A Blueprint for a Trinity Park We Can Use Today

The following op-ed originally appeared in the June 10, 2011 edition of The Dallas Morning News.

In 1998, Dallas voters embraced a bold, visionary plan to transform the Trinity River floodway into a vibrant urban park. But 13 years later, a torturous federal approval process combined with a significant funding gap have conspired to stop the project in its tracks. Add to that the recent revelations that local and federal officials were less than forthcoming about the Trinity toll road’s viability during the 2007 referendum, and it’s not an overstatement to say the public has lost faith in the Trinity River project.

We can reclaim this project and win back the public’s trust, but only if we’re willing to change the way we do things at Dallas City Hall. The grander, long-term vision for the Trinity park is incredible, but it’s still years away. We must give the public a Trinity park they can enjoy today, and we must do it as quickly and as inexpensively as possible. That means no high-paid consultants; no elaborate, full-scale models and enticing watercolor pictures; and — most importantly — no multiyear timelines. Continue reading

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Deja Vu All Over Again: Toll Road Continues to Slow Down Critical Levee Improvements

Sunday’s Dallas Morning News featured an article by Michael Lindenberger titled “Analysis:  Dallas’ crucial levees only weakened amid debate on park, toll road.”

Well, no, actually the park debate (by which I assume the DMN means the referendum to remove the toll road from the floodway) did not slow, even by a day, improvements to our levee system or lack thereof.  But let’s set that aside for a bit.

Perhaps the more important question is:  Is the fact that critical levee improvements have been hijacked by the Trinity Toll Road actually news to anyone who’s been following this issue?

Let me take you back over a year ago, when the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers informed the city that our levees were rated “unacceptable” under the new federal standards.   The day after that announcement, the council voted to fund a study to determine the extent of the failures and plan for remediation.  It was crystal clear then (and frankly, before then) that the city’s insistence on intertwining the levee improvements with the toll road had slowed flood control improvements for years.  Take a look at the council meeting beginning at 01:59 where I point out that the mayor and council’s fixation on placing the toll road within the floodway has hopelessly intertwined the toll road with the levee improvements, thus grinding critical flood control measures to a halt.  That were it not for the toll road’s interminable delays, we could move forward on much-needed levee improvements.

That’s not news over a year later.  What’s news is that the mayor, city council, and city manager still refuse to acknowledge this reality and sever the two projects.  We can move forward on our levee improvements if we have the political will to put the safety of our residents ahead of this toll road.

In his article, Lindenberger states without attribution or explanation, “[I]n 2007, council member Angela Hunt led a referendum aimed at preventing a toll road from being built within the levees, citing worries about costs and impact on the parks. Things came to a halt again.”

Absolutely not true.  Take a look at 02:27.  No one at the city, NTTA or Corps ever stated that the referendum was slowing down their “progress” (or lack thereof) on flood control matters.  To the contrary; city staff was adamant that the project was proceeding full-speed ahead, despite the referendum.

So I challenge Michael Lindenberger to back up his statement that the referendum delayed much-needed levee improvements by even one day.  What particular aspect of the levee project “came to a halt”?  At what point did flood control plans halt due to the referendum and later resume and who made those decisions?  What evidence exists to support this unsubstantiated claim?

Aside from this clearly erroneous assertion, there is no news in this article.  The city has known for decades that our levees are in critical condition.  The mayor, council, and city manager have known for years that by interlocking the toll road with levee improvements we are irresponsibly and interminably delaying flood control safety.

Recently, city staff estimated that bringing our levees up to federal standards will cost somewhere in the range of $50 to $150 million.  Right now, $46 million remains of the 1998 bond funds allocated to the toll road.

What will be news is when the mayor and council decide to actually put flood control safety first and not just talk about it — when the city finally decides to cut its losses on the failed, unfunded, and unapproved toll road and shift that $46 million to critically-needed levee improvements.  That will be news.

UPDATED: Corps’ Levee Report Reveals Multiple Failures

The Corps of Engineers just released their report analyzing the safety of Dallas’ levees. The news is not good. See Dallas Morning News Transportation Blog for details: DMN’s Corps to City: Trinity Levees failures are extreme, could prompt FEMA action

We must fix our levees immediately. We cannot let the toll road continue to delay our levee improvements.

UPDATE: Here is a link to part of the Corps’ report.

City Council Travel

I debated about posting this since I didn’t want to make a big deal about it. But I did want to clarify a couple of things, so here goes.

The Dallas Morning News ran a story today about my decision not to use taxpayer dollars for city council-related travel. The story might have inadvertently left some with the impression that I called a press conference or sent out a press release to announce this. I didn’t. Reporter Dave Levinthal regularly reviews how much the council is spending on travel, and he asked me about my reimbursement to the city. I explained my personal decision: that I didn’t think it was right to use taxpayer money for city trips when our economy is in such bad shape and we’re going to have to cut back on city services next year to meet the city’s budget deficit.

To be clear: I wasn’t proposing a ban on other councilmembers’ travel. I was just doing what seemed right to me. Continue reading

Advice on New Year’s Resolutions

I appreciate good advice, even when it’s critical or requires me to revisit a position I’ve taken. Good counsel usually ensures more analytical thinking on my part and leads me to a better understanding of my decisions, even if I don’t ultimately follow the advice.

