Thirty-five years ago, Dallas’ city leadership proposed a cross-town expressway that would connect R.L. Thornton Freeway to Central Expressway. However, the new road would have eliminated parks and devastated neighborhoods. Residents of Old East Dallas fought it, and stopped it. Instead of the cross-town expressway, Fitzhugh and Collette one-way couplets were returned to two-way residential streets and two lanes of traffic on Munger Boulevard were removed and replaced with a grass and tree-filled median and a boulevard park was created. The expressway was abandoned on a long shot hope that the inner city neighborhoods in Old East Dallas would be revitalized.
Now we know the rest of the story. Since then these Old East Dallas neighborhoods have attracted billions of dollars of investment and FNMA has called this one of the nation’s most successful revitalization projects.
Today we need to apply that lesson to stop the current proposal to build a Trinity River toll road, because the toll road is founded on faulty 20th century ideas. Building this road will foster a segregated, weaker, less vibrant 21st century city dependent on the suburbs to provide people to work downtown.
Members of Dallas City Council have continued to support a 20th century pattern of concentrating voters in geographic areas and segregating neighborhoods to consolidate their power base. The council did this with redistricting in 1991 and they’re looking to do so now with the toll road, by encouraging segregated neighborhoods to keep their power concentrated instead of dispersed.
Currently, the most vocal city council proponent of the Trinity River toll road is a South Dallas councilperson who indicates she wants to enable her South Dallas constituents to commute to North Dallas for their jobs, rather than have them move to North Dallas — which would dilute her minority power base.
Conversely, a prominent Lake Highlands city council candidate supports the Trinity River toll road because it would make it easier for South Dallas residents to commute to jobs in his district. When I asked him why he would not want South Dallas residents to move to Lake Highlands, which has an abundance of low- and high-income housing, he explained he did not want to uproot the residents from their South Dallas neighborhood. In other words, he wants to keep the neighborhoods segregated, too. This sort of thinking is out of touch with the 21st century citizen, who thinks more inclusively.
The 21st century Dallas citizen is helping the time honored geographical boundaries and prejudices naturally dissolve, making Dallas a more vibrant and healthier city. For instance, people who grew up in North Dallas are moving to South Dallas, Park Cities residents are moving to Lakewood, East Dallas residents are moving to North Dallas, and many people across the city are moving downtown.
The 21st century concept of Dallas calls for a more fluid city where people can live and play close to where they work, which reduces congestion and traffic bottlenecks.
If there is any lingering concern that Dallas needs more lanes of roads, we should take comfort in how little of the roads are utilized now. If you look at how much concrete is occupied by a car when the roads are performing at peak efficiency, it’s very little –92% of the road is empty.
However, roads will not always be so inefficient. Recently at the TED conference in Vancouver, I co-hosted a dinner with Chris Urmson, director of Google driverless car project. Google driverless cars are only five years away from mass production. We talked about the inefficiency of current expressways and how driverless cars will be spaced much more closely, eliminating the need for so many lanes. They will also disperse traffic more efficiently using the existing roads and eliminating driver errors that compress traffic and cause congestion. Driverless cars will totally change how cities will be planned, developed, and lived in. In other words, we don’t need to lay more concrete to solve a problem that technology will handle in the near future.
It might seem surprising that the Trinity River toll road had come so close to actually becoming a reality. Then again it is not so surprising when one stops and realizes that the Dallas mayor, the executive director of the Trinity River Commons Foundation, the former city manager, the transportation director of the North Texas Council of Governments, and the president of the Citizens Council were all raised in the 1950s, when the car was king. They were all educated and trained in the 1970s where more big roads and expressways were considered essential to a city’s economic prosperity. In the 20th century the only thing Dallas loved more than their cars were roads. Dallas might be the only city that once had a serious proposal for a road museum.
I experienced first-hand how city managers and regional directors think about downtown Dallas and roads while earning my master’s degree in Public Administration at SMU. My classmates included a future Dallas city manager, a South Dallas congresswoman, assistant city managers, and regional directors, many of whom at the time were interning at city hall or at the Council of Governments. Our class was assigned a semester project to develop a plan to revitalize downtown Dallas. It is remarkable how little the thinking of city administrators and politicians has changed since 1976. This public administration class enthusiastically proposed more toll roads and expressways as the silver bullet to revitalize downtown Dallas and to make it easier for people to live in the suburbs and commute to downtown for jobs.
By contrast, my minority report called instead for a plan to revitalize downtown residential neighborhoods. It became the foundation of my master’s thesis, a blueprint for the ongoing successful revitalization of Old East Dallas neighborhoods.
Most people know, at least intuitively –and the studies all confirm this — that if you build a road the cars will come. Dallas cannot concrete its way out of congestion. Despite old ideas dying hard, Mayor Rawlings should be applauded for recently instigating a new Trinity River road plan in which a group of planners and engineers treated the Trinity River Park as the client. They proposed a meandering road, giving access to the park, which is a much different concept than a toll road through the park for commuters. However, until future plans for a toll road are abandoned, the full development of the park with an integrated park road will never happen.
The original call for a Trinity River toll road was not a malicious idea, just a 20th century idea. Creating the nation’s largest urban park in the center of the city is a 21st century idea. It embraces the current excitement for a vibrant downtown and a city filled with sunlight and nature. The Trinity River Park and the surrounding area will be much easier to energize and revitalize because it is a blank canvas begging for the creativity and vision of nature lovers and developers.
For a hint of the future one can look at the popularity of the Trinity River Calatrava-designed bridges and the throngs of people flocking to Trinity Groves, which the bridges inspired.
Proponents of the toll road have argued that they do not have sinister intentions and the voters already approved the toll road 13 years ago. These well-intentioned motives became out of date. Taste, design, lifestyle, technology and circumstances have created a whole new dynamic in the 21st century.
Now is the time for the mayor and city leaders to embrace a 21st century vision for the city and put a nail in the coffin of the Trinity toll road. The city council is a smart, generally collegial group that wants what is best for Dallas. The threat of a toll road undermines the Trinity River Park, divides the city council and disappoints Dallas.
The politicians can always resubmit what they need to the federal and regional entities. Dallas lobbyists can expedite approval. In the meantime, Dallas should have the comfort and clarity of knowing the plans for any future toll road in the Trinity River Park have been abandoned.
So now we need to ask: Do we want a successful 20th century city or a thriving 21st century city? As David S. Rose, a successful serial angel investor famously said, “Any company designed for success in the 20th century is doomed to failure in this 21st century.” I think this is also true for cities. The Trinity toll road is a 20th century idea that will undermine the success of Dallas in the 21st century.
Now the mayor and city council has the opportunity to unite Dallas, eliminate the threat of a Trinity River toll road, embrace technology and nature, and allow Dallas to become a 21st century city.