By Robert Storch
The El Paso region is at an inflection point of making a major transportation decision with generational consequences to our future quality of life. Will we triple down on the destructive transportation system that currently dominates our city, or seek a more sustainable system going forward?
The Texas Department of Transportation is spending over $2 billion in Central El Paso to move cross-border and cross-country freight through Downtown. There is no comprehensive plan to divert freight traffic around the city or improve the quality of life in El Paso.
Since the arrival of the railroad in the 1880s and the interstate highway in the 1960s, short-sighted city leadership allowed outside interests to build a transportation system that funnels all freight traffic through Downtown El Paso.
Progressive city plans adopted in 1925 and 2012 addressed the fallacy of that system. However, past generations of city leaders continued to double down on the same, obviously flawed model.
Cities around the world are diverting through traffic and freight around their city centers. They are converting urban highways into people-centered parks or boulevards, reconnecting neighborhoods and improving their quality of life. In El Paso, city leaders see any infrastructure spending, even that of dubious benefit, as desirable.
These TxDoT projects are decimating some of the city’s poorest and oldest neighborhoods. They will permanently hinder long-term economic development and continue to divide the city. They will increase congestion, vibration, heat, noise and air pollution further deteriorating our quality of life.
Current city leaders apparently think all this is fine. In fact, some see it as an opportunity to spend another $200 million on a deck park to cover a mere six block section of this massive, unnecessary and expensive transportation boondoggle.
The $100 million I-10 Connect project, which decimated the Lincoln Park neighborhood, is nearing completion. It will funnel border truck traffic onto I-10.
Rather than develop plans to divert international freight to Tornillo or Santa Teresa Ports of Entry, U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar recently announced a $700 million expenditure for the Bridge of the Americas POE to facilitate more trucks through Central El Paso.
The recently completed Border West/Loop 375 toll road literally goes over Chihuahuita, destroys views of Juarez and inexplicably parallels I-10.
Recently, the Texas Transportation Commission added Downtown-10, a $750 million expansion, to their list of future projects. This massive and unnecessary widening of the highway will increase congestion, destroy neighborhood connections and forever change the character of Downtown El Paso.
Ten years ago, Dallas built the 5-acre Klyde Warren Deck Park over the Woodall Rodgers Freeway at the cost of $100 million. With no state or federal funding, El Paso leaders now want to build a 12-acre park over the expanded I-10. Surrounded by multi-lane frontage roads, it will be an inaccessible, expensive amenity of limited utility.
International trade with Mexico and transcontinental rail and truck traffic is an important part of El Paso’s economy. However, it does not all have to go through Downtown. Anyone who can read a map can see that the Anthony Gap provides a level, unpopulated alternative route around the city.
It is now an urban design fact that wider highways induce traffic and increase congestion. Suburban highways with frontage roads facilitate sprawl. Yet, TxDOT continues to believe the solution to every transportation need is a bigger, wider road.
A wider I-10 Downtown will not reduce congestion. It will only increase vibration, heat, noise and air pollution. It will decrease connectivity between Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods. It will further divide the city, reduce property value and diminish livability.
Between UTEP, Fort Bliss and Ascarate Park, El Paso still has an intact dynamic street grid. Since ancient Rome, street grids have proven effective at absorbing and dispersing traffic. Urban streets don’t have to be wide and fast to be efficient. Grids can accommodate denser, more sustainable development.
Long haul truckers don’t stop at Downtown restaurants or hotels. Local small businesses, however, thrive on safe city streets, especially those with mass transit or close to residential neighborhoods where people can walk or bike.
If we really want to follow through on the 2012 goal of Plan El Paso to make this “the least car-dependent city in the Southwest,” we must stop the madness of building bigger, wider highways. We must plan for smarter, greener, more sustainable transportation systems that efficiently move fright, reduce congestion and provide a more sustainable, livable environment.
Robert Storch is a retired criminal defense lawyer and 30-year resident of El Paso.