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Government & Law

Mayor Johnson’s Priorities for Federal Infrastructure Dollars: I-30, Harold Simmons Park, Vision Zero

The mayor wrote a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg earlier this week, advocating for federal money for upcoming projects.
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The Texas Department of Transportation wants to bury this highway to allow for improved neighborhood connections.

The lobbying for federal transportation dollars has begun. Mayor Eric Johnson on Wednesday sent a letter to U.S. Transportation Secretary Pete Buttigieg outlining his three priority projects that could receive funding through the $1.2 trillion Infrastructure Investment and Jobs Act.

Johnson included Interstate 30’s eastward burial and expansion; Harold Simmons Park, which planners hope will exist between the levees between downtown and West Dallas; and a grab-bag of projects to help the city achieve its Vision Zero initiative to cut all traffic fatalities in half by 2030.

“While we have great infrastructure needs throughout our city and will have other transformative ideas to discuss in the future, these projects, specifically, stand out immediately as top priorities for Dallas,” Johnson wrote.

This money starts flowing quickly, and it’s not hard to see why Johnson picked what he did. They fall into buckets as defined in the legislation.

Over the next five years, federal agencies will receive $550 billion to dole out. The largest chunk, $110 billion, will be allocated for roads and bridges. (Interstate 30.) About $11 billion will go to safety. (Vision Zero.) And $1 billion will be allocated for “connecting communities,” which is certainly the argument that the Trinity Conservancy is making for Harold Simmons Park as it raises money and produces renderings.

Johnson writes that these are “equity-driven initiatives in Dallas.” Interstate 30 east of downtown will be buried below-grade as it extends beyond downtown to Ferguson Road. That’s the stretch of the highway that caused real damage in the 1960s that remains today, physically separating what is now East Dallas from the neighborhoods south of the freeway.

“This highway was designed to meet the needs of people driving through or away from our city, with little thought given to the needs, health, or safety of the Dallas residents who lived in its immediate vicinity,” Johnson writes. “The freeway today stands as a clear symbol of the divide and the inequities that historically have been created by regional transportation infrastructure.”

The highway is elevated when it exits downtown near Fair Park then rides on a berm as it heads east. Burying it would at least eliminate that barrier and allow the city to reconnect the street grid. The Texas Department of Transportation, working with the city and the North Central Texas Council of Governments, plans to incorporate bridges over the buried highway that can be accented with pedestrian-friendly infrastructure. Many streets will be redesigned to better connect the street grid that was smashed when the highway was put in.

But the state was never going to foot the bill for the proverbial bells and whistles—deck parks, largely, but also infrastructure that could allow these bridges to hold buildings. Having extra federal dollars could help make that a reality and would at least give the city a way to push for those things in the design. Elsewhere, many of the cumbersome on-ramps will be removed, freeing up land for new development.

The state still wants to add a lane in each direction as well as an additional reversible managed lane down the middle, making the highway 12 lanes. As the mayor notes, the original highway was built to speed folks through Dallas, not enhance transportation within the city. And yet, for all the good intentions, the state is still planning to widen the road.

Harold Simmons Park is a long way off. In 2018, the Trump administration allocated $5 billion for Texas flood control projects. Of that, $275 million will head to the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers for improvements to the levees. The work will take six years to complete, and the park’s designs are on-hold until the Corps designs its project.

That brings us to Vision Zero, the international initiative aimed at eliminating traffic fatalities. As Johnson notes, Dallas has the second-highest rate of traffic deaths among the largest 15 cities in the country. As you likely are aware, either by the writing on this website or your own experiences walking and driving in town, Dallas is designed in a way that encourages risk.

Many of our roads are highways, six-lane behemoths that encourage speed. There are more than 2,000 miles of roadway that don’t have a sidewalk. In fact, of 4,400 miles of sidewalk in the city, just 1,200 are undamaged or unobstructed. We are woefully low on protected bike lanes and data has shown that narrower streets result in slower speeds, which saves lives.

But the momentum for such things is picking up. The city’s long-awaited mobility plan was published at the beginning of the year, urging the city to come up with a new sidewalk plan, update the 2011 bike plan, and execute a path forward to Vision Zero. Johnson is hoping a federal cash infusion would get these projects moving across the city.

That formal Vision Zero plan—lots of plans in this city—will be unveiled in 2022. And if Dallas is serious about curbing traffic deaths, it will need to spend some money on street design. Plan or no plan, we already know how to do this.

The federal government has funneled an unprecedented surge of money into Dallas in the past year. Earlier this year, the feds announced Dallas would receive $377 million in stimulus money, which has helped pay for wi-fi in parks, expanded broadband services across the city, sewer and water infrastructure near new affordable housing, and a rapid rehousing program for individuals experiencing homelessness.

Elsewhere, recent federal grants went to funding the deck park over Interstate 35 near the Dallas Zoo, the 50-mile cycling trail called the LOOP, and improving technology at the Inland Port in Southern Dallas. But there isn’t an available pool of money the size of this infrastructure bill.

There are other projects that will need federal dollars that just aren’t fully baked yet. TxDOT is expected to reveal its preference for the future of the elevated I-345 between downtown and Deep Ellum; regional and local transit officials have been advocating for its burial instead of an outright removal. Nearby, Dallas Area Rapid Transit is finishing the designs for the D2 subway from Victory Park through downtown, but that already has funding sources identified. Other transportation projects, like connecting the Oak Cliff Streetcar line with the McKinney Avenue Trolley, aren’t designed yet. Johnson writes that he’s highlighting projects that already have momentum—“compelling candidates for the competitive grant programs”—since the federal government often prefers giving money to projects that are closer to shovel-ready.

You can read the mayor’s full letter right here.

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Matt Goodman

Matt Goodman

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Matt Goodman is the online editorial director for D Magazine. He's written about a surgeon who killed, a man who…

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