The controversial $750 million project to expand Interstate 10 in Downtown El Paso is about to undergo a rigorous study that will look at how the project may affect everything from the environment to businesses to residents in the area.
The study, known as an environmental impact statement, historically requires architects, scientists, environmentalists and engineers to study a project’s impact on its surroundings. Work on the impact statement will begin this month and could take years to complete.
“I’m happy to hear that they’re going to be doing this more comprehensive study, but we’ll see what happens – I’m not very optimistic,” said El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, who has been outspoken about his opposition to the expansion project.
The first scoping meeting for the Downtown 10 project – which will allow residents to review and comment on the plan, its purpose and alternatives, and any anticipated environmental impacts – is scheduled from 4 to 7 p.m. Nov. 30 in the Juárez Room of the Judson F. Williams Convention Center. The meeting is open to the public.
In its meeting notice issued Nov. 8, the Texas Department of Transportation noted the agency is reclassifying the project – which would include adding lanes to the highway under the sunken portion of the freeway – as requiring a comprehensive environmental impact statement as opposed to a much more limited environmental assessment.
“There’s a lot of things to change and for the good (like) off ramps, slowing traffic down, walkways, trails,” said Ted Houghton, former chair of the Texas State Transportation Commission. “I think it’s a good process and it’ll result in good things coming out of it.”
The Downtown project, which has been in development since 2019 through a Re-Imagine I-10 study, covers a 5.6-mile stretch of the freeway from Executive Center Boulevard to Copia Street that could require that up to 30 commercial and residential buildings be demolished.
“TxDOT is just dotting I’s and crossing the T’s because any project where you’re going to use eminent domain to take property is always sensitive, but it wouldn’t stop it,” former state Rep. Joe Pickett said.
Pickett served as chair of the state’s Environmental Regulation Committee as well as on the transportation committee while he was in the legislature from 1995 to 2018.
“Under the National Environmental Policy Act, an environmental assessment is a concise review document taking into account the purpose and need of the proposal, any alternatives and a review of the impacted environment,” said Tomas Treviño, TxDOT El Paso district engineer, in emailed responses to El Paso Matters.
One of the alternatives, called a no-build alternative, would look at the impact of not building anything – in this case leaving the stretch of 1-10 as is.
Treviño said requiring an environmental impact statement was necessary because the project is being developed on a “critical national artery” that better ensures opportunities for public feedback.
A statement is a much more comprehensive document than the assessment and would also require a more complete “discussion of the reasonable alternatives, and a review of the cumulative impacts of the proposed project area,” Treviño added.
Asked how long the process would take, Treviño said “the timeline varies depending on project complexity.”
The environmental impact statement for the Loop 375 Border Highway West Extension project, for example, took about five years. The work on that impact statement began in 2007 and ended in 2012. Construction on the loop extension did not begin until 2015.
Once completed within the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, the statement is reviewed and approved internally by TxDOT’s environmental affairs department, Houghton said.
Construction bids for the Downtown 10 project are preliminarily set to open mid- to late-2025, according to TxDOT’s fact sheet.
Houghton said he does not anticipate the assessment will slow down the project.
But the project has already met opposition, including pushback from the city and county governments and some community members who don’t believe it will help ease traffic congestion.
In March, the City Council passed a resolution to ask TxDOT to eliminate planned frontage roads in the project and replace them with pedestrian-friendly streets, street parking, street lights and trees.
TxDOT officials at the time said they are already incorporating some of those elements into the project and that frontage roads in an urban core would not be similar to those in other parts of El Paso such as Sunland Park.
The El Paso County Commissioners Court last fall hired an independent transportation consulting firm to study the expansion project. The study determined, in part, that TxDOT’s models exaggerate the benefits of expanding the freeway.
Impact to the future deck plaza
At the same time that TxDOT develops the Downtown 10 project, the Paso del Norte Community Foundation is advocating for a deck over I-10 in the same Downtown area. The foundation’s board established the Downtown Deck Plaza Foundation to support and help raise funds for the project.
Treviño said concepts for the deck plaza will not be part of TxDOT’s environmental impact statement.
The deck plaza project, however, is gaining momentum with a recent $900,000 U.S. Department of Transportation grant awarded to the city for a design study. Initial concepts for the deck plaza envision it as a green and recreational space.
TxDOT officials have said a deck plaza would be a separate project that would not be paid for by the state, but the Downtown 10 expansion can be built in a way that could support its future construction. TxDOT will partner with the city to apply for federal grants through the U.S. Department of Transportation in May to fund the project.
City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, during an October presentation to City Council on grant opportunities, said the goal is to get the project fully funded by federal dollars.
Houghton, who also chairs the El Paso Mobility Coalition that advocates for transportation initiatives and funding for the region, said at some point the two projects will have to merge and be built together.
Tracy Yellen, chief executive officer of the Paso del Norte Community Foundation, agrees.
“The Deck Plaza feasibility study will help us better understand how a green cap over I-10 in the Downtown corridor can improve and interface with TxDOT’s work on I-10 to meet community needs, addresses community concerns, and fit within the fabric and scale of the urban core, as we work to create greater connections for our community,” Yellen said.
Pickett said once a project gets funding for a study, it will likely come to fruition.
“People are misled by thinking a study is like you and me going out, actually collecting data and making a decision whether to go forward,” he said. “If you get money for a study – that basically says, ‘We’re going to do it,’ and the study is just going to tell us all the hoops we have to jump through to get it done.”
Stout said he thinks the deck plaza will be a nice green space, but is being led by developers, not the community. He also said he opposes it being contingent on the Downtown I-10 expansion.
“The deck park is this great shiny object that they’re dangling in front of our face so that behind our back they are really pushing something (the expansion project) that’s going to be greatly detrimental to us,” he said. “I don’t think that we should settle for that.”