By Robert Storch
The failure of local leaders to adopt a comprehensive strategy for implementing long-range urban plans will result in permanent damage to the quality of life in Downtown El Paso and surrounding neighborhoods.
In 1925, urban planners recognized that a railroad running through Downtown El Paso hindered urban development. It was noisy, dirty and divided the city. In the 1960s, city leaders ignored planners and further isolated neighborhoods by building the interstate highway through the middle of Downtown.
In 2012 the city adopted an acclaimed progressive urban plan to revitalize Downtown, reduce traffic congestion, stop urban sprawl and build a more livable city. Other cities around the world with similar plans are eliminating highways, reconnecting neighborhoods and revitalizing urban life.
With no implementation strategy, El Paso leaders are again ignoring their long-term development goals and moving in a destructive direction. A bypass through the Anthony Gap is under construction. The Loop 375 Border Highway is complete. Though still free, it is posted as a toll road and under utilized. Local planners are not aggressively promoting or incorporating these highways into a comprehensive strategy to divert traffic around the city and reduce congestion in the city.
With no evidence of need, and contrary to local design goals, the Texas Department of Transportation intends to widen I-10 through Downtown El Paso. The Downtown segment of I-10 barely makes the list of the 100 most-congested roads in Texas. It’s not even the most congested road in El Paso County. There is no definitive data on how traffic patterns will change with the completed bypass or toll-free Border Highway.
Interstate 10 is important to international trade and a vital part of our national transportation infrastructure. There is nothing, however, requiring that it must go through the heart of our city.
Juarez is moving forward with plans to redirect cross border freight traffic out of their city to ports of entry in New Mexico and the Lower Valley. Yet TXDOT plans to spend a billion dollars to continue routing freight and hazardous material through Downtown El Paso.
The public can see and comment on the latest TXDOT plans at its website through March 16. TXDOT says it considered 18 design options for I-10. Nine were worthy of further development. Of those, only three are presented as “viable” to the public for comment. A “no build” option is included only because federal regulators require it. It is not under serious consideration, though it should be.
Non-viable options receiving positive comments at previous public meetings are refurbishing or reconstructing the current highway as is. Another design rejected because of cost is tunneling the highway though Downtown. This plan would significantly reduce noise and air pollution, enhance connectivity between neighborhoods and free up the surface for additional development. Compared to competing highway projects in Houston and Austin, the El Paso tunnel is a bargain.
A plan I proposed in an op-ed here last fall — eliminating the highway Downtown — was never considered.
None of the “viable” TXDOT designs enhance livability in Downtown. None of them increases quality of life in surrounding neighborhoods. None of them promote long-term development goals. None of them enhance property values. None of them include a deck-park (an irrelevant diversionary enhancement designed to put lipstick on a pig).
All the TXDOT options increase congestion, noise and air pollution. All of them require taking private property by eminent domain.
One option widens the highway within the current footprint, keeping most of the existing street grid. The other two widen the highway footprint, destroying the existing street grid, reducing connectivity to neighborhoods north of Downtown.
Wider frontage roads with high speed U-turn lanes reduce walkability. Elevated unnecessary access roads from Downtown to UTEP block views from Sunset Heights, eliminates the Porfirio Diaz exit and reduces property
values. East of Downtown, the wider highway with elevated frontage roads block views and limits access to existing properties.
Local leaders must stop this destructive project and promote those that prioritize stated long-term goals to reduce congestion and enhance our urban environment.
Robert Storch is a retired criminal defense lawyer and 30-year resident of El Paso.