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Dallas City Council Members Walk Back Promise to Remove I-345

I-345’s public comment period ends tonight. The question we all need to ask ourselves: What kind of city do we want?
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In early 2014, the Texas Department of Transportation told the city of Dallas that it wouldn’t remove IH-345, the 1.7-mile elevated highway that stands between downtown and Deep Ellum. A TxDOT spokesman told the Dallas Morning News that the agency had always planned “to maintain the existing bridge.”

Years of debate ensued as TxDOT launched a feasibility to study to figure out the best plan for that bridge as it nears the end of its lifespan. Then, last month, TxDOT released the long-awaited results of that study. The state’s preference is to keep the highway as a permanent feature between downtown and Deep Ellum, but it wants to spend at least $1 billion to dig a 65-foot-deep trench that will contain 10 lanes.

TxDOT says removing the highway entirely and replacing it with a boulevard would cause traffic delays that render that idea unfeasible.

The Council’s Transportation Committee last week largely took TxDOT at its word and spoke glowingly of what the state is calling the “hybrid” plan. The groundswell of support for removal seems to have dried up. In 2021, 12 current council members said they supported “removing I-345 and replacing it with a mixed-use, mixed-income neighborhood that restores the community grid and reconnects East and South Dallas.” (Those council members answered a questionnaire sent by the Coalition for a New Dallas, an organization that advocated for 345’s removal and was started by D Magazine’s late founder, Wick Allison. D and the coalition operate independently.)

No one at that meeting of the Transportation Committee spoke in favor of removing 345.

“I feel very strongly that y’all found a hybrid solution that is kind of a win for everyone,” said Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who represents South Dallas and the neighborhoods around Fair Park.

The state calls this the “hybrid” plan. It considered five options: removal; depressed; elevated but with a more narrow footprint; as-is; and “hybrid,” which puts the highway below grade.

TxDOT’s preferred hybrid alternative would create opportunities for connectivity between two of Dallas’ most important urban neighborhoods by way of at-grade streets and bridges. But the amount of land that could be freed up for development will be far less than if the highway were removed entirely and replaced by a boulevard. Those who support removal estimate that tearing the highway out would free up about 245 developable acres, land that could be used for more housing, jobs, retail, and other purposes. The hybrid plan creates about 15.5 acres.

Despite TxDOT’s reaching a significant milestone (that feasibility study), it now feels as if the debate over 345 is back where it began all those many years ago.

Reaction ranges from rage to acceptance.

Here is Patrick Kennedy, the urban planner who first proposed tearing out the highway, speaking about TxDOT’s desire to trench the roadway: “No city would want that next to their downtown. It’s worse than what’s there now.”

Here is Dustin Bullard, the executive vice president for economic development and place at Downtown Dallas Inc., which manages the Public Improvement District there: “The core of our city is still a hub of regional mobility, and a full removal has impacts for downtown—and potentially negative impacts. If we keep adding density and we remove a corridor, how are people in these offices moving in and out and getting back to where they live?”

Here is Jon Hetzel of Madison Partners, speaking on behalf of the Deep Ellum Foundation: “In terms of outright removal, we never took a formal position on that. I think it’s a very compelling idea, and I think the neighborhood was very much interested in it, but there is also a practical reality to the significant concern about how South Dallas residents are going to get to North Dallas jobs.”

Downtown Dallas Inc. and the Deep Ellum Foundation each submitted feedback to TxDOT about the plan on Monday evening. They each urge TxDOT to incorporate sufficient pedestrian infrastructure on the bridges over the highway, minimize the impact to Carpenter Park, and ensure that the street grid flows together. You can see both below. (They both praise the new connections the hybrid plan creates between the neighborhoods.)

With the hybrid plan, the at-grade streets that extend into those two neighborhoods would fly over the sunken highway, creating a direct path that wouldn’t require pedestrians to walk under a highway. Instead, they would walk over it. And there might be buildings to walk past some day.

We’re approaching a decade since urban planners Patrick Kennedy and Brandon Hancock first pitched the idea of tearing the whole thing out, freeing up a whole lot of land in the core that the city could then re-zone to create a mix of housing, office, retail—whatever.

TxDOT in 2016 estimated that removal would generate about $2.5 billion in new net value, a “significant increase in employment totals,” and an additional $67.4 million in property tax revenue over 30 years.

The agency’s “preferred alternative”—jargon for what TxDOT would like to do—is presented as a sort of compromise between removing the highway and keeping it. Again, TxDOT’s preferred plan frees up about 15.5 acres for development as opposed to 245 acres if the highway were removed. Of that 15.5 acres, 8.5 of it would be spread over the highway on top of theoretical decks. Think Klyde Warren Park but with buildings.

The state won’t pay for those decks, which means the city would be on the hook to spur that development. It’s not clear how much that would cost, but a safe estimate seems like it would be at least $200 million. Klyde Warren’s 5.6-acre deck cost $112 million to build. The Southern Gateway Park over Interstate 35 in Oak Cliff will cost about $170 million total, after both phases are complete.