With that in mind, I appreciated the Dallas Morning News’ recent advice to me in their editorial “Texans to Watch in 2009”:

“If Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt really wants a more prized seat at the horseshoe, this is her year to show she can broaden her appeal (and fundraising) beyond her East Dallas base. Our advice? It’s not enough to be against everything, no matter how loudly the peanut gallery might cheer.”

Evaluating the Editorial Board’s arguments led me to ask myself some hard-hitting questions. Do I want a “more prized seat at the horseshoe”? What am I “for” so as not to be “against everything”? Who is this “peanut gallery” and why aren’t they sharing their trove of peanuts? Continue reading

Response to Steve Blow

Last Monday at 3:36 p.m., I received the following email from my assistant: “[Dallas Morning News columnist] Steve Blow called and said he wanted to let you know that he will be gigging you a little in his column for tomorrow about Jenny the elephant. He said after you read the article, if you want to yell at him, you can call him at 214-XXX-XXXX.”

Since Mr. Blow had not called me at any point prior to writing his column about Jenny the Elephant (in which — in his words — he was going to “gig me”), I called to talk with him before his article went to print. (I later learned it was already online at 3:28 p.m.)

At 3:44 p.m., shortly after receiving the message from my assistant, I spoke with Mr. Blow about why I considered the matter of Jenny the Elephant important enough to travel thousands of miles to Puebla, Mexico and Hohenwald, Tennessee: No. 1, Since Jenny is our charge, we have a responsibility to ensure we find the best location for her to spend the rest of her life. And No 2. I’ve been inundated with e-mails, both from my constituents and from around the country, on this issue; I owe it to my constituents to be as informed as possible.

He asked why I didn’t agree with staff’s recommendation to move the elephant to Mexico. I explained that if the council never disagreed with city staff’s recommendations, there would be no need for a city council. In this instance, as I explained to Mr. Blow, the Dallas Zoo belongs to the AZA (Association of Zoos and Aquariums), an organization that does not approve of relocating animals to facilities outside of its business association.

Because most sanctuaries are not members of the AZA (due to philosophical differences), the AZA opposed such a move and may threaten to sanction our zoo if we place Jenny with a sanctuary. I pointed out that, despite the AZA’s position, many other zoos across the country had relocated animals to sanctuaries over the objections of the AZA, and even referred him to a 2004 article in The Washington Post on a similar situation in Detroit.

I also mentioned that Jenny is an elephant with special needs. She has behavioral issues (part of the reason she is being relocated), some of which include being agitated by vehicles. The Mexican zoo is a drive-through zoo: Cars will drive past her all the time. The Tennessee sanctuary doesn’t allow the public to drive within the sanctuary and would further accommodate Jenny’s special needs.

When Mr. Blow pointed out that the Mexican zoo did not treat their animals cruelly, I noted that I never said that they did. But I did note that if he had a sick child, he would want that child to go to the very best hospital possible. That wouldn’t mean that all the other hospitals were torturing their patients, nor that the other hospitals weren’t the perfect fit for other children with other medical conditions. It would simply mean he had selected the hospital that would provide the very best care for the particular ailment facing his child.

I tell you all of this because none of it — not a single word of my conversation with Mr. Blow on this topic — will be reflected in his column tomorrow because “it’s already written.” When I asked Mr. Blow to please call me in the future prior to writing his column, he informed me that he knew exactly what I was going to say about Jenny the Elephant because he had spoken to a metro reporter (Joanna Cattanach) who told him what I had told her. That’s good reporting there.

First of all, his statement that “Ms. Hunt seems to have fallen under the sway of PETA” is absurd. I don’t think I’ve ever talked with anyone at PETA about this issue. PETA has nothing to do with my position on this issue or my interest in visiting both the Mexican zoo and the Tennessee sanctuary prior to taking a position on the issue.

Then he notes that he heard second-hand that I find zoos sad, and concludes I’d be a crummy date to the Dallas Zoo cuz I’m such a Debby Downer. (“Wouldn’t she be fun on a field trip to the zoo? Cotton candy? Snow cone? Prozac?” Ha!) The fact is, when I go to zoos where animals look cramped up in little cages and bored out of their minds, yeah, I find that kind of — what is the word? — sad. But to conclude I want to close the Dallas Zoo (“Given her feelings, perhaps Ms. Hunt should propose closing the Dallas Zoo at the next go-round of city budget hearings”) is ridiculous. That’s quite a leap, especially when Mr. Blow never asked me my opinion on the subject (or ever talked to me at all before writing his column). The fact is, I don’t think we should close our zoo, but I do think we should improve it, which is one reason I supported $3.5 million in the most recent bond package to make much needed improvements.

As to Mr. Blow’s statement that I’ve got more important issues to deal with, he failed to ask me what else I’ve been working on this month during council recess. If he’d asked, he would have learned that I have been going through the City Manager’s proposed budget line by line, that I’ve been gathering information on upcoming District 14 zoning cases, that I’ve been preparing for judicial candidate interviews, and that I’ve been working on a living wage for our sanitation workers.