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By Robert Storch
To make Downtown El Paso a truly vibrant, modern and livable urban environment, the interstate highway and transcontinental railroad must be moved out of the city center.
The Texas Department of Transportation plans to spend a billion dollars to widen and reconfigure the highway through Downtown. A group of local developers want to spend millions more to cover the new highway with an expensive, inaccessible, impractical park. Neither project will enhance the livability and long-term development of Downtown or the surrounding neighborhoods.
Urban plans since 1925 recommend moving the railroad out of Downtown. No urban environment ever improved with a multi-lane, limited access highway or mainline freight railroad. The current freeway and railroad divide the city, split and isolate neighborhoods. Traffic, noise and pollution hinder development and livability.
Cities across the country, from San Francisco to Milwaukee to Syracuse and from New Orleans to Seattle, are eliminating urban highways and reconnecting neighborhoods. The result is more livable urban environments with higher property values and increased tax revenue.
Juarez plans to redirect cross-border freight traffic from the city center to ports of entry in Santa Teresa and Tornillo. In El Paso, all through and cross-border rail and truck traffic must go around the city through the Anthony Gap. TxDOT must prioritize the Northeast Border Expressway over any expansion of I-10 Downtown.
If we eliminate the interstate highway from US 54 to Executive Center and reroute through rail traffic around the city, Central El Paso once again becomes a continuous integrated neighborhood. Sunset Heights would reconnect to San Francisco and Union Plaza. Downtown and Uptown would be one. The Magoffin and Virginia neighborhoods could once again reconnect. The Five Points and Durazno areas could redevelop as a contiguous neighborhood.
Union Pacific moved its intermodal operations to Santa Teresa years ago. It should do the same with the remaining Downtown maintenance facility. Ideally the UP main rail line should run from Fabens/Tornillo, east of Horizon City and through the Anthony Gap. In the alternative, trains can use current right-of-way through the refineries, Fort Bliss and new track through the Anthony Gap and across the Rio Grande.
BNSF should move its maintenance and inter-modal operations out of Downtown. When Mexico removes the international rail crossing in downtown Juarez, there will be no need for any railroad activity in Downtown El Paso other than passenger service to Union Station. BNSF will need a new connection to the Santa Teresa port of entry.
The stretch of I-10 from Executive to UTEP is duplicated by the new Loop 375 and should be eliminated. The section from UTEP to Downtown around Sunset Heights should be replaced with a tree-lined boulevard for bike, pedestrian and mass transit with connections to the Sunset Heights and San Francisco neighborhoods. Missouri, Main, Franklin and Upson Streets could all reconnect.
Elimination of the I-10 and rail trenches Downtown would free a dozen city blocks for development. The development possibilities east of Downtown are limitless. Without the railroad or highway, streets from Florence to Stevens could reconnect, restoring the original north-south street grid.
“Plan El Paso,” the city’s progressive 2012 long-range plan, envisions the old rail yard between Campbell and Cotton as a grand Central Park.
“There is space for open informal play fields, sites for pavilions and gardens, active recreation play fields, and a pond for paddle boats. The park can be configured to include sites for grand focal civic structures as well. Over time, as the City finds the need for new museums or performance places, they can be placed here,” the plan says.
Further east, the elimination of the highway and rail maintenance facilities would allow for the reconnection of the street grid, creating space for multi-use, smart-code development.
For Downtown El Paso to become a vibrant urban center where people can live, work and play, disruptive and dangerous transportation systems unnecessary to urban life must be relocated. TxDOT has no vision beyond building more highways. Local leaders must embrace a longer-range, more expansive vision of transportation and the quality of life.
Robert Storch is a retired criminal defense lawyer and 30-year resident of El Paso.