By Peter Svarzbein

Downtown El Paso is unlike any other part of our city – it is a compact, connected, walkable and historic area that serves as a central gathering place for all members of our community. Similar to the rest of the nation, the construction of Interstate 10 in the late 1960’s had the effect of physically detaching thriving urban neighborhoods from our Downtown and to the larger community.

In late 2019, the Texas Department of Transportation announced its “Downtown 10” project which includes improvements intended to address congestion, safety, and the aging infrastructure of the 5.6-mile-long segment of I-10 that cuts through the heart of our community’s Downtown urban core. 

Since its initial announcement, TxDOT has identified three build alternatives for the Downtown 10 project, all of which include a two-lane expansion and the addition of street level highway frontage roads immediately next to neighborhoods to the north and south of the corridor. The current design for these frontage roads mimic the speed limits and design that you would see on the far East Side or West Side of El Paso. That kind of design is simply not acceptable for our Downtown.

As those alternatives are being considered, it is important that we, as a community, recognize that today we have a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to improve the design of the Downtown segment of I-10 – to encourage and advocate for a design that considers the corridor’s urban surroundings, including its nearby neighborhoods. We have an opportunity to not only minimize the impact of the I-10 corridor on our Downtown neighborhoods, but to focus on strengthening our urban fabric by improving connectivity and accessibility for all residents and visitors regardless of their chosen mode of transportation. 

Today we have a very real opportunity to leverage over $750 million in completed and planned public and private investment made into Downtown El Paso over the last decade by shifting the paradigm away from a transportation system that primarily serves as a series of through streets for vehicles and instead considers inclusive safety and mobility, while also providing premiere public spaces that result in economic and social benefits for our entire community – public spaces that activate nearby properties for restaurant, retail, and entertainment opportunities to support our small business community and promote a high quality of life and place for our residents.

Plan El Paso, the city’s award-winning comprehensive plan adopted in 2012, calls for reducing the over reliance on automobiles as a preferred mode of travel. Tools, such as the city’s Street Design Manual, call for the appropriate context-sensitive design of roadways by differentiating the design of roads located in urban versus suburban and rural areas. 

It is time that we consider Plan El Paso’s vision and make use of the tools available to us to secure frontage roads that support and enhance our vibrant Downtown and reconnect the urban fabric currently separated by I-10.

It’s time that we rally as a community to call for the elimination of frontage roads as currently proposed through Downtown and replace them with urban scaled streets that become more multimodal and appealing to pedestrians – streets that provide ample sidewalks, on-street parking, and street trees lining the adjacent parkways with sensible speed limits. 

A great example of this context-sensitive street design alongside an urban highway project are the roads surrounding Klyde Warren Park in Dallas. 

Now is the time to advocate for roads that improve safety for pedestrians, cyclists and transit users by better managing vehicular speeds through narrower travel lanes, changes in paving, and artfully designed traffic calming measures. Our Downtown is like no other part of our city and the design for this project should reflect the urban nature of our Downtown core. 

As TxDOT considers alternative build options for the Downtown segment, we must emphasize the need for balance in the design of the corridor’s frontage roads, to share between the multiple functions and users of the street so that the streets lining I-10 support surrounding current and future land uses while also enhancing connectivity and the beautiful and unique character of our community.

In the words of Jane Jacobs, “Streets and their sidewalks – the main public places of a city – are its most vital organs.” 

Today, we have an opportunity to breathe life into those vital organs – to reimagine their role and to strengthen their importance to the continued growth and development of our vibrant downtown and its surrounding neighborhoods. 

Peter Svarzbein represents District 1 on El Paso City Council. 

Cover photo: Streets alongside Klyde Warren Park in Dallas and frontage roads alongside Interstate 10 near Redd Road in El Paso. (Photos by Peter Svarzbein)