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A Highway Runs Through It

The twisted tale of Interstate 30 and Dallas’ plan to fix the damage it has done.
By |
Dallas Morning News
Jubilee Park is a neighborhood of about 5,500 people sandwiched between two of Dallas’ biggest mistakes. Fair Park lies to the south, where the State Fair has amassed about 70 acres outside the grounds that it uses for storage and parking. To the north, there’s Interstate 30, a massive moat of 1960s concrete that separates the neighborhood from East Dallas. The highway is visible between houses, down streets, past intersections. It runs through the front yard of the neighborhood association’s president. The average household income is nearly $15,000 here.

“I-30 has been a curse on this neighborhood for a long time,” says Ben Leal, CEO of the nonprofit Jubilee Park, which provides services like housing and mental health counseling. “This used to be considered Old East Dallas.”

The city and the state have finally begun to reckon with the damage I-30 inflicted on this part of town. A $1.3 billion project is in the works that will redesign the highway, maybe bringing it below grade, like Central Expressway, and building connecting bridges to restitch this portion of Dallas back into the one where jobs and grocery stores aren’t so scarce. In Jubilee, the nearest grocers are about two miles away—Fiesta, Kroger, and the Whole Foods in Lakewood—but you can buy .92 cent tacos and bologna sandwiches from a convenience store called Don’s at Parry and Carroll.

In 2017, however, project planning stalled. Most assumed the blame lay with the Texas Department of Transportation, which had submitted early looks at the project that showed what appeared to be a wider highway, with more exit ramps and more lanes of frontage roads from properties seized by eminent domain. The organization took a pummeling in the local press, including D Magazine, which declared on FrontBurner that the state had a plan to “destroy downtown Dallas.” But a little digging has turned up a different storyline.

In 2016, TxDOT published a groundbreaking analysis of Dallas roadways called CityMAP. It laid out strategies for ameliorating damage done by giant highways to urban neighborhoods like South and East Dallas, which were once stitched together on an efficient street grid. Congestion and age have long been the drivers of highway redevelopments. CityMAP instead looked at how highway projects could raise property values, create jobs, and spur economic development in neighborhoods like Jubilee. And there is a statistical argument that Interstate 30 does not need to be widened. Daily traffic counts dropped about 18 percent from 2002 to 2017. It’s carrying about 60,000 fewer cars each day from its peak of 220,000 in 2005. It is a fitting time to consider other ways to update the highway.

CityMAP was not a plan, but a vision. Some of what was laid out—like rerouting I-30, which would cost more than $2 billion—probably wouldn’t be financially or politically feasible. But some things could be. Like lowering the freeway east of downtown and placing decked bridges at