Don't look now, but Michael ("never met a freeway proposal I didn't like") Morris, the long-time Director of Transportation for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, has gotten a case of the Vapors.
Was it some new threat to the Trinity Tollroad that sent Mr. Morris into a tizzy? Some "regional mobility" crisis?
No, nothing as small-minded as those examples.
Instead it's the "vulgar" language used by DFW residents in the state's public hearing on its new do-nothing air plan on January 21st that makes Mr Morris so darn mad he feels he has to apologize to the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality for it in a letter last month.
You see the hearing took place at NCTCOG headquarters in Arlington, in the COG conference room Mr. Morris uses to rule his freeway fiefdom from as the force behind the Regional Transportation Council.
We suspect that almost everyone official, including Mr. Morris, thought it would be another dreary affair when the conference room was offered up as a hearing space. But citizens had other ideas. After 20 years of failure, they weren't in any mood to accept another "plan" from the state that required no new pollution controls on any sources. They were mad as hell, and they weren't going to take it anymore.
No question more than one person uttered words and phrases you will not hear in Church. These were intentional and meant to shock everyone out of official complacency in another just-going-through-the-motions regulatory exercise. Commentators were following the advice of John Maynard Keynes: "Picturesque language, used right, serves an important purpose. Words ought to be a little wild, for they are the assaults of thoughts on the unthinking."
"Unthinking" is a generous way to describe the State's air plan.
Far from being "meaningless," as Morris' letter to the TCEQ asserts, the use of "bad words" at the hearing on the 21st was packed with decades of frustration. They meant something precisely because they had never been uttered before in such a place by people who had worked in good faith for so long on DFW's chronic smog problem. They meant something because citizens realize they no longer have anything to lose in calling out the State for its shamelessness. It meant something because the story that was told by employees the next day at TCEQ HQ in Austin and EPA HQ in Dallas was not the usual script for these things, but how badly the State got its ass kicked, and how genuinely angry the crowd was that nothing was being done about DFW bad air – again.
"Bad words" put an exclamation point on a problem. They can also unmask the Killing-Us-Softly language and protocol the TCEQ uses to make decisions that harm the public health. They pull back the curtain and give a more accurate, if less polite, perspective. If some citizens were dropping F-bombs toward the TCEQ at the hearing, they were only giving as good as they were getting.
Because make no mistake about it, in the way the State has drafted and approved this plan, it's making it's own bold declaration of F*** YOU to EPA and seven million DFW breathers.
By conservative estimates, the State's air plan for DFW needed to cut up to 200 tons per day or more of smog-forming pollution to get the the current ozone standard by the deadline of 2017. Instead the state is submitting a plan that gets only 20-40 tons per day of cuts – all from a change in federal gasoline rules. The EPA had already warned Texas in writing that the plan didn't include new, lower emission limits for the Midlothian cement kilns, and this exclusion would mean the plan was not meeting the Clean Air Act. The State submitted the same plan anyway.
But there was no criticism of this obscene gesture in Morris' letter. Instead he says he looks forward to working in continued partnership with the TCEQ – a partnership which has produced five (going on six) failed air plans and over twenty years of non-compliance with the Clean Air Act. Huzzah.
And that's why citizens were right to call out the TCEQ the way they did on the 21st. Here's an agency, COG, that's nominally, but officially assigned the role of local consultants on air planning for seven million DFW residents, and it's taking a complete whiff on the State's clear-eyed strategy of nullifying the Clean Air Act. If it can't even bring itself to mildly criticize the state for submitting a plan that's, you know, both unworkable and illegal, what other choice do citizens have but to scream bloody murder at the top of their lungs?
We're proud to have played a part in making DFW a hostile work environment for the political hacks who now run and staff the Texas Commission on Environmental Quality. They don't deserve to have an easy time of it. They should fear being run out on a rail or verbally tarred and feathered every time they make an appearance here. It's the only way citizens have to effectively show how they feel about a government that not only isn't listening, but has no interest in listening.
It's also activity protected by the First Amendment, a technicality that Morris seems like he's desperate to address for fear of his conference room being sullied by another severe outbreak of democracy.
And that's the thing about Morris' response. He's very concerned about the bad words. Not so much about the bad air.
You could put all the F-bombs dropped on the 21st on hundreds of billboards next to schools, and churches, and Mr. Morris' beloved freeways, where thousands would see and be offended by them. You could broadcast them over a loud speaker going through "nice" neighborhoods. You could open a website devoted to nothing but evangelizing their use or a cable channel that repeated them 24/7. You could assault people from every direction with bad words every waking minute of their day, and you'd still be doing less harm to the public than even one more month of dirty air courtesy of the state, and Mr. Morris's silence.
As for those citizens who were there on the 21st to give the start a hide tanning it deserved, maybe they were taking Jane Jacobs lesson to heart: "We had been ladies and gentlemen and only got pushed around."