A Primer: Why all This Talk About Highways?
The City of Dallas, once a powerful, sophisticated metropolis, began to lose its economic momentum to the suburbs in the 1970s. A number of factors contributed to the decline, but the most physical among them was the erection of elevated interstate highways right through the city center.
In 1964, the predecessor to TxDOT, with the blessing and encouragement of the City of Dallas and the Dallas business community rammed I-30 through the heart of Old East Dallas, leading to decades of decay. In 1971, I-345 was erected, cutting off Deep Ellum and Baylor from downtown Dallas. That same year, I-45 was elevated, destroying the old Spence neighborhood of South Dallas and separating one side of the southern sector from the other. This wasn’t an isolated phenomenon, unique to Dallas. Building elevated highways through cities—usually through the African American sections of cities—was considered progressive. Robert Moses famously led the effort in New York, and he was emulated by highway builders across the country.
Today, cities of all sizes are tearing down elevated highways. San Francisco has removed two. West Oakland forced the removal of the Cypress Street double-decked highway. New York took down the Elevated West Side Highway. Milwaukee have also removed highways, spurring economic growth.
But What Happens to the Traffic When You Remove a Highway?
Approximately 140,000 vehicles use I-345 every day. Much of this traffic is interstate trucking, using Dallas as a short-cut. When the Elevated West Side Highway was closed in New York, 53 percent of the traffic simply disappeared. Truckers going from New Jersey to New England who were using the highway as a cut-through were forced to use alternate routes around the city.
The elevated Cheonggyecheon Highway that ran through the center of Seoul, Korea, carried 168,000 vehicles a day. It was torn down in 2003 over the heated objections of traffic engineers who warned of chaos. However, as is proposed for I-345, city officials laid a new grid of streets and boulevards designed for an easy flow of residential traffic. Today, the Cheonggyecheon Restoration Project is recognized as one of the great urban success stories of our time.
Interstate traffic can be rerouted to bypass Dallas. The federal and state governments and the NTTA have spent billions to build I-20, I-635, and the George Bush Tollway just for that purpose, and that’s where the traffic should be sent.
By rerouting interstate traffic and laying a new grid for residents, we reduce congestion from trucks using Dallas as a shortcut and improve mobility for Dallas citizens. Mayor Mike Rawlings has said that 55 percent of the traffic in the Stemmons Corridor neither originates nor ends in Dallas. In other words, those cars and trucks are using Dallas as a pass-through. They add no economic value while only adding costs to Dallas residents.
What About I-30?
In 2006, TxDOT commissioned an East Corridor Study to consider options for upgrading I-30. By “upgrading,” it meant “adding lanes.”
However, the study proposed two options that would reconnect historic East Dallas and the Fair Park area of South Dallas, which once had been a single, uninterrupted community. The first option was to take I-30 below grade for the 1.5 miles where it is now elevated and to cover portions of the 12-lane highway to allow for esplanades at intersections. Another was to reroute I-30 entirely, using existing public right-of-ways to take it south and then west along the Trinity River to connect with the existing highway on the east side of downtown at the Mixmaster.
In 2008, the cost of taking I-30 below-grade and covering portions of it was approximately $1.4 billion. The alternative of rerouting I-30 was estimated at about the same, for two reasons: 1. there are existing right-of-ways that could be used which preclude the need for major land purchases; and 2. going below-grade is expensive. A second consideration is that the rerouting option allows the existing I-30 to remain open while the new I-30 is under construction, which mitigates the deleterious effect of partial closures of such a major artery.
One giant benefit of the rerouting alternative is that once the new I-30 is built, the large swath of land occupied by the 12-lane old I-30 could be repurposed for public enjoyment. A huge trail with an accompanying grid of access roads could link Old East Dallas westward all the way through to the Cedars and Convention Center. As with the much smaller Katy Trail, this could lead to development and amenities along the trail, benefiting the residents of Old East Dallas, South Dallas, and downtown.
Say Hello to an all-new Fair Park
Fair Park was once our city’s crown jewel, the centerpiece of urban living. Today, it is surrounded by concrete, poverty, and empty buildings. By reconnecting it to downtown and by bringing new street life and amenities to the abutting neighborhood, Dallas could restore its most important park and remake it into a source of year-round enjoyment for the surrounding communities.
Plans and studies for redoing Fair Park, if stacked one atop another, could reach to the ceiling. The problem is, these studies have always presented top-down solutions to revitalizing the park. Fair Park will be revitalized only when the community demands it and the neighborhood takes a hand in it.
New development arising from the removal of I-345 creates the market demand that is needed to force the issue on Fair Park. The Mayor’s Task Force on Fair Park recommended that it become a year-round entertainment facility. It did not say, however, how that could be accomplished while the State Fair commandeers the park for three months of the year. The State Fair’s attempt to open a summer program was a $30 million failure.
New people produce new thinking as well as new demand. Fair Park could indeed be a year-round park. It could also serve as a Dallas venue for a major university. It could also be an entertainment and sports district centered around the Cotton Bowl. It could also continue to house the seasonal State Fair of Texas. It could, in fact, do all four of these things – and by doing them, become a jobs engine for the surrounding community.
By bringing economic activity to the East End of downtown, by putting people on the streets and amenities on the street corners, we energize an entire section of the city that is now lifeless and nearly deserted. That energy has a spillover effect. The biggest beneficiary of that spillover effect would be Fair Park. It could once again become our city’s crown jewel, the centerpiece of urban living in Dallas.
This Makes Sense. Why the Resistance?
Traffic engineers have been trained to believe that highways are sacrosanct. When faced with the congestion their own planning created, their only solution is to add more lanes that lead to more congestion. So instead of closing highways, they want to widen them. And what is the result? More traffic, more congestion, more pollution, and more blight.
We need community leaders, concerned citizens, and City Council members who will put an end to a failed strategy based on a goal of traffic relief that is never reached. We need a City Council that will put the interests of Dallas residents and businesses first. We need a City Council that will encourage the development of the hundreds of acres that are now nearly worthless because of the interstate highways that run through them.