Downtown Dallas is designed like a McDonald’s. It needs to be more like a sit-down restaurant. How do we make that happen? Tear down Interstate 345.
Our infrastructure supports evacuating Dallas as quickly and efficiently as possible. I-345 is a big part of that evacuation plan. Opened in 1974, the 1.4-mile elevated highway connects Central Expressway to interstates 45 and 30. To do so, it cuts right through what once was, and could be again, a vibrant part of Dallas. It divides downtown and Deep Ellum and creates blight on both sides. The area underneath and around I-345 is a tangled, depressed mess. Joel Allison, CEO of Baylor Health Care System, has said the Baylor hospital near Deep Ellum gets calls from ambulances that don’t know how to get there.
Dallas’ system of freeways has been in service of pushing the population farther away from downtown and into the suburbs. Removing I-345 and replacing it with a well-designed urban parkway (an idea that is the brainchild of urban planner Patrick Kennedy) is a way to counteract that, to reverse that shift and fall in line with a trend that is already happening. Downtown had a few hundred residents 20 years ago. Now it has more than 8,000—a number limited mostly by housing supply. The occupancy rate is 94 percent. There is pent-up demand.
With so many people wanting to move to a true urban neighborhood like Uptown—narrow and dense, perfectly walkable—why has there been so little growth? Because there is an unsightly, unnecessary highway sitting right where a true urban neighborhood could be. Blowing up I-345 would free up 245 acres for development that could bring in another 27,540 downtown residents and, based on developable-square-footage estimates, more than 22,550 jobs. (It breaks down to more than 5,000 in retail, more than 16,000 office jobs, and almost 1,000 in the hotel and hospitality industry.) And those estimates are conservative. It would restitch the grid, reconnect Deep Ellum and East Dallas to downtown, and allow the active development happening farther up Central Expressway to move south.
What happens then? Within 15 years, as much as $4 billion in new investment and more than $100 million in yearly property tax revenue. To put that in perspective, there has been only $19 million in improvements to those 245 acres, and property tax revenue today is a measly $3 million per year.
How much would it cost to make this happen? It wouldn’t be cheap. The Texas Department of Transportation has thrown out the estimate of $1.9 billion. But the I-635 reconstruction project, which was 10 times larger, cost only 38 percent more. So $1.9 billion doesn’t make sense.
A more realistic estimate: $50 million to demolish I-345 and $250 million to replace it with a parkway and redo the utilities for development. The city could easily pay for it—without TxDOT—by using an idea from the real estate community: create a tax increment reinvestment zone (TIRZ) and sell 30-year bonds.
The resulting new investment in the area would more than make up for the initial cost and pay off the bonds ahead of schedule.
Where Does All the Traffic Go?
Somewhere around 180,000 cars per day use I-345. So, the first question, obviously: what happens to all those cars?
There is convincing evidence that many of them will simply go away. When the West Side Highway in New York collapsed in 1973, 53 percent of vehicular traffic completely disappeared. San Francisco, Portland, Milwaukee, Seoul—they all experienced the same phenomenon when they replaced an urban freeway with a lower-speed arterial road.
And the same thing will happen in Dallas.
Regional traffic—that is, drivers who don’t originate from the city’s downtown core or aren’t headed there—shouldn’t be there anyway. Those cars and trucks are just passing through, and they aren’t bringing development or contributing to the local economy in any way. For them, I-345 is a bypass, and there are other roads they can use for that purpose—Loop 12, Interstate 635, Highway 190.
With the regional traffic diverted to the loops, there is more freedom for local traffic and less need for a highway. A properly designed urban parkway can handle the rest of the cars, and at comparable speeds. You could still get from South Dallas to a job up north, and it would take about the same amount of time.
As far as the rest of the local traffic—short commutes, grocery shopping, and so on—the surface streets that run through East Dallas to downtown have the capacity to carry 252,000 more cars than they currently do. Say you normally use I-345 to get to Fair Park from Central Expressway. You could exit at Haskell Avenue and take it directly there, at the expense of maybe five minutes. You could do this today.
But drivers use highways because they’re there, not because they need to. When the West Side Highway collapsed, people adapted. They found alternate routes. They used public transit. They moved closer to work or found jobs closer to home. People in Dallas will do the same. They’ll use DART. They’ll carpool. They’ll move to a new place amid those 245 acres and walk to work a few blocks away. People adapt.
Tear it down.