Protesting Too Much

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Posted October 31, 2007 by CLYDE PICHT in News

Fort Worth Star Telegram business writer Mitchell Schnurman called it “petty politics” and suggested maybe someone forgot to kiss a certain person’s ring.

He was talking about U.S. Rep. Eddie Bernice Johnson’s recent refusal to include money for Fort Worth’s Trinity Uptown pie-in-the-sky project in a federal water projects bill, intimating that the Dallas congresswoman was acting like a queen. If so, I have to say, God save the Queen for saving us! And further, I think it is Fort Worth’s own member of Congress, Kay Granger, who has been acting autocratic and undemocratic over this project, not Johnson.

In fact, Fort Worth leaders seem to have become fixated on a rather regal approach to the Trinity River Vision boondoggle, applauding Granger’s efforts to do an end run on the usual congressional appropriations process in order to get this project – which her boy J.D. has been hired to direct – off the ground ahead of other improvements that have been in the pipeline longer. Voters have had virtually no say in the process.
Perhaps Johnson’s actions will give us all the breathing space we need to ask ourselves why we are doing this. If we answer honestly, I think the “nays” will have it.

Does Trinity Uptown solve a flooding problem? No. Do we need to create those thousands of jobs to pull us out of a depression? No. Do we need another mass of housing next to downtown? No. Will we realize so much economic gain that our street and drainage problems will be resolved? No. Will contamination from toxic waste products be abated? No. Will the property gained by developers be worth the losses to current property owners through the use of eminent domain? No.

Dallas has its own Trinity River vision. Ten years ago they set out to at least partially alleviate flooding and asked the voters to approve spending. They now want to change direction somewhat, but at least that city is asking for the voters’ approval. Compare that to Fort Worth.

Fort Worth leaders have become starry-eyed over the grand image of Uptown, created by Vancouver urban designer Bing Thom, that has been promoted by the Tarrant Regional Water District and a variety of other groups. The total price tag of $435 million in tax dollars includes $345 million for diversion of the Trinity River and $90 million for economic development of some sort. The price has escalated three times since the plan first surfaced.

The so-called flood control will protect the 800-acre Uptown area only when some of our effective levees are taken down. There is no flooding there now. The canals that Thom considered so essential to a waterside development are not funded and probably never will be. Digging canals requires relocating utilities and intruding on areas of contamination – a very expensive can of worms.

We were told in 2005 that the funding was set and that work could begin as soon as the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers completed the environmental impact statement. We are fast closing in on 2008, and the EIS still isn’t complete, and a new consortium of companies has been hired to plan the construction and refigure the cost. That new cost figure could be sobering. Other projects started at around the same time – 2005 – are seeing appreciable increases in construction costs. The Omni Hotel started out as a $90 million project and now is expected to cost $170 million. The downtown campus of Tarrant County College should have been priced at $75 million and located somewhere else, but this Trinity Taj Mahal is now coming in at $336 million, with less space than originally planned – and still may end up being moved.

Then, consider how many other economic development projects in this town have been dismal, money-losing failures. The Evans Avenue project, Mercado I, and Mercado II all cost the taxpayers a bunch, and they are still in the doldrums after too many years. Then there is Fort Worth’s finest hour, when somebody convinced a majority of the city council that we should sell certificates of obligation to finance our very own $150 million hotel. Is there anyone out there who thinks for a nanosecond that the city-built hotel would have been of as high a quality as the Omni? Fortunately the citizens revolted, and that albatross flew south.

In the Trinity project, we’re talking about spending half a billion dollars of our money so someone else can profit from that “gorgeous waterfront property.” Schnurman claims that Johnson’s action “has no clear benefit for her or her district.” To the contrary, since it has been documented that the planned bypass channel would increase the potential for flooding downstream, I say the best benefit is no TRV.

Tarrant County Democratic Party chair Art Brender is concerned that Trinity River Vision is a scheme favoring Granger and the Republican Party. That’s not quite accurate. A scheme it may be, but most local Republicans abhor pork-barrel spending and the abuse of eminent domain. On the other hand, they probably appreciate Johnson being concerned about their interests on an issue where their own representative is AWOL.

Picht, a former Fort Worth City Council member, is helping gather signatures for a referendum to cap city spending on the TRV at $143 million unless voters approve an increase. He can be reached at 817-294-0396 or at cpicht@landslideclyde.com


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