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Highway from HELL

For more than 40 years, Central Expressway has driven commuters crazy. Will the current construction cure the congestion crisis?
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REPONSIBLE FOR MORE BAD MEMORIES THAN THE SCHOOL Book Depository, North Central Expressway has been the thorn in Dallas’ side for decades. Legendary traffic jams, frequent rear-endings, and countless near death experiences have made the highway the city’s leading cause of headaches. So in 1990, after years of debate, Dallas broke ground on a major reconstruction plan to widen the 10-mile stretch of US 75 from LBJ to downtown. The project is more than half complete now, but smooth sailing on Central is still a distant dream.

The open-Heart surgery on this clogged artery will continue for at least the rest of this century, leaving the torn-up highway resembling a war zone. And traffic will be as it always hat been-terribly frustrating, sometimes frightening. “The driver who daily does battle with Central, pitting his wits against his wiles, is bound to grow in courage. The motorist emerging from Central during peak traffic hours, his hide and $50 deductible intact, feels a rare sense of elation.” Dallas Times Herald columnist Dennis Hoover wrote these words in 1955, and the description holds true today.

You see, driving North Central is like running a gantlet. Simply entering the freeway can be a harrowing task. The ramps are ridiculously short, and visibility is limited. The new Central promises to end this merger melee with longer ramps, like the ones north of Walnut Hill, which were completed in 1994. Bur the last ramp won’t be redone until 1999, so many will still have to take what amounts to a leap of faith to get onto Central during those few hours each day that traffic does not flow like molasses- If you can avoid rear-ending the more timid driver braking at the front of the ramp while you look over your left shoulder, what you squeeze into is a concrete flume. Traveling in each direction are two shoulderless, narrow lanes, marked by faded grayish-white lines and girdled by miles of unforgiving cement dividing walls proudly displaying the intimidating scars and scratches of previous victims.

Bumper-to-bumper traffic is standard on Central, even between rush hours, thanks to construction that often reduces the road to one lane. Tiring first-gear commutes have become a way of life since the overhaul began in 1990, and so it will be at least until 2000. Many will have spent this decade taking friendlier alternate routes such as Greenville Avenue, Hillcrest Road, or the Tollway.

Opened in 1949, Central Expressway was .supposed to be the solution to the traffic woes of a growing Dallas. (Oh, hitter irony-) The dedication ceremony’s program touted the “easy-curving exits and entrances thatallow drivers to easily merge with a smooth-flowing stream of freeway traffic.” Life magazine heralded it as the highway of the future, the multimi’lion dollar pride of Dallasites that “will speed motorists out of the city’s heart at 50 mph and get them home at night in a far more relaxed frame of mind.” And a Dallas Morning News editorial asserted, “As of this hour, Dallas can claim the finest expressway in the world.”

But Central’s moment of glory faded almost immediately as it became obvious that the thoroughfare could not live up to these high expectations. City7 Hall bickered constantly about how to improve the highway, but the quick fixes the civil engineers contrived had little effect. They tried computer-controlled access ramps that signaled when it was safe to merge and digital signs that warned drivers of upcoming delays. They even tried, in 1955, mounting loudspeakers on police cars, allowing patrols to tell drivers to speed up or stop changing lanes. A proposal to double-deck Central seemed to offer a real solution finally, but the City Council reneged on that idea in 1982, succumbing to pressures from nearby residents, The more things change…

By the late 1970s, Central had become an albatross dangling from Dallas’ neck, choking the downtown business district. Throughout the 1980s, new companies settled in northern suburbs, saving workers from the stressful grind of a Central commute. So it ultimately became necessary to face the beast, no matter how painful such an undertaking would be. Originally, the redo was scheduled for completion by 1997. Now project managers say the reconstruction won’t be finished until 2000, meaning another five years of driving alongside heavy excavation equipment and dodging orange barricades. When all is done, Dallas and the Texas Department of Transportation will have spent about $630 million, a figure which includes $4 million to move a cemetery. The new Central will feature four lanes in each direction, with elevated access roads, longer on-ramps, and new, aesthetically pleasing bridges draped with ivy. And DART, by the end of 1996, will open a $841 million light rail system that runs alongside and underneath the highway. The new Central, say the engineers, will take Dallas into the 21st century.

But until the 21st century, we will have to endure more of those legendary traffic jams, frequent rear-endings, and countless headaches that have plagued the road ever since it opened in 1949, which, by the way, was the last time anyone had anything good to say about Central Expressway.

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