the terms of the implementation of the Beasley Plan will be reworked.

All of that made up what you might call the “plot” of yesterday’s city council meeting. It was a procedural nail-biter – a good show, well-acted, and highly entertaining. It broke hearts (the Dallas Morning News’ Rudy Bush lamented on Twitter that he had hoped that yesterday was going to be a “great day for Dallas”) and ruffled feathers (Hill lashed out about her “paranoia” and “suspicion” of just about everyone involved).

But what did the play mean?

I think one of the most significant soliloquies came very early in the proceedings during the open mic session when former Dallas County Judge Lee Jackson came to the podium. Jackson has been involved with the Trinity for a long, long time. Like so many people on both sides of this debate, he is a well-respected man of considerable stature in the community, and the Trinity plays right to his legacy of public service. In other words, like so many people in the trenches, the Trinity is personal.

Jackson spoke about the history of the project, about how there were studies to double deck Stemmons, and the cost of expanding Riverfront to make it a freeway. He also warned against naively believing that our “car culture will go away quickly,” or that the Trinity floodplain will “magically become our Central Park.”

However heartfelt, I found Jackson’s comments dense with the kind of outdated assumptions that have made the Trinity River Project such a contentious issue. Put aside the defense of our “car culture” and dismissible allusions to Central Park. Neither side expects cars to disappear from Dallas, and the scale, size, and location of the Trinity floodplain ensures it will never be our “Central Park” — but it could function in some other incredible way, as Beasley suggested, in part as an accessible ecological preserve.

I believe Jackson’s comments are telling in another way, though: they reveal that at the heart of the Trinity River Project is an age-old compromise that still hasn’t really been worked out.

The Trinity River Project was born as a grand compromise between those who saw a need for a second highway running through central city — a “reliever route” — and those who saw an opportunity to leverage that development to transform the neglected Trinity floodplain into a grand urban park. But it was a false compromise, in part because those two components can’t really fit together, at least not according to the terms each side agreed to in order to strike the compromise.

A reliever route of the size and scale designed by Halff and Associates on behalf of the North Texas Tollway Authority will ruin the Trinity Park; a road that accentuates the park will not function as the high-volume reliever route the NTTA and many project backers hope for. We have simply tricked ourselves for decades into thinking that we struck a compromise between these two visions, when we never really did. That’s why road-supporters were perfectly happy to see the Trinity Parkway evolve into Alternative 3C, even if they didn’t vote for it in Kingston’s sham amendment item.

What became clear during the debate yesterday is that the Trinity River Project is still understood by different people in different ways. The way Vonceil Jones Hill and Rick Callahan talk about the road, the Trinity Parkway sounds like the second Dallas North Tollway that will bring North Dallas-style development to southern Dallas. Even Rawlings spoke about his belief that “speed is important to the citizens.” Compare that to Griggs’ extended back-and-forth with Beasley which focused, in part, on how aspects of the road in the Dream Team’s design are intended to decrease traffic speed, to make it a meandering, low-impact park access road with street side parking.

Since the Trinity River Project created a false — or unsustainable — compromise, the real work of hammering out the terms of the deal have gone subterranean, into the political groups jockeying for influence; studies clouding or changing assumptions and designs; individual maneuverings and manipulations of the process. That has created paranoia, suspicion, and anger.

It was clear yesterday that all of this has all reaped tremendous damage on the level of trust among city council members and the mayor, and the public trust in city government in general.

But is there a way out?

I think there is, and it was offered by Larry Beasley during his prolonged and productive exchange with council member Scott Griggs. What bothers Griggs about the way the council is moving forward on the Beasley Plan is that it implicitly suggests a certain amount of duplicity on the part of the city government. The current suggestion is that we can build a kinder, gentler phase 1 of the Trinity Parkway, and even though we know we don’t want to build a phase 2 – i.e. a large toll road in the Trinity – we’ll tell the government we want a phase 2 and then only build-out a phase 1. Griggs is right to suspect this tactic. He knows that so many people around the horseshoe actually do want a phase 2 because there are still a lot of people who see the Trinity Parkway as another Dallas North Tollway. So, Griggs asked Beasley, why are you telling us to lie to the federal government about an eventual build out of phase 2?

“You will notice I didn’t say it was a phase one,” Beasley responded. “How you tactically decide that is your decision. The last time, you did not tactically decide to pay attention to the details.”

By “tactically deciding to not pay attention to the details,” Beasley essentially called out the city of Dallas for failing to create an adequate public policy vision — to create the necessary public oversight to protect the Balanced Vision Plan.

Dallas didn’t fail to do this out of political or bureaucratic neglect. Dallas failed to create a single public policy vision to steer the Trinity River Project because there has never been a single public policy vision for the Trinity. The nature of the compromise struck between road supporters and park supporters has created a situation in which two divergent public policy visions continue to exist and compete for dominance.

Beasley also told Griggs that a planning document like the Balanced Vision Plan needs to be updated every five years. This is also something we have failed to do, not just with the Balanced Vision Plan, but with so many of the plans we create for Dallas. We create plans, they don’t have teeth, we provide little oversight, and then they are never updated as the reality and context surrounding those plans change. Instead, at a debate about the future of the Trinity, Lee Jackson and company roll out the results of their studies which were drawn up in the late-1990s. The idea that these arguments may still hold any water is laughable, not out of disrespect to anyone who has worked on the Trinity over the years, but simply due to the reality that during the time it has taken to realize the project the reality of the city has changed.

Cities are, by definition, dynamic. We live in a different world than we did when the Trinity River Project was first dreamed up. How we understand how traffic and transportation functions and reacts to changes in roadway systems has changed, as have our future traffic projections. Yet, we have failed to set in place the oversight and processes to update, revise, and hold ourselves accountable to evolving plans for the river. Compromises have only been visions which have served as cover for the inertia of roadway development.

There are some people in this city who believe a big road in the Trinity River floodplain is good for Dallas’ future. There are others who see this as a destructive waste and would rather see the Trinity evolve into a — I’ll say it — a world-renowned and respected urban ecological preserve and park. And the way the Balanced Vision Plan has been decimated, and the fact that Hill will head of a new group to study the Beasley Plan, only suggests that what happened to the Balanced Vision Plan will happen to the Beasley Plan.

It is all just a reminder that we continue to avoid making difficult decisions and facing up to the difficult task of setting the terms of a comprise within the construct of rigorous public policy.

If there is a silver lining in all of this is it is that yesterday essentially changed nothing. There is an election on May 9, and every day, that vote keeps looking like a more important day for Dallas.


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