By David C. Stout
In late 2017 and early 2018, the Texas Department of Transportation was pitching the expansion of Interstate 10 and additional frontage roads for about six miles from just west of the Spaghetti Bowl to Executive Center. They opened their pitches with images of a deck covering a small portion of this stretch, the Trench, which is the depressed portion of highway through six blocks of Downtown.
TXDOT made it clear that they could participate in the project if the highway were widened. But it was secondary then, and it is secondary now, to their goal, which is to expand the highway and add frontage roads.
Across the country, communities are rethinking highways that sliced through urban fabric. This is a different conversation than the question of highways that linked suburbs to the urban core. There is virtually no debate that the damage highways did to networks of dense, highly connected neighborhoods far outweighs the benefits to those communities. El Paso is no exception.
While the highway did bulldoze connective tissue between the mixed use neighborhood and business district directly north of Downtown, and the area between what is now Sunset Heights and the San Francisco neighborhoods, it did the most damage east of Downtown. Combined with the Chamizal Settlement, and the north-south freeway (U.S. 54, now known as the Patriot Freeway), it destroyed thousands of homes and uprooted thousands of families, ravaging the heart of modern El Paso, much of which still has not recovered.
Look south of the freeway and east of Downtown, where fields gave way to settlements which turned into neighborhoods of fields, trees, and canals. While El Paso’s Upper Valley is considered a high quality-of-life area, its southeastern valley sisters no longer are. This is directly attributable to the decisions made by people, from outside of those communities, who controlled the city. And the highway is one of the major culprits.
The Downtown 10 project therefore represents a major opportunity to have these discussions, and to truly recover some of what was lost in the heart of the city.
Most immediately, we must reduce the impact of the Bridge of the Americas feeding into the north-south highway connectors, and onto I-10. We must reconnect Magoffin and Segundo Barrio and Chamizal and Lincoln and Durazno and Five Points. Any project proposing massive investment into I-10 west of the Spaghetti Bowl must reduce the amount of elevation, which carries pollution, noise, heat and vibrations further into neighborhoods.
Ultimately, we must begin now to get where other communities already are. According to the Congress for New Urbanism, there are 30 serious highway removal proposals in various stages of execution, from Buffalo to New Orleans to Tampa to Duluth, and even in Dallas, where “The Framework Plan” proposes to either turn 1.5 miles of I-345 into a boulevard or to depress it.
We can do the same thing now with Downtown 10 – reduce elevations, increase connections based on the existing grid across the highway, decrease truck traffic through the city – and plan for a future where the freeway is either removed or further reduced.
Interstate 10 is part of a large regional system, so we also must look for ways to reduce pressure on this part of the system, both for the immediate present and for the long-term future. One way of doing that is to ensure that truck traffic coming from east and west can be diverted before ever coming through the city. The Northeast Bypass must be completed, which would allow traffic to be diverted at Anthony to the west and at Loop 325 to the east.
The future of El Paso must be more than 18-wheelers rumbling through the heart of our community. A deck park might grab the public’s attention, but it is a distraction from the much larger issue at stake, and when it comes to equity and environment, is nothing but an expensive Bandaid on a cut to the bone.
Project opponents have had some victories. Initial proposals called for well over 100 properties to be taken for expansion, including all the I-10-facing properties on Missouri Avenue. That is no longer the case, although the most recent plans now indicate up to more than 30 property takings, including around the Cotton Street Bridge and ramps entering Downtown.
It’s not even clear why this is being done. Aside from rehabilitating the roadway, the need to add lanes is far from established, and suburban style frontage roads, similar to what you find in front of the East Side malls or at Sunland Park, are not a good fit for the urban core.
Regarding the need for lanes, the county government has hired an independent consultant to review the traffic projections driving the supposed need for this project. New lanes cause traffic to grow more quickly, a phenomenon known as induced demand, and in California, they have begun to factor that effect into planning.
Frankly, we must do a better job with our transit systems, and our bicycle and pedestrian networks, and plan for the movement of people, not cars.
All of this stated, El Paso’s Downtown developer interests have made clear this is their priority, and they have successfully pushed this to the top of the transportation priority list. For them and for project proponents, if it’s a choice between widening or a deck park, or no widening but no deck park, they’ll take the widening, regardless of the consequences for neighborhoods east of Downtown. That is unacceptable to me.
Highways come in 30 to 50 year cycles. It’s been more than 50 years since the highway first barreled through.
In this cycle, there almost certainly will be a project, and our community’s job now is to ensure that it is what we truly need: To reduce the unquestionably negative impacts of the highway in the heart of our city for our neighborhoods, not just Downtown developers; provide a smooth ride for current users; provide a better balance between new roads and mass transit and biking and pedestrian facilities; and use this opportunity to plan for a future where the highway is not the defining characteristic of our beautiful urban core.
David C. Stout has represented Precinct 2 on El Paso County Commissioners Court since 2015.
Cover photo: The Texas Department of Transportation is considering a proposal to widen Interstate 10 through Downtown El Paso. (Robert Moore/El Paso Matters)