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A Dispatch From TxDOT’s First Meeting on I-345’s Feasibility Study

At a meeting about the 1.4 mile freeway to the east of downtown, residents instead had questions about potholes, the S.M. Wright overhaul, soccer fields, and traffic.
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I-345 shown from near Deep Ellum. (photo by Scott Womack)
The Texas Department of Transportation’s first public meeting on a feasibility study for the future of I-345 featured placards, a brief presentation, and a state senator—but little information on the project itself. The first of three such meetings, held in the gym of the St. Philip’s School and Community Center in South Dallas, attracted about 200 people. State officials say these are to solicit public comment about the future of the roadway. TxDOT staffers asked attendees to place a red sticker on a poster-sized image of a thermometer that indicated their knowledge level of I-345, the 1.4-mile elevated freeway that connects Interstate 45 with Central Expressway but separates downtown from Deep Ellum in the process. Another poster featured traffic data from 345 and the surrounding highways. There was a short video about the roadway and a quick PowerPoint presentation that hurried through the options for the highway, whose current lifespan ends in about 25 years: removal, modification, below-grade depression, or repairing it but leaving its footprint as is. Before attendees left, they were asked to fill out an online survey. There were no details about any further planning that had been done since CityMAP, TxDOT’s landmark 2016 study that explored what could be done to the hulking freeways that crisscross Dallas’ core. CityMAP says removal would “provide opportunities for increased affordable housing options in the urban core, which would potentially reduce home-to-work commutes on regional highways,” but that conclusion was not presented to attendees. There is currently no funding for the project—common for highway projects at this early stage—and the feasibility study is expected to take up to two years to complete. TxDOT says it is analyzing economic development opportunities, traffic patterns, and more. At the end, it will produce a preferred alternative for the freeway. On Monday night, State Sen. Royce West stole the show. He arrived about 20 minutes before the 8 p.m. end time and was handed a microphone. West addressed the concerns of some residents about the ongoing work on the nearby S.M. Wright Freeway, potholes in the neighborhood, and other issues that weren’t the topic of the evening. He and Dallas City Council member Jaime Resendez even read phone numbers of who to contact for certain local problems. Eventually, West returned to his talking points about I-345. He is an outspoken proponent of the freeway. A teardown, on the other hand, is supported by a grassroots movement that believes its removal would open up opportunities for development in its place and re-stitch two of the city’s most successful urban neighborhoods. (D’s founder, Wick Allison, co-founded a super PAC four years ago to get the highway removed. The magazine and the Coalition for a New Dallas are independent.) West called the highway “a critical transportation artery for Dallas” and posited that the removal was motivated by developer interests and not the transit needs of those who live south of Interstate 30. TxDOT has said it is still researching traffic patterns, findings that will be included in the feasibility study. “We cannot, we should not, as a city, as a community, say that we’re going to put development over the transportation needs of persons in the different parts of this metropolitan area,” West said. He mentioned several times that he had never seen a city in which a highway morphed into a boulevard that led drivers to another highway. Members of the audience shouted out several cities with related projects: New York, Seattle, and San Francisco. Those aren’t mirror images of I-345, but traffic found a way through arterial streets and the existing grid. It made for an odd juxtaposition: the state senator speaking in opposition to plans that not everyone in the room was even aware of, during a meeting that was seeking public comment. Larry and Regina Walton are residents who attended the meeting. They wanted to learn more about what is happening in the area. But Regina, for instance, didn’t know there was a difference between I-45 and I-345. She said she didn’t think removal was the right idea. “I used to live in DeSoto, and my children went to school here, and it was nice to have that thoroughfare,” she said. “I probably would never have put them in school here if I had a boulevard to go down to get there and get to work, which is on the other side of Stemmons. There’s good and bad, like everything, but for the most part, I just don’t see a lot of positive in changing it into a boulevard.” West was less than forthcoming about his son’s plans for the land under I-345. Roddrick West plans to lease the land from TxDOT to put in soccer fields. The state senator was not interested in discussing that. “That project belongs to my son, not to me, OK?” West said when asked by an audience member about the seeming conflict of interest. “So, you know that, and everyone else knows that. The reality is, let’s not change the narrative. The reality is that your senator has always been for making certain that we have a proper solution for 345 that doesn’t slow traffic down and makes certain that we don’t have to go around 30 or 635.” At one point, West asked for a show of hands for who supported removing the freeway. Most seemed uncomfortable. West called on two people who raised their hands to explain to the room why they supported the removal. Michael Friebele, an architectural designer who lives in the Cedars, was one of the people West asked to come speak in front of the room. After the meeting, Friebele said he’s been following the idea of removing I-345 since Patrick Kennedy broached the subject a few years ago. (Friebele has contributed to D.)  Sara Barnes was the other person asked to tell the group why she thinks tearing out I-345 might be good idea. Barnes, who also lives in the Cedars, was happy to see TxDOT approach the community and get it involved at such an early stage of the project. She’s also pleased that it’s potentially shining a light on new data gleaned from CityMAP, as well as the historic disparities that inner-city highways created in Dallas. “There seemed to be a lot of tension in the room,” Barnes said after the meeting. “I think a lot of people are concerned about what this does in terms of equity for South Dallas, and that’s a great point to bring up.” TxDOT says the feasibility study will include an analysis of the impact these options would have on the surrounding communities. But, if anything, the meeting was a reminder of just how far we have to go until we get a better understanding of what’s to come. There are two remaining meetings, tonight and Wednesday. Details are below.
  •  Tuesday, December 3, 2019 from 6 pm. to 8 p.m. at the CityPlace Conference Center Lakewood Room, First Floor, 2711 N. Haskell Avenue, Dallas, Texas 75204. (Served by DART red, blue, and orange rail lines to CityPlace/ Uptown Station and bus routes 036, 409, 521.) The presentation will begin at 7 p.m.
  • Thursday, December 5, 2019 from 10 a.m. to 8 p.m. at the Sheraton Dallas Hotel Dallas Ballroom, First Floor, 400 N. Olive Street Dallas, Texas 75201. (Served by DART red, blue, green, and orange rail lines to the Pearl Street Station and bus routes 024, 036, 084.) The presentations will begin at noon, 4:30 p.m., and 7 p.m.