The city likely will pursue more federal funding for a Downtown deck plaza after it received a $900,000 grant for a design study for the project that previously had no identified funding sources.
The U.S. Department of Transportation awarded the funding to the city of El Paso in November through the Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity, or RAISE, grant program.
The proposed Downtown Deck Plaza is a green and recreational space that would be constructed over the portion of I-10 that runs through Downtown El Paso. Its construction will coincide with the Texas Department of Transportation’s project to widen that same portion of the freeway.
The initial funding for the design study from the U.S. Department of Transportation makes El Paso’s project federally recognized, said Yvette Hernandez, the city’s Capital Improvements Department grant funded programs director.
“Simply put — we can qualify for additional federal funding,” Hernandez said. She said it is unknown how much the deck park would cost, but the study will help determine the price tag.
Congress provided $1 billion for the RAISE grants last December for the 2021 fiscal year, but with the passage of the Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act signed into law in November, an additional $1.5 billion for the grants will be allocated over the next five years.
The Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act will invest $550 billion over five years for a variety of projects that include modernizing crumbling and outdated infrastructure and funding for planning, design, demolition and reconstruction of street grids, parks or other infrastructure projects throughout the country.
Hernandez said some projects that successfully completed the RAISE planning grants also qualified for RAISE construction grants.
U.S. Rep. Veronica Escobar, D-El Paso, who advocated for the funding and supported the legislation, said there are other categories within the infrastructure act that may lend themselves to possible funding for the deck plaza. But she said the city will have to be competitive and apply for the programs.
“There are going to be different pots of money available for all of our transportation and transportation related projects,” Escobar said. “From my perspective, the idea of a deck park, the idea of green space in our central core (and) adding more green space in our central core is an exciting one.”
Sito Negron, president of the Sunset Heights Neighborhood Improvement Association and an outspoken opponent of the TxDOT Downtown 10 widening project, said the deck park is an amenity and not a necessity.
“It might be a very pleasant space, but it’s not going to improve the environmental impacts of the highway,” Negron said. “It’s not going to bring equity to the neighborhoods that were the most affected (by the original construction of I-10 through Downtown).”
Negron said the neighborhoods east of Downtown and all of the neighborhoods south of Lincoln Center would not likely benefit from the building of a deck plaza.
Deck plaza contingent on TXDOT plans
El Paso’s deck plaza proposal, while a separate project, is linked to the Texas Department of Transportation’s Downtown 10 project, which proposes adding lanes to the highway under the sunken portion of the freeway. The TxDOT project for Downtown El Paso was identified through the Reimagine I-10 Corridor Study conducted from late 2016 through 2019.
Three proposals for the project show that up to 30 commercial and residential buildings might need to be demolished as part of the approximately $750 million, I-10 expansion project. The cost estimate doesn’t include a deck park.
TxDOT spokesperson Jennifer Wright said the department is still in the planning process and looking at alternative options for the Downtown project following public meetings, including a no-build option. She also said any elements from any of the three proposals can be included in a final preferred alternative.
Some of the proposed changes include frontage roads, reconstruction of bridges, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements as part of the widening project.
Wright said while the concept of a deck plaza was discussed during public planning meetings, TxDOT would not provide funding for such a project.
“As a separate project, it would have to come with its own funding. We will move forward with the intent to produce the Downtown 10 project so as to not preclude a deck plaza,” Wright said.
Wright said TxDOT can accommodate a deck plaza in its plans by building the structural supports if the deck plaza gets funding. She also said construction could be coordinated or done simultaneously, or could be included in the roadway project if third-party funding is secured far enough in advance of the letting of the Downtown 10 project in 2025, according to the Downtown 10 fact sheet.
Downtown Deck Plaza Foundation
The Paso del Norte Community Foundation’s board established a Downtown Deck Plaza Foundation under its umbrella to support the vision for the deck plaza over I-10 in the Downtown corridor.
“(The deck plaza) was a concept that they (TxDOT) shared at one of their public meetings and we were very intrigued,” said Tracy Yellen, chief executive officer of the Paso del Norte Community Foundation.
Yellen said the foundation became interested in supporting the possible Downtown deck plaza because it had been working on a master plan for a 68-mile Paso del Norte Trail that extends throughout the county.
Yellen said the idea of the deck plaza could help create connectivity from Sunset Heights to Downtown to the Franklin Canal.
Yellen said the foundation hired OJB Landscape Architecture in 2018 to develop an initial rendering of what the space could look like. The firm designed Klyde Warren Park, a five-acre deck park in downtown Dallas.
The firm developed renderings of what the El Paso project could look like. They include green spaces with trees and parks and could link active transportation infrastructure like the El Paso Streetcar to the Paso del Norte Trail.
Yellen said the deck plaza space would be contingent upon TxDOT’s final plans for the Downtown 10 project.
“We would work with a footprint that (TxDOT determines),” she said.
Yellen said planning for the project paused during the COVID-19 pandemic, but has resumed. She said the foundation is working with the city and is the entity that could eventually provide philanthropic support, more governance and leadership, and facilitate additional community outreach and engagement.
Hernandez said while it is likely that the city can qualify for more federal funding, it may not cover the full cost of the project. She said further funding for the project could be raised through public/private partnerships.
She also said the design study will help determine what the estimated cost would be and what possible funding sources could be established.
Keep track of changes
Click here for more information about the TxDOT Downtown 10 project.
Click here for more information about the Downtown 10 Plaza Foundation.
Cover illustration: A deck park above Interstate 10 is being considered for Downtown El Paso. (Illustration courtesy of Paso del Norte Community Foundation)
Disclosure: Tracy Yellen is a financial supporter of El Paso Matters.