By David Jerome and Rep. Lina Ortega
Sixty years ago, when we were a sleepy town of 275,000, the Texas Highway Department (now the Texas Department of Transportation) started construction of the Downtown portion of Interstate 10. Since that time, the population in Borderplex region that depends on a functioning local highway system has grown to over 2 million people. In addition to our region’s population growth, the passage of NAFTA and USMCA induced significant investment in the region’s manufacturing sector which has made our region’s ports of entry the second busiest along the U.S. – Mexico border.
Despite this growth and demand on our highway system, our interstate freeway has largely remained the same.
Regional traffic data shows that the Downtown portion of I-10 is the most congested portion of El Paso’s interstate freeway and one of the most congested roadways in Texas. This is not news to the thousands of El Pasoans that regularly drive on I-10 and get stuck in traffic because the freeway constricts to only six lanes in the Downtown area which causes bottlenecking.
If the status quo endures, TxDOT projects that within just 20 years this bottlenecking will cause peak time average traffic speeds be 17 mph in the core of I-10. This is unacceptable, damaging to air quality and stunts regional economic growth. The state of Texas must modernize the Downtown portion of I-10.
Regional transportation groups including the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization, the El Paso Mobility Coalition and forward-thinking elected officials understand the importance of the I-10 modernization project and are leading the way to get this done.
With the proposed I-10 improvements they support, TxDOT projects average traffic speeds in 20 years in Downtown El Paso to be approximately 56 mph, instead of 17 mph, during peak times. For El Pasoans, that means less time stuck in traffic and more economic development opportunities.
Recently, El Paso County commissioned a $40,000 study to critique the proposed modernization efforts. The study’s author, a Vermont resident who has never visited El Paso, proposes the following:
- Making El Pasoans pay to use the freeway by tolling I-10.
- Routing additional traffic through existing neighborhoods like Sunset Heights and Rio Grande.
- Closing multiple entrance and exit ramps on I-10 between Copia and Executive – which would make accessing our core neighborhoods and businesses much more difficult.
While the study does make some common sense recommendations (i.e., design should fit the urban context), it is written by someone who does not understand the need for reliable and affordable transportation for working families and businesses in our region.
In concert with the I-10 modernization efforts, local non-profits, business and community leaders are planning the construction of a world-class deck plaza over the Downtown portion of I-10. Working with Congresswoman Escobar’s office, the city of El Paso recently received a $900,000 grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation for the planning of theDowntown deck plaza. The grant will be used to plan the design of new green space for the urban core.
This timing will allow the city to sequence the plaza project with TxDOT’s project to maximize efficiencies and cost savings. Local leaders have already discussed the deck park project with Mayor Mitch Landrieu, President Biden’s senior advisor on the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act, and are optimistic about securing federal funds for the deck park project.
Knocking at our community’s door is El Paso’s once-in-a-generation opportunity to realize a world-class plaza that will be the preeminent regional park in the Southwest United States.
All of this happens because of local leadership that maintains bold ambition for El Paso to be a leading American city. The opponents of the freeway modernization and the regional park fail to explain how highway congestion, additional air pollution and channeling additional traffic into neighborhoods are good for El Paso – and why building more greenspace is a bad thing.
El Paso’s recent resurgence is not happenstance, it has been fueled by a “can do” leadership model rooted in an expectation of greatness for our community. In that vein, completing the modernization of El Paso’s most congested portion of I-10 while working with federal and state partners for the addition of 12 acres of green space in our community’s core is of primary importance.
We hear consistently from those who tell us what we can’t do. Let’s continue to counter by showing what we can do.
David Jerome is president and CEO of the El Paso Chamber. Lina Ortega represents El Paso’s District 77 in the Texas House of Representatives.
Cover photo: An artist’s rendering shows what a deck park might look like above Interstate 10 in Downtown El Paso. The image at left shows the current area. (Illustration courtesy of Paso del Norte Community Foundation)