The design options for the Downtown I-10 expansion project incorporate elements of what El Paso City Council outlined in a recent resolution aimed at asking the Texas Department of Transportation to change its plans for parts of the project, according to state officials.
However, at least two elected officials — City Rep. Peter Svarzbein and County Commissioner David Stout — said they do not see much evidence that TxDOT is adjusting its design to prioritize pedestrians and cyclists over the movement of freight and vehicles.
“It’s common sense that (the project) would have a design for the streets around it that are oriented towards people, that are oriented towards reasonable speed limits and not designed to look like an interstate frontage road,” Svarzbein said.
At issue are the 2019 preliminary designs for the TxDOT Downtown ReImagine I-10 plan. The 5.6 mile project from Executive Center Boulevard to Copia Street is expected to cost $750 million and proposes adding lanes to the highway under the sunken portion of the freeway. Part of the project includes expanded frontage roads.
On March 15, Svarzbein initiated a City Council resolution that passed and asked, in part, for TxDOT to eliminate the frontage roads and replace them with pedestrian-friendly streets, street parking, street lights and trees.
The city’s resolution also asked for the project to be built in a way that supports the city’s Rebuilding American Infrastructure with Sustainability and Equity federal grant application that provided $900,000 for a study on the feasibility of a deck plaza. The deck plaza would be a separate project to be built to coincide with the Downtown freeway expansion.
The deck park is contingent upon TxDOT’s freeway expansion project, and the Paso del Norte Community Foundation is working to raise private funds for the park. Tracy Yellen, the foundation’s chief executive officer, said the organization is in the process of finalizing details before the feasibility study gets underway later this year.
TxDOT spokesperson Jennifer Wright said the expansion project does not preclude the building of a deck plaza, and noted that different types of frontage roads are appropriate for different areas. Wright refuted Svarzbein’s characterization that TxDOT would build frontage roads in El Paso’s Downtown that are similar to those located along other parts of the interstate such as Sunland Park.
“We would not put the same type of frontage road through an urban core that we would through a highly industrial area or a highly commercial area where people are just in their cars trying to get to the mall or something,” Wright said.
TxDOT is working with three freeway expansion designs, in addition to a no-build option that would leave the I-10 expressway as is, Wright said. One of those designs does not include continuous frontage roads. Another includes multi-use paths, potential landscaping, signalized intersections and other traffic calming measures. Elements of all of the designs may be incorporated into the final project design, she said.
The designs are based on feedback the state agency received through two virtual public meetings it held in early 2021, Wright said. A third meeting is planned for this fall to get input on the updated design options.
TxDOT met separately with El Paso elected officials and smaller groups of local government leadership to get feedback on the plans, Wright said. Additionally, its bicycle and pedestrian workshops included local government coordinators and elected representatives. TxDOT officials said City Council representatives were invited to these workshops, but did not attend.
Svarzbein, however, said he was not aware of these meetings and had not seen updated design renderings before he presented his resolution to the City Council.
Stout similarly said TxDOT hasn’t updated him on the revised design plans.
“They (TxDOT) haven’t shared that with me, or any members of the public, as far as I know,” Stout said. “I hope that those more appropriately designed frontage roads extend the entire length of the project, especially where the neighborhoods are.”
While Stout welcomes the new designs, he remains opposed to widening the freeway because he said doing so would actually worsen congestion in the Downtown corridor.
“We’re building out a system that increasingly relies more, not less, on vehicles — the opposite of what all our city plans call for,” Stout said, adding that his Precinct 2 constituents have said they don’t want the expansion. Stout’s precinct extends from Lee Trevino Drive along I-10 to Sunland Park.
Last fall, the county paid $40,000 to Smart Mobility, an outside transportation consulting firm, to conduct an independent study of TxDOT’s Downtown freeway expansion project. The study findings — released in February — assert that TxDOT’s model speed and delay metrics are inaccurate and that the model exaggerates the benefits of widening the freeway, in part, because “adverse impacts of urban freeway expansion are not adequately considered in the planning process.”
The county submitted the firm’s report to the El Paso Metropolitan Planning Organization, which approves and plans transportation projects in the region. The I-10 project is part of the MPO’s portfolio.
Wright said Smart Mobility’s study has not been submitted directly to TxDOT, but the agency would consider it as a form of public comment.
“TxDOT not only welcomes, but encourages public input on our major roadway projects. We rely on public input to ensure we put forth the best possible recommended preferred alternative in the interests of the community and the region,” Wright said.
She said TxDOT traffic engineers are working on a response to the study for the El Paso County Commissioners Court and the MPO.