Five City Council members are requesting their colleagues to direct the city manager to commission an independent study into the impact of removing Interstate 345.
The five-signature memo was signed by Councilman Chad West, of North Oak Cliff, with support from council members Paul Ridley, who represents downtown and East Dallas; Jesse Moreno, of Deep Ellum, the Cedars, and the Medical District; Gay Donnell Willis, of Preston Hollow; and Paula Blackmon, of East Dallas near White Rock Lake. (A five-signature memo directs the mayor to add an item to the Council’s agenda for a vote.)
The Texas Department of Transportation’s preference is to trench the 1.4-mile highway between downtown and Deep Ellum, reconnecting existing streets with bridges that fly over the thoroughfare. TxDOT is seeking a resolution in support from the City Council, a key decision that will allow the state to pursue funding.
A vote on the resolution was scheduled for February but was abruptly scrapped by Councilman and Transportation Committee Chair Omar Narvaez. He said he did so to “allow some of my colleagues to have questions answered.”
West said an independent study is the only way for the city to go beyond simply moving cars and answer important questions about the possibility for additional housing, economic development, and other land uses where the freeway currently exists.
“City staff is in lockstep with TxDOT and the [Regional Transportation Council] on moving full-steam ahead with TxDOT’s recommendation,” West said. “The only way for us to have a voice at this point to call for additional studies is to do the five-signature memo.”
The request would require the independent study to be presented before the City Council votes on a resolution in support of the trenching alternative. West said he did not feel the body had sufficient information as to how plans for the highway would “work within the city’s adopted policies,” including the Strategic Mobility Plan, the climate plan, the bike plan, the economic development policy, and the Vision Zero safety plan, which aims to eliminate traffic deaths by 2030.
“Engineers should be at the table, but we should also have economic development experts, urban planners, housing experts, and anyone else who would add to the discussion about a significant amount of land use that goes along with the alternatives that could impact us for the next hundred years as a city,” West said.
The state has said removing the highway and replacing it with a boulevard is a non-starter because its traffic data indicate increases in congestion. Proponents for the boulevard option point to other cities—San Francisco, Boston, Milwaukee, Montreal, among others—where highway traffic dispersed to other existing streets after roads were removed. West said he’d like to see another opinion on the impact to traffic, as well as housing and economic development on the land where the highway currently exists.
Other studies have come to conclusions that disagree with TxDOT’s assessment. The most extensive was performed by the Toole Design Group, the urban design firm that informed Detroit’s plan to remove its I-375. The Toole study in Dallas argued that it would be possible to reconstitute the street grid in a way that would not impact overall mobility.
West and his colleagues would like to explore these options more thoroughly before voting on a resolution in support of the state’s preference.
As for economic development potential, the state’s boulevard option would free up about 25 acres of land, whereas the trenching plan creates about 8.7 acres of surplus land and another 9 acres of developable land on decks atop the freeway. (The state won’t pay for those decks, and total cost is unclear.)
“I don’t believe in rubber-stamping TxDOT’s plan,” Ridley said.
But not everyone on the memo is sold on the boulevard option. Willis says she hasn’t made up her mind. “We need an objective, third-party assessment of the options before making a decision on its future,” she said. Blackmon wanted a “cost-benefit analysis” to better understand the city’s future financial responsibility, particularly around the decking.
The resolution is the one lever the City Council has regarding the future of the highway. The Texas Transportation Commission, which allocates public funding for freeway projects, likes to see resolutions in support from local governments before awarding money.
To launch a new study, the five council members who have signed the memo would need support from at least three others to form a majority. But some on the Council are adamant that the highway stays put in some form. Narvaez, the chair of the Transportation and Infrastructure Committee, said he would support an independent study only after the Council approves a resolution in support of TxDOT’s preference.
“It is premature to conduct an economic study and would waste taxpayer dollars, especially if the Council rejects the proposed option from TxDOT,” he said. “It’s time to vote the option up or down and quit stalling the people’s business.”
Councilman Adam Bazaldua, who represents neighboring South Dallas/Fair Park, called the independent study “dumb and a waste of time.”
“I would love for there to be more consideration to the council members who are representing the areas most impacted, not the largest development opportunity,” he said. “I’ve been clear on record that my constituents, along with other districts who are dependent on this thoroughfare to get to the majority of the jobs in our city, are not favorable.”
Michael Morris, the transportation director for the North Central Texas Council of Governments, told the Council last year that he believed removal would violate 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.” He maintains that removal would disproportionately affect Black and Latino residents in southern Dallas who use the highway to get to jobs. But Morris is not a lawyer, and it’s not clear whether the City Attorney’s Office has weighed in on that claim.
Councilman Jaime Resendez, of Pleasant Grove, cited Morris’ belief when asked about how he would vote. “If that hurdle can’t be overcome we’d be wasting time and resources with an independent study.”
Other members, such as Far North Dallas’ Cara Mendelsohn, say they won’t support studying removal because their constituents use the highway.
That’s the difficulty in this debate. It’s about the city’s future, a generational chance to trade eight elevated lanes of highway for an eventual new neighborhood. The members who added their names to the memo have expressed more interest in analyzing the opportunities removal could present; after all, traffic data cannot account for changes in technology and behavior, both of which inform how frequently people drive. As Councilwoman Willis asked last year, what happens if the city’s economic development plan creates jobs in southern Dallas so residents there no longer have to drive as far to get to work?
“We have a lot of plans for southern Dallas, so this decision needs to model the housing, retail, and office development we hope to achieve and how residents will need to move about the city in the future,” Willis said Monday night.
Exploring that information is at the core of this ask; the question is whether these five representatives can convince three of their colleagues when it comes time to vote. The mayor has 30 days to place the item on a committee agenda. The committee then gives its recommendation and submits the matter to the full Council.