The Dallas City Council’s transportation committee just wound up its briefing on the now-vetted plans put forth by the mayor’s so-called “Dream Team” of urban designers to rethink the Trinity Toll Road. There’s much to sort through in the back-and-forth conversation that unfolded this morning between council members, city staff, and the members of an oversight committee that was appointed to review the early technical adaptations of the conceptual plans for the road. I won’t get into all of it in too much detail here, but here are the key takeaways from my perspective.
The debate still boils down to the same dichotomy that has surrounded the project for decades. Those who support the road stress the need to honor the balance between the original priorities of the Trinity River Project: mobility, flood control, and recreation. Those who are skeptical of the project’s progress argue that the road is driving the project in such a way that is detrimental to the rest of the vision.
There was some consensus. The oversight committee appeared to agree that the road laid out in the so-called alternative 3C alignment, the detailed engineering plans that were submitted for federal approval, shouldn’t be what is ultimately built in the Trinity River flood plain. But as Councilman Scott Griggs said today — as he has said on so many other occasions — whether or not anyone says they like 3C, it is still the only plan that has been approved for construction by the federal government.
“We’re either lying to the citizens of the city of Dallas, or we are lying to the feds,” Griggs said. “But there is still a huge lie in this room.”
Griggs gave voice to those long-lingering suspicions that surround the Trinity River Project. In light of these, it was encouraging that the transportation committee recognized the need for additional transparency moving forward. They agreed to recommend a period of public input before advancing the latest plans to the full council for a vote. The move for a public vetting came after Councilwoman Sandy Greyson said the mayor expressed to her an openness to some kind of public feedback session. What exactly that will look like and how it will be managed is still to be determined. But before the full council votes on whether to spend $2 million-$3 million to flesh out the technical plans for the road even further, the public will have an opportunity to weigh in.
Listening to the meeting, as well as working through portions of the two long videos of the oversight committee’s two meetings (January, February) that were released over the weekend, I’m left with a few nagging questions about each of the component parts of the Trinity River Project that I believe should be addressed before any further money is spent on the Trinity River Project.
For those who still hold to the original compromise of the 1998 Trinity River Project bond election vote, as well as the revised version of that plan known as the Balanced Vision Plan, one key priority of the entire project is the development of a road built in the flood plain that addresses mobility concerns in and around downtown Dallas.
But if this new road is meant to be a true reliever route, a way to ease the commute for residents in isolated portions of southern and southwest Dallas, then the effectiveness of the Trinity Toll Road must be overwhelming demonstrated to justify moving forward. However, thus far, those traffic impacts have not been convincingly demonstrated. In fact, studies have shown that the road will have minimal impact on Mixmaster congestion, while increasing traffic in key pressure points in the southern Dallas roadway system. Furthermore, there is overwhelming evidence that building roads does nothing to address the long-term problem of congestion in the urban environments.
The city still hasn’t coughed up the traffic projections that were used in preparing these most recent Trinity Toll Road schematics. During today’s meeting, Griggs requested those numbers, which were produced by the NCTCOG, and Assistant City Manager Mark McDaniel promised them by the end of the day. But regardless of whatever numbers the historically pro-road NCTCOG have produced of late, the broader philosophical center of the mobility backers of the Trinity River Project has come undone.
As a mobility concept, the Trinity Toll Road is neither a wise nor effective way of addressing commuting problems in Dallas. It is understandable that people who have been involved in the negotiations around the project for three decades would be frustrated by opposition to the road, but what they don’t seem to recognize is that during those decades of debate, thinking around mobility has changed dramatically. Those changes need to be acknowledged more fully by all sides of the debate.
Both in the oversight committee meetings available on YouTube and today’s meeting, former Mayor Ron Kirk brought up the fact that flood control improvements for southern Dallas were rejected in three separate bond elections before some of those flood control measures were finally passed as part of the 1998 Trinity River Project bond election. It is an important and significant historical point that Ambassador Kirk reintroduces to the conversation at a moment when the larger issue of the Trinity River Project has evolved into a simpler, road-vs.-park dichotomy.