It’s not quite a perfect comparison. Building decking infrastructure that could support office towers and apartments is different than supporting a park. But it shows how much work will need to happen to generate any sort of significant development to this area.

Ceason Clemens, a deputy district engineer for TxDOT’s Dallas operations, briefed the City Council’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee last week about the so-called preferred alternative. Both Clemens and the Council spoke about removal of 345 as if it were an afterthought. The state is using future traffic counts to project increases of 40 percent to 50 percent in travel times along the 1.7-mile 345 corridor due to added congestion if the highway were removed. That seemed to be a compelling case for most on the City Council’s Transportation Committee, who voiced concern for southern Dallas residents who use the highway to get to jobs in the north.

“When you start to tell residents they’re going to get an average of 40 percent more time added to their commute, everybody is gonna sit there and go, ‘Ahhh! I don’t want that!’” said Councilman Omar Narvaez, the chair of the Transportation Committee. “They already hate an extra five minutes. I can’t imagine what a 40 percent delay would be.”

It would actually be about a five-minute delay.

Kennedy worked these numbers in a blog post on Monday. TxDOT estimates that removing the highway would generate another 19,000 hours of delays each weekday. The agency expects about 206,000 daily cars on the highway by 2045. That’s a little less than three minutes each way, for about a 5.5-minute total delay.

Kennedy writes that TxDOT presented these figures and then “asked the general public essentially, ‘See! Wouldn’t a freeway be swell?’ And the general public responded rationally with the extremely limited and distorted information they were given.” 

“We have to ask ourselves: is the analysis sufficient, rigorous, and holistic enough to account for all of the impacts that these design decisions will have on the city?” Kennedy asked me in a phone call. “Do decision makers have everything they need to properly evaluate this kind of investment that they are able to make serious choices for the city’s long-term future? I would say it’s clearly not.”

TxDOT’s removal alternative didn’t extend into the surface streets that surround downtown and Deep Ellum, which Kennedy argues would absorb some of the existing traffic. (The state’s removal plan used Canton and Young streets as a primary traffic funnel for vehicles that would be exiting from Interstate 45.)

Is this the best thing for Dallas? That depends. I asked Rick Cole, the executive director of The Congress for the New Urbanism, how he would think about this matter. He told me, “The question people need to be asking is, ‘What kind of city do we want?’”

Do you want to travel on 345 to get somewhere else? Or create jobs and housing and opportunities between downtown and Deep Ellum that may, over time, eliminate or reduce the necessity of those pass-through trips? A 5.5-minute daily slowdown is what you’d be facing. TxDOT even believes the city and region stand to gain billions of dollars in development and tax dollars if the highway is removed.

Cole has observed the recent trend of municipalities and state agencies using caps over highways to try to improve connectivity and create developable land. “You build more infrastructure, you’ll get more driving; build different kinds or less infrastructure, you’ll get less driving,” he said in our interview. “People will still get around, but they’ll move closer than they used to or they’ll make different consumer decisions or rely on different technologies.”

He notes that estimated traffic counts do not take into account changes in behavior or technology. “No traffic study anticipated Uber and Lyft or scooters or Waze or the price of gas skyrocketing,” Cole said. “All of those, along with deeper demographic changes, affect driver behavior.”

Downtown Dallas Inc. said part of the appeal of the hybrid option is how many workers drive in from outside the neighborhood. Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn, of Far North Dallas, was thrilled to see the highway stay. “This is a highway that many of my residents use daily for work,” she said.

All this goes back to Cole’s question: what kind of city do we want?

Is a 5.5-minute slowdown based on traffic projections 20 years from now such a problem that we should choose to avoid it at the expense of billions of dollars of development? Kennedy argues that TxDOT didn’t adequately study the potential for removal. He points to Syracuse, where the New York State Department of Transportation put three possibilities for Interstate 81 through the federally mandated Environmental Impact Statement process—basically going through the rigorous exercise of designing each of the options so the community could understand their impacts. The elevated I-81 will be removed, and traffic will be transferred through a “series of city streets,” according to the Syracuse Post-Standard.

Kennedy would like 345 to go through that same analysis for the hybrid and removal options. But state officials are gun-shy about projects that remove capacity. In San Antonio, TxDOT’s board of commissioners reneged on handing over Broadway Avenue to the city so that it could be transformed into a low-speed boulevard and surrounded by mixed-use development. Doing so would have removed it from the state highway system; those commissioners decided they wanted those 2.2 miles “for state highway purposes.”

That sends a message to district engineers: don’t mess with capacity.

The Dallas City Council will soon be asked to pass a resolution in support of TxDOT’s hybrid plan—the one that will deliver a fraction of the economic development and cost the city around $200 million. TxDOT needs to acquire formal letters of support from its partner agencies to apply for funding.

So if the city shares Kennedy’s concern, its leaders will need to get to work—building support for removal that was there even a year ago but has since vanished while TxDOT worked.

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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…