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Council Questions the Future of I-345, But Its Destiny May Already Be Decided

The Dallas City Council got its first opportunity to ask questions about the state’s preference to trench the elevated freeway. But the state’s transportation agency hasn’t been willing to pay for anything that reduces traffic capacity.
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I-345 under construction. AIA Dallas

The Texas Department of Transportation on Wednesday presented its plan for dealing with Interstate 345 to the full Dallas City Council. The briefing was an important step for the transportation agency, which will soon ask for a resolution in support of its preferred option from Council to better position the project when it comes time to compete against other Texas regions for state highway dollars.  

But there were questions from the Council about the future of the 1.4-mile elevated highway that separates downtown from Deep Ellum and connects Interstates 45 and 30 to Central Expressway and Woodall Rodgers. Yesterday was the first time the full Council has publicly asked TxDOT’s engineers why the agency prefers its “hybrid alternative” (which means lowering the highway into a trench) over the four other options it was considering, which included replacing the freeway with a boulevard and reconfiguring the surrounding street grid. The city’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee was briefed in June, but discussion was nearly absent. Wednesday’s briefing ran almost two hours.

Ceason Clemens, the North Texas region’s top TxDOT engineer, said it’s simple: increased congestion in the future predicted by computer models ruled out the boulevard as an option. More than 180,000 vehicles use the highway each day, she said, many of which come from southern Dallas to jobs in the north. Michael Morris, the transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, presented another argument against the boulevard: removing the highway, he said, likely violates federal law.

“I’m not convinced the boulevard option can be built in the real world,” he said. He cited Title VI of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which “prohibits discrimination on the basis of race, color, or national origin in any program or activity that receives federal funds or other federal financial assistance.”

It’s quite the argument. City, state, and federal government ignored southern Dallas for decades or actively harmed portions of it through redlining. Public policies and investments allowed jobs and resources to concentrate in the north, forcing those residents to travel longer distances for work. Federal money paid for highways that fueled sprawl and regional growth. I-345 itself decimated what was once a thriving majority Black center of commerce. Many neighborhoods south of Interstate 30 still do not have adequate public transit, and, according to recent research from SMU, those same neighborhoods have the largest concentration of infrastructure deserts in the city. Morris, who offered nothing concrete from legal experts to support his argument, is now using the Civil Rights Act to avoid even paying for a study of the highway’s removal when public resources fueled the divide in the first place.

“As you explore which options can proceed, I would make sure you explore your legal ability to build every option,” Morris told the Council. “We contend severing of the freeway facility cannot be constructed under federal rule.”

Again, he didn’t cite any work of civil rights lawyers working for the NCTCOG; he simply used the royal “we” when presenting his contention.

Council directed the city attorney to research Morris’ claim and then proceeded down other paths with their own questions, many of which were first posed by TxDOT itself. In 2016, TxDOT analyzed how it should consider the highways that crisscross Dallas as they age and need repairs. That report, called CityMAP, identified goals for future freeway rehabs. The new designs should improve mobility, connectivity, sustainability, and economic development, which Clemens, the TxDOT engineer, said guided the process of choosing the plan to trench the thoroughfare as its preferred design for I-345.

This rendering shows what a boulevard-ed replacement of I-345 could look like, courtesy CityMAP.

But after yesterday’s meeting, it’s now clear that traffic models remain the most important metric guiding the state’s direction. The predicted congestion outweighed the other priorities outlined by CityMAP. So TxDOT will spend its dollars only on executing its preferred plan, lowering the highway into a trench and connecting the existing street grid over it.

“We are not recommending the boulevard, so we would not be funding that,” Clemens said.

The hybrid trench plan sends existing roads flying over 345, similar to the way that many east-west roads cross over Central Expressway. It envisions development opportunities on 8.7 acres of surplus land created when I-345 ramps are removed and another 9 acres of potential development on decks built above the freeway. (The state will not pay for those decks and their cost is another question left up in the air. The roads over the highway will be designed to the city’s Complete Streets standards, including wide sidewalks and bike lanes, Clemens said.)

Councilwoman Gay Donnell Willis, who represents Preston Hollow, presided over the most interesting volley during the discussion. TxDOT used cellphone and Bluetooth data from 2018 to determine where drivers who used I-345 were coming from and going to. About a quarter of all the drivers started their trips below Interstate 30, destined for points north, which Morris cited.

Willis asked what happens if the city’s economic development priorities in southern Dallas attract jobs and housing that eliminate the need to travel so far north. All the parties agreed that this is a “100-year project.”

