By Robert Storch
On Friday, the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization will approve a multi-billion-dollar, long-range transportation plan. The plan spends billions of dollars building more roads and highways which, in the end, will lead to more sprawl, more congestion and more pollution.
There is no comprehensive plan to divert through traffic, especially trucks, around the city. There is no comprehensive plan to reduce congestion in the city. In fact, the proposed widening of Interstate 10 will increase congestion.
There is no comprehensive mass transit plan to get people out of their cars. There is no comprehensive plan to strengthen the street grid to improve traffic flow through the city away from the highway. There is no comprehensive plan to improve sidewalks.
There are some plans for bikeways, but they consist mostly of painting stripes on existing roads that bicycles will share with speeding cars. An unprotected bike lane or sidewalks on a street where cars are traveling at 40-plus miles per hour are not safe.
Members of the public who participated in MPO transportation priority surveys ranked safety, quality of life and the environment as most important. Yet, most of the money in the proposed plan will build or widen roads to increase speed and capacity for cars.
An analysis of the plan by Scott White, policy director for Vero Paso Bicycle-Pedestrian Coalition, using the the MPO’s own performance measures, shows that by 2050, after spending over $7 billion, the Travel Time Index will increase 3%t over doing nothing. The afternoon peak hour delay per capita will improve eight seconds per minute. That makes a 30-minute commute four minutes faster.
According to White, by 2050, the percentage of the population living within a half mile of a transit stop will decrease, as will the number of job sites close to transit.
The premier project in the plan is the unnecessary widening of Interstate 10 through Central El Paso. For $780 million, it will destroy the character of Downtown and surrounding neighborhoods by increasing congestion, heat, noise and air pollution.
El Paso City Council this month passed a resolution challenging the Texas Department of Transportation to redesign the I-10 project through Central El Paso. The resolution calls for eliminating the proposed suburban-style frontage roads which would be destructive and dangerous in the urban environment.
The County Commissioners Court recently hired an independent traffic engineer to evaluate TxDOT’s Downtown 10 plan. He concluded a wider highway would not reduce congestion.
He also found considerable use of the highway for local travel within the central city. He suggested eliminating some highway exits to force local traffic onto existing streets.
The City Council resolution supports the county engineer’s suggestion of scaled down frontage roads to integrate with the existing street grid to connect to neighborhoods in Central El Paso.
The pre-World War II street grid in Central El Paso is still largely intact. A dynamic street grid disperses traffic by providing multiple routes through the city. City streets don’t have to be fast to be efficient.
The eight bridges over I-10 between Downtown, Uptown and Sunset Heights should be maintained. Wider sidewalks and protected bike lanes will increase multimodal connections.
More bridges over the highway should be added to reconnect other neighborhoods. Another I-10 “trench” between Piedras and Copia would allow grade-level bridges between Five Points, Durazno and the Chamizal.
Rather than an expensive Downtown deck park, build the Central Park on the rail yard east of Downtown as proposed in the 2012 Plan El Paso. Continuing the Downtown highway and railroad trenches to Cotton Street would reconnect the Magoffin and Virginia neighborhoods through the park.
Plan El Paso promised to make El Paso “the least car dependent city in the Southwest.” To reach that goal we must have a better long-range transportation plan.
We need a plan to increase reliable and frequent mass transit convenient for more people, not less. We need a plan that reduces congestion, noise, heat and air pollution, not increase them. We need a plan where people can walk or ride a bike safely. We need a plan to reduce sprawl and increase connections between neighborhoods.
The proposed MPO plan does none of these. We can and must do better.
Robert Storch is a retired criminal defense lawyer and 30-year resident of El Paso.
Cover photo: Interstate 10 traffic flows through Downtown El Paso. (Photo courtesy of Robert Storch)