By El Paso County Commissioners David Stout and Iliana Holguin
The $750 million TXDOT highway project known as Downtown 10 fails to prove a sufficient traffic benefit or environmental justice result that warrants the price tag, property takings, and years of freeway closures for construction, and must be reevaluated.
The Texas Department of Transportation (TXDOT) El Paso District has prioritized Downtown 10, which would add one lane in each direction for about six miles from Schuster to Copia. It also would create new freeway frontage, most or all of it like the “gateway” you see in front of Bassett or Cielo Vista. So far, TXDOT, despite stating this is a priority project, has committed $4 million. The community will have to make up some, most, or all of the rest.
Among TXDOT’s reasons are potential congestion 20 years from now, an assertion that is at best questionable. Decades of research on traffic patterns tell us that at some point, you can’t build your way out of congestion – all you’re doing is creating more traffic, a principle known as “induced demand.” One of the most famous examples in the world is the Katy Freeway in Houston. At 26 lanes, it may be the widest freeway in the world, but it continually appears near the top of Texas’ most congested roads list compiled annually by the Texas Transportation Institute.
The only El Paso roadway to appear on that list last year was Airway Boulevard, at number 73.
The County takes its due diligence responsibility seriously. One of the actions the County has taken is to hire an independent consultant to analyze the TXDOT claim that future congestion in this part of I-10 requires adding capacity now. Traffic projections are very technical and complex, and very few – even nationally – understand it well enough to perform true due diligence on TXDOT’s claims.
The consultant’s initial findings are concerning: TXDOT has exaggerated the value of its proposal on future freeway traffic in the Downtown project area, and by putting so much of our regional road funds there we are not addressing current traffic elsewhere, neglecting needed projects like the Anthony Gap truck bypass around El Paso and the extension of Border East to serve Mission Valley communities like Socorro.
This is critical. If the traffic gains are minimal, and we are not improving the environmental effects of the highway, what justifies the enormous expense and inconvenience of years of construction?
We can work together as a community to require TXDOT to give us a more progressive, and truly modern alternative to freeway widening in the urban core. El Paso has grown but its heart has not recovered from the demolition of scores of city blocks and decades of pollution, heat, flooding, noise and vibrations imposed by the freeway on adjacent neighborhoods.
Planners across the U.S. almost unanimously agree that modern cities seeking to retain and regain residents in the urban core should remove, or at least mitigate, the highways running through them, and to efficiently use the existing grid systems that support neighborhood connectivity.
Unfortunately, instead of having this conversation about mitigating the highway, and asking the same tough but common-sense questions about the value of an added lane and frontage roads, project proponents instead have sought to disparage the County consultant, Norm Marshall, who has impeccable credentials, and misrepresent his findings.
Perhaps they are doing this because instead of protecting the community from an expensive, unnecessary, and environmentally harmful project, they have other priorities. Downtown 10 boosters have raised the possibility of a deck that covers some or all of the Trench, at a cost most recently estimated at about $170 million. This could be a valuable amenity if it can be paid for, does not displace residents, and does not require a land grab against adjacent property owners. The critical question that must be answered is whether a deck requires widening the freeway.
But that is not the primary project, and not where our focus as a community should be. It is the freeway proposal that is at issue. Some people behind the scenes have said we should just get on board, because Downtown 10 is a done deal. But TXDOT states that is not the case, and we should hold them to that.
The County seeks to spend our regional dollars wisely and fairly, to pursue environmental justice, and to lift up the public, which does not have access to the millions of dollars for consultants and lobbyists and staff that TXDOT and project boosters have.
Our leadership already has led to positive movement. For example, there is now widespread recognition that frontage roads designed as mini freeways next to the freeway are inappropriate for neighborhoods; on March 15, the City of El Paso passed a resolution recognizing this and calling on TXDOT to do better.
That’s a good start, but collectively we all can do more. Let’s use this opportunity to truly reimagine not just I-10, but our regional system of moving people, instead of re-enforcing the status quo.