Jun 17th 2016 | Posted in Legislation/Policy by Peter Partheymuller

TxDOT presents CityMap plan that de-emphasizes interstates

Interstate 345 is an elevated highway that runs through Central Dallas that connects the Central Expressway with Interstate 45. That’s an important role to play in the state’s second-largest city. However, it also divides the Deep Ellum neighborhood from Downtown Dallas.

Transportation planners have been discussing potential solutions to the problem for many years. And, last week, those discussions took another step forward with the presentation of a draft report by planners with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) called Dallas City Center Master Assessment Process (CityMAP). The document is the product of a long-term project that aims to present multiple options for the transformation of Dallas’s urban highways.

city_mapThe project’s impetus came from Gov. Greg Abbott’s directive to provide a solution for the state’s most congested highways. The report notes that, “Downtown Dallas is surrounded by several major highways that fall into the top 25 of the 100 most congested roadways in Texas” and that several of those roadways are aging and in need of maintenance or replacement.

Hoping to take advantage of both the will to tackle large infrastructure issues from the highest ranks of state government and the timing of the needed repairs, the Dallas CityMAP planners are thinking big. The report doesn’t offer explicit recommendations for how to remake, for instance, the Interstate 30 Corridor or the I-345/I-45 stretch of highway. What it does do, however, is offer multiple alternatives for what the next versions of those interstates could look like.

The three scenarios offered for I-345 and I-45 are all large, but they vary in scope and in outcome. I-345 was built in 1974 and carries more than 200,000 cars daily. The report notes that it has been the focus of much attention in recent years due to the fact that many in Dallas — residents and city officials alike — see it as the primary reason that section of the city has “seen delayed economic growth and lower densities than parcels not adjacent to the corridor, with many parcels adjacent to I-345 the CBD (central business district ) being utilized as parking lots.” The elevated highway serves to cut off the Deep Ellum neighborhood – historically a cultural center for the African-American community – from the central business district of Downtown Dallas.

The first of the Dallas CityMAP report’s three scenarios is a relatively modest modification of the existing highway that would remove several off-ramps from the central business district to I-345. In addition to lessening “the visual impact” of the interstate, it would cut down on the heavy traffic into and out of both the downtown area and the neighborhood on the other side of the highway. That would allow for improved bicycle and pedestrian connections between downtown and the neighborhood. The report projects that this scenario would take six years to complete.

The other two scenarios are comparatively drastic, each projected to take 24 years to reach completion. One would completely remove I-345 altogether (at a cost of between $100 million and $500 million), and the third scenario would remove the elevated lanes and replace them with a below-grade highway (at a cost of between $500 million and $1 billion).

Those are the types of projects progressive urban planners envision when talking up the Complete Streets movement: massive infrastructure projects that either remove above-ground highway lanes entirely or move them out of sight. They offer an opportunity to redirect commuters from single-passenger vehicles to public transit or bicycle lanes and open up inner-city land for development or green space.

It is telling, though, that the final two sentences of the Dallas CityMAP report’s introduction of the removal scenario state: “The direct connectors from I-345 and I-45 to I-30 would be removed in this scenario and access to I-30 would be handled through the arterial street grid. There is an assumption of mode shift to transit using bus only lanes on the arterials.”

That’s quite an assumption.

But, again, the report isn’t a list of recommendations. It merely lays out options for how to improve the city’s transportation system. And improvements come in a variety of forms. There are reduced travel times or the increased ease of commutes that come with some of the options. For others, such as the removal of I-345, the improvements would come in the form of the value created by opening up land for development in the central core of Dallas. That new value could be as much as $2.5 billion, according to the report.

Victor Vandergriff, the member of the Texas Transportation Commission who led the project, said at the report’s presentation that it wasn’t intended to end traffic congestion once and for all. The purpose of the Dallas CityMAP project is to think big and to envision the future of the city’s transportation system.

“I’ve never been under the illusion that traffic would be permanently solved,” said Vandergriff. “That’s not possible.”

What the project is doing, though, is acknowledging that the system of urban highways in Dallas was built to benefit the DFW area’s many suburbs. That’s been great for cities like Plano and Arlington, but it’s come at the expense of Dallas itself.

“That’s caused problems in our central business district and also in the neighborhoods that adjoin them,” said Dallas County Judge Clay Jenkins at the news conference last week during which the Dallas CityMAP report was unveiled.

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