Burning Bridges

Categories: Schutze
Schutze to D: Stick with what you know best. Speaking of, know where we can get a good burger?

Tim Rogers posted a long item today on the D magazine blog FrontBurner accusing me of writing deceptively about the Trinity River project. Some personal innuendo was made, which I will get to at the end of this way-too-long post. But first, it's actually a very good thing that we're wading back into some of the issues surrounding the Trinity project, a multibillion-dollar public works endeavor to rebuild the river where it flows through downtown.

At the top, I have to say that this is a huge, complex story that I have covered for almost 10 years, dating from when I was Dallas bureau chief for the Houston Chronicle. Tim's idea of an investigation was to call Rebecca Dugger, the city bureaucrat in charge of the project, and allow her to write him in an e-mail message about it. Her message appears to be totally unchallenged by Tim. So I'll do it for him.


In her message to Tim, Dugger takes me to task for saying the city waited until after it had voter approval of a $246 million bond package for the project and then dramatically shifted priorities, changing it into a plan quite different from what voters had approved.


In her rebuttal, Dugger lists the items in the original bond package and then states, "We are doing all these things! And with exactly the money allocated to each one."


This conveniently ignores a new system of accounting for the project, introduced five years after the bond election, in which crucial elements of the plan were moved out of the "basic phase 1" element of the plan (the one paid for in the 1998 bond issue) and into "expanded phase 1" and "ultimate" (not paid for).


By this not terribly clever sleight of hand, the city basically de-funded major elements of the plan voters thought were to be included in the 1998 bond package and moved them to later "phases" that are not funded.


Just to move to the "expanded phase 1" portion of the plan, for example, the city would have to get a new bond issue passed in an amount estimated three years ago at $110 million. The "ultimate" plan would require an additional $563 million bond package, according to the city's 3-year-old estimates.


Let me list some of the things that will not be built until the third bond package gets passed (using the city's descriptions): "whitewater rafting course, West Dallas Lake/wetland area; active recreation terraces (two), amphitheatre, concession/event facilities, downtown levee top roads, South Lamar Street upgrade to boulevard."


But that doesn't give you anything like the whole picture. Three years ago Victoria Loe Hicks reported in The Dallas Morning News that "the latest construction schedule and cost estimate for the Trinity project quietly moves more than $32 million once earmarked for the downtown lakes and park to other aspects of the complex project."


The Trinity River Parkway, however, remains fully funded in the first or real phase of the project. Originally a 45-mph road on both sides with frequent access to the park, the "parkway" has transmogrified into a high-speed limited access toll road. In the meantime, its estimated cost has jumped by between $200 million and $800 million, starting out at $400 million and now hovering somewhere between $600 million and $1.2 billion.


Those costs are shared among the city, the state and the North Texas Tollway Authority. The toll authority is fairly frozen in at about $150 million last time I checked--the most it can contribute. The state has made it clear that it will not be funding anything close to the difference.


All kinds of accounting and word games are played with these so-called phases. Lots of money that is really going to the highway is described as not going to the highway but to collector routes and so on. The fact is that the transportation costs in phase 1 jumped by $160 million in the 2003 "re-design" while the investment in parks and lakes plummeted.


If and when phase 1 is ever completed, there will not be anything in it that you or I would recognize as a recreational lake. There will be a mud-lined pit created by excavation for the platforms for the highway, with virtually no amenities and no access roads at all.


In her rebuttal to Tim, Dugger cites a quote from councilman Mitchell Rasansky in my most recent column. This is the quote:


Rasansky: "You can check back on city council tapes. At least a dozen times in the last year, year and a half, there's always this money being spent out of the $246 million bond issue.

"I keep asking, 'Now if we approve this, are we going to have enough money for the bridges?' And every time, [Assistant City Manager] Jill Jordan answers, 'Yes,' or [Assistant City Manager] Ramon [Miguez] or [City Manager] Mary [Suhm] says, 'Yes, we have enough money.'

"And guess what! We don't have enough money."


Dugger says of this quote: "He doesn't say on what, but he seems to imply that it's been spent on non-Trinity stuff."


Because of somebody's odd construction--Tim's or Duggers', I can't tell--it's not clear to me if Dugger is accusing me or Rasansky of making the implication that the money has been misappropriated outside the project. But neither of us said that or anything close to it.


The accusation here is exactly what I said it was in my column: The project as it exists today is not the project that we voters approved in 1998. And my challenge to Dugger would be: If you think it is, take it back to the voters as it now stands and see if they will vote for it again.


It's disturbing to me that a D editor would write about this project in such hortatory tones without making what I think is an important and absolutely requisite disclosure--that D has published at least one entire "advertorial" edition of the magazine promoting this project. For those of you who aren't familiar with that term, it means D sold ads to the contractors and other people who will make money off of this project and wrapped those ads around laudatory articles--ad copy, really--extolling the benefits of the project. In my opinion, D sold its integrity on this issue when it sold that edition.


I'm sure Tim would disagree, but at the very least he needs to make this disclosure when he writes about the issue. This is not different from "journalists" who are paid to write op-ed pieces for newspapers promoting the point of view of the person who pays them. You need to put that on the table.


Tim opened his piece with a very personal note about me. He said of my writing on the Trinity project, "He's so wrong that I find it hard [to] believe he's doing it by accident. Honestly, I'm troubled."


That's an accusation of lying.


I think I need to put this in an even more personal context. Less than 24 hours before this piece appeared on FrontBurner, Rogers wrote to me finally conceding the fact that I was not going to accept his repeated offers of employment at D, which he has made in person and by e-mail over a period of a year or more. During this time, I tried my best to be diplomatic about why I belong only at the Dallas Observer and would never consider working for a publication like D.


I was way too damn diplomatic. --Jim Schutze


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