“Is this modeled after our land use of today or our land use tomorrow?” Willis asked. “What if that changes tremendously … where you have great opportunities for jobs, shopping, et cetera in the southern sector? How do we model that?”

We are not recommending the boulevard, so we would not be funding that.

Ceason Clemens, TxDOT District Engineer

Imagining a disappeared highway is a difficult ask when it’s something you use every day to get to work. TxDOT cited support from the neighborhood group Southeast Dallas NOW, and southern Dallas politicians like state Sen. Royce West have vehemently opposed removal. On the opposite side of the city, Councilwoman Cara Mendelsohn of Far North Dallas won’t support removal because, she said, her constituents use the highway to get downtown.

But Council was poking around the edges of a far bigger question: how should we plan for the future?

TxDOT’s 2018 research found that a boulevard would increase trip time by between 30 percent and 50 percent, depending on trip origination and destination. The amount of time will vary based on where you’re coming from and going. (CityMAP, which TxDOT said analyzed regional transportation times, found a negligible difference. Morris shrugged it off as “200,000 feet off the ground” whereas the more recent traffic figures were “2 inches off the ground.”)

But traffic models don’t account for changes in behavior or technology. Years ago, we couldn’t predict the prevalence of ride share or other new multimodal options. We couldn’t anticipate every car having onboard access to computers that spit out the most efficient way to reach your destination.

Willis asked about how TxDOT’s preference fit with the city’s climate, mobility, and housing plans. “All those aspects are going to have a big impact on the choice we make and what we decide to do,” Willis said. “We need to think about what our plan is for that, and I’m not sure exactly what that is.”

TxDOT’s boulevard plan frees up 25 acres of developable land, Clemens said. (Supporters of that option have suggested that tearing out the highway would free up hundreds of acres, which Clemens said “is not the case.”) Multiple council members noted that the hybrid trench plan only guarantees 8.7 acres—the decks and their infrastructure would have to be paid for from other sources.

Morris noted that there was already private sector interest in putting a building on a forthcoming deck over Interstate 30. “We hope to do more of that as we go over 345,” he said. Clemens said she was confident the engineers could figure out how to build the decks to support such vertical growth.

Councilman Paul Ridley, who represents downtown and East Dallas, seemed uneasy betting on that development potential.

“We need additional input from other city departments and other constituencies in terms of planning, economic development, walkability, pedestrian environments, and neighborhood connection and revitalization before we make an important 100 year-long decision based primarily on transportation statistics,” Ridley said. “This is much more than a transportation solution, this is a major investment in the future of our city.”

What came out of Wednesday’s meeting were a bunch of unanswered questions around the project and its potential for affordable housing and other developments. Assistant City Manager Majed Al Ghafry told Council that it would take six to nine months to conduct an economic development study, which would explore how TxDOT’s preferred option works with the city’s existing goals. City attorneys were asked to dig into Morris’ Title VI claim.

“This is much more than a transportation solution, this is a major investment in the future of our city.”

Councilman Paul Ridley

And hanging over the briefing is the reality that the city doesn’t have much power about what actually replaces the highway. The Texas Transportation Commission dictates which transportation projects get funded in this state and which don’t. That commission is appointed by the governor. And they’ve made clear that highway capacity is paramount. San Antonio attempted to turn a state highway into a boulevard. The transportation commission reneged on its agreement to cede control of that highway even after voters approved the city’s plans, arguing that it would reduce traffic capacity.

But Council can refuse to issue a resolution of support, and the commission doesn’t like to fund projects that don’t have the backing of local governments. (“The best way to seek funding is if we’ve got a project that we’ve got city support from,” Clemens said.) Willis and councilmen Ridley and Chad West all voiced concern that other options had not been adequately studied. Other council members, like Deep Ellum’s Jesse Moreno, wanted to know more about how the hybrid trench plan fit into the goals the City Council has already voted for.

Councilman Omar Narvaez, who chairs the city’s Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he felt anything but the trenching plan was “unfeasible at this point” and Councilwoman Paula Blackmon also conceded that the trench was the most likely possibility. After all, Dallas Area Rapid Transit’s downtown “D2” subway is designed to be next to a depressed highway, not a boulevard.

Clemens says TxDOT recently spent $30 million rehabilitating the freeway, which extends its life by 25 years. If Council can’t agree on what it wants, it will likely remain as it is—and TxDOT will continue its routine maintenance and nothing more.

While a bloc on council certainly has questions about how the plan fits into what the city hopes to accomplish in the future, others view the trench as a compromise: a way to provide more connection between the neighborhoods and some new development that will likely gain approval from the state entity that will eventually pay for it.

Staff will now take the feedback and report back; there is no set date for when the Council will consider the resolution.


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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