There is no light way of putting it: It is a disgusting and egregious historical reality that this city continually and systematically neglected to provide even those most basic services to its African-American population. The levees, Kirk reminded the oversight committee during their first meeting, simply stop after passing downtown, leaving southern Dallas completely exposed to disastrous periodic flooding. That Dallas never felt an imperative to extend flood control further south is part of the legacy that hangs all over the Trinity River Project. Today that legacy manifests itself in the lingering terms of a compromise that saw southern Dallas voters and their representatives having to strike a deal with wealthy North Dallas power brokers in order to obtain the most vitally necessary flood protection — their homes and lives in exchange for new roads and fancy parks.
The Trinity River Project was, in many ways still is, an old-school Dallas devil’s deal. It is important to keep this in mind in order to understand how the passion and politics continue to orient around the issue. It is also important to remember that, as with our horribly maintained streets, it is time for Dallas to figure out ways to provide its citizens the most basic services without having to tack them on to big-ticket capital projects that double as undertakings in addressing this city’s perpetual civic identity crisis.
“The Park as Client”
The favorite phrase of the Dream Team — which everyone on both sides of the road issue seem to now embrace — is that the “park now is the client” when it comes to the Trinity River Project. We can debate until we are blue in the face whether the park is truly driving the project. As Griggs pointed out this morning, no one from the city’s parks department was at today’s briefing. And there continues to be a structural disconnect within the city’s bureaucracy with regards to oversight of the Trinity River Project, which is managed, in theory, both by the Trinity River Watershed Management department and Parks Department.
But there is still a broader undetermined issue here. When we say “park,” what exactly do we mean? In all of the conceptual visuals created for today’s meeting, what I saw over and over was topography, foliage, greenery, and all sorts of digitally produced ecological features that did not look anything like the actual native environment that exists in the Trinity River. When Councilman Adam McGough pushed McDaniel on this point — that is, that we seem to be planning a road for a park without knowing exactly what park we are trying to build — the assistant city manager told him it was “a chicken and egg” issue. We need to know the layout of the road, McDaniel said, before we can design a park to fit around that.
But that sounds like we have the egg and chicken all sorted out: first comes road, then comes park. The problem is, if the park is truly the client, it should be the other way around. If we are trying to build the kind of urban-designer park that has been envisioned in all the many pretty watercolors over the years, then a certain kind of road design will best complement that feature. But if we are trying to build a park that functions more as a nature preserve, then a different kind of road design will complement that feature. After all, Central Park is not the Tallgrass Prairie National Preserve. Both kinds of environments require vastly different access strategies, support systems, and maintenance considerations.
The problem remains that the word “park” can mean so many different things to so many different people, and so saying the “park is the client” doesn’t really mean anything to anyone. We should know by now that the Trinity River represents its own, quite unique, ecological situation. Until we fully understand what our great natural amenity really is, how it behaves, and how to best tap its beauty while preserving and respecting its organic nobility, we won’t know what kind of road — if any — we should build in it.
The argument over the Trinity continues to jostle back and forth between the three priorities that gave shape to a decades-old compromise: mobility, flood control, and recreation. But the thinking around all three of these things has changed considerably during the time it has taken to implement the project. This isn’t a sign of failure, of what Ambassador Kirk repeatedly described in the oversight meetings as a “Dallas way of doing things” which involves perpetual contentious debate, delays, and failed action. It is, in fact, a tremendous, once-in-a-generation opportunity. Because the Trinity River Project has advanced so slowly, we now have the opportunity to revisit all of the inadequate assumptions around the project and reflect on what would constitute the best vision that would best benefit the city of Dallas for the next hundred years.
A reliever road is no longer an adequate way to solve traffic congestion. Providing life-saving flood control should no longer be contingent on striking a deal with wealthy Dallas interests. An urban park built in the image of Central Park is no longer the best way to think about maximizing the true ecological value of the Trinity River.
All the assumptions have changed and evolved. Now it is time for the Trinity River Project to finally change and evolve with them.