By Robert Storch
The proposed plan to widen Interstate 10 through Downtown El Paso is a short-sighted, billion-dollar solution to a problem that doesn’t exist. Further, it is inconsistent with the city’s long-term development plan for the Downtown area. It must be stopped.
The Texas Department of Transportation’s “Reimagine I-10” is a flawed plan lacking vision. Its outdated, 20th-century design does not conform with the city’s progressive, 21st century urban strategy set out in Plan El Paso, adopted in 2012.
The city’s plan promotes infill development to increase density and reduce sprawl, promotes mass transit to discourage car dependency and diverts through traffic from Downtown. The TxDOT solution for every transportation problem, urban or rural, is more roads. It has no plan for mass transit or any alternative to cars and trucks.
El Paso city planners in the 1880s built the railroad through Downtown thinking it would be good for business. It wasn’t long before the fallacy of that design became evident. “The 1925 City Plan … frequently recited the problems caused by busy railroads in the midst of a thriving city and outlined potential solutions … to remove freight railroads from the heart of the city, especially those that separated Downtown from land immediately to the north.” Plan El Paso, page 4.72
Not learning anything since 1925, the same flawed design thinking brought the interstate highway right through Downtown in the 1960s. With it came more traffic, more congestion and more pollution that further isolated neighborhoods from Downtown.
Doubling down on this destructive design by widening the highway will only hinder existing plans for development of a livable urban center. Wider highways don’t reduce traffic or congestion. In fact, they make both worse. According to a March 2020 report, The Congestion Con, by Transportation for America, adding highway lanes in metropolitan areas actually increases traffic. The prime example is the Katy Freeway in Houston, the most congested highway in Texas and the widest highway in the world with 26 lanes.
Plan El Paso focuses on making Downtown a dynamic place for people to live, work and play. It prioritizes connectivity with surrounding neighborhoods like Segundo Barrio, Sunset Heights and Uptown. Reimagine I-10, developed in Austin by TxDOT, focuses on moving trucks from Los Angeles and Phoenix to Houston and Dallas swiftly and efficiently through Downtown El Paso. It makes no provisions for enhancement of Downtown or preservation of surrounding neighborhoods.
The TxDOT plan to build a suburban style highway through the heart of the city will reduce the livability of Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. Increased traffic concentrated on highways and feeder arterial roads will further divide neighborhoods and lower property value.
Smart, modern urban plans slow and disperse traffic entering the urban core onto the street grid. Streets with slower traffic can accommodate buses, bicycles, scooters and pedestrians, making them safer. Safe walkable streets bring neighborhoods together while reducing noise and air pollution. Connected neighborhoods increase the tax base and promote a better quality of life.
Some cities like Milwaukee, San Francisco, Nashville and Portland, Oregon, redesigned traffic patterns and replaced urban highways with tree lined boulevards, parks and bike paths. The TxDOT plan to widen I-10 through Downtown is car-centric and incompatible with Plan El Paso.
Interstate through-traffic, especially large trucks, hazardous cargo and westbound trucks from Mexico via the Bridge of the Americas and Zaragoza Ports of Entry, can be routed through the Anthony Gap to eliminate congestion, noise, pollution and the danger of another catastrophic deadly crash Downtown. (The same should be done with the railroad.)
Eastbound truck traffic from the Santa Teresa POE and the proposed Sunland Park POE can be routed around Downtown on the new toll-free Loop 375 Border Expressway and back to I-10 through the newly configured Spaghetti Bowl interchange at US 54. Without through traffic, the highway from Executive Center to Copia would handle only local traffic.
The urban core plan should focus on increasing or preserving connectivity between residential neighborhoods and Downtown not facilitating interstate traffic through the heart of the city. The proposed TxDOT I-10 expansion reduces the number of bridges over the freeway between Prospect and Campbell Streets from eight to three. Wider one-way access or gateway roads, currently Yandell and Missouri, paralleling the highway with new high-speed U-turn lanes would create a virtual racetrack between Downtown and residential neighborhoods to the north.
TxDOT plans to take private property north of the highway between Piedras and Downtown, likely by eminent domain. It will destroy the historic Jessica and Pearl apartments as well as the Holocaust Museum. The elevated access road around Sunset Heights from Downtown to UTEP will increase noise and air pollution. It will obstruct views, isolate and destroy a vibrant historic neighborhood.
Project proponents have touted a “cap park” over the new highway. Surrounded by high speed frontage roads, it would be inconvenient and dangerous to access. Also, the cost of the park is not included in the TxDOT budget. That cost will be borne by the city.
The currently configured street grid over the highway Downtown slows exiting highway traffic and provides multiple connectivity points for pedestrians, bicycles and local traffic between Downtown and neighborhoods north.
In 2012 the city proclaimed it would “become the least car-dependent city in the Southwest through meaningful travel options and land-use patterns that support walkability, livability, and sustainability. Over time, El Paso will join the ranks of the most walkable and transit-rich metropolitan areas in the country.” Plan El Paso, page 1.4.
In 2020, TXDOT proposes to do the opposite.
In March 2020, the El Paso County Commissioners Court was asked to endorse the regional transportation plan prioritizing the I-10 Downtown project. The court discussed a supplemental resolution to prioritize the Anthony Gap bypass, already under development, ahead of the Downtown I-10 project. Public comments from several neighborhood residents opposed to the Downtown I-10 project supported the prioritization of the Anthony Gap bypass.
However, after oppositional testimony by Downtown businessmen Ted Houghton, the supplemental resolution was defeated and the plan prioritizing I-10 through Downtown was adopted by a 3-2 vote. Houghton said El Paso must go to Austin with “one voice” when requesting money for major projects.
The El Paso City Council, also after listening to constituents speak in opposition and no one speak in favor of the same plan, fell in line and voted 6-2 to widen I-10 through Downtown. Apparently, El Paso leaders believe when Austin is giving away money, they must get their “fair share” whether the project enhances the community or not.
Interstate 10 through Downtown is only the 86th most congested highway in Texas, according to 2019 TxDOT statistics. Anyone who has traveled to or lived in Austin, Dallas or Houston knows what really congested highways are like.
The importance of Interstate 10 to the El Paso region is undeniable. It is also a reality the current road surface needs to be replaced soon. Resurfacing can be done without changing the current street grid.
It’s not necessary for all interstate traffic to go through Downtown. A toll-free Loop 375 and an Anthony Gap bypass will change through-traffic patters. New streetcars, Brios and bike lanes will change commuting habits. Smart infill development will revitalize urban residential neighborhoods.
With changed living patterns, changed traffic patterns and changed commuting habits, the need for a billion-dollar destruction of the Downtown urban core with a wider more congested highway will disappear. The TxDOT Reimagine I-10 plan is an expensive, destructive, unneeded solution to a problem that doesn’t –, and with smart urban planning will never — exist. It must be stopped.
Robert Storch is a retired criminal defense lawyer and 30-year resident of El Paso.
Cover photo: Rendering of a proposed expansion of Interstate 10 in Downtown El Paso from the Texas Department of Transportation.