On Monday, the Mayor held a press conference, flanked by Senator Hutchison and Congresswoman Johnson, to deftly spin the sorry state of our levees into a positive, uplifting tale called “The Path Forward.”
Here’s what happened: Dallas has got this man-made channel of greenspace called a “floodway” where all the run-off water in the city goes. If it goes down into a storm drain, it ends up in the Trinity Floodway. The floodway has these earthen mounds running along it — levees — that are intended to keep that water in the channel and prevent it from breaking through or topping over, resulting in injury to people and property.
Since Katrina, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers — the arm of the federal government that inspects levees — has come up with new standards to try to avoid another Katrina-like catastrophe. As a result of their revised standards, the Corps recently gave Dallas’ levees an “unacceptable” rating. That’s a failing grade in Corps-ese. The consequence is that the city has to fix the levees to meet the Corps’ new standards.
That’s not an insignificant undertaking. It’s going to take $29 million just to study the problem and figure out how to fix it. The study funding will come from using $29 million of 1998 bond funds that were supposed to fix the Able Sump, and then requesting another $29 million in a future bond program to fix the sump.
The levee study won’t be finished until early 2012, but it’ll be done in stages. In ten months we should have the geotechnical testing done, and that will tell us whether we can pour millions of tons of concrete into the floodway a la the Trinity Toll Road.
The Mayor was very defensive about the toll road, often conflating it with the entire Trinity Project to make any criticism appear irrational and defeatist: “I want to make one point very clear. We are not in this situation because of the Trinity River Corridor Project. That is simply false. The project and the condition of the levees under the new standard set by the Corps are separate and apart from each other. If we never had a Trinity River Corridor Project, we’d be in the same situation we are in now.”
Yes and no. Look, our levees have to be fixed. The safety of Dallas residents is paramount. And I’m thrilled the Corps is making Dallas fix them. We have no idea what the cost will be, or where we’ll get the money, but ultimately, that’s significantly more important than a toll road or even a fantastic urban park.
But are these levee problems totally unrelated to the toll road? Not entirely. For the last eleven years since the Trinity Bond vote, the city has been fixated on the toll road part of the project. Sure, there have been a few projects related to flood control, but nothing like the time, energy, and focus that’s been placed on pushing the Trinity Toll Road forward. That has a cost. Jim Schutze explains in his excellent article this week, “Would somebody just tell Mayor Leppert? His Trinity River toll road doesn’t have a prayer”:
The city is in this predicament entirely because of its obsessive focus on the Trinity River project and particularly on that stupid toll road. Give me two seconds to explain.
Public entities – city halls, legislatures, Congress – all incur the same kind of opportunity costs that private enterprises do. There’s only so much money, so much time in the day and, even more important, so much capacity for focus.
If you focus on the wrong thing, you can’t focus on the right thing. Because City Hall has wasted so much time and effort on this stupid toll road – and because it has been so busy glossing over flood control issues in order to sell the road – City Hall hasn’t done what it should have done first in providing for public safety by fixing the levees.
The toll road will now be delayed by at least — at least — 20 months. (It’s important to note that there would be no delay in the toll road had we selected an alignment outside the floodway.) And because the city has unnecessarily premised other critical projects on the toll road’s completion — Project Pegasus (TXDoT’s improvements to the Mixmaster, the Canyon, and Lower Stemmons), SM Wright, the park, and economic development — all of those projects are in turn delayed by at least two years.
They don’t have to be.
I’m amazed when city staff tells me these other projects simply CANNOT go forward without the toll road. Bull. If tomorrow the Corps of Engineers came back to the city and said there is no way in hell we’re letting you build that toll road in that floodway, would the city cry like a little girl and throw up its hands and say, “I guess we can never do Project Pegasus! We’ll never fix SM Wright Freeway! That park will never be built! All that development that was supposed to happen along the park, kaput!”?
No. The city would regroup and figure out how to move forward on all the other stuff.
That’s what we should be doing now, focusing our energies on Plan B instead of letting this toll road delay all these critical projects indefinitely. The toll road is never going to happen, and we can either accept that now or later.
I vote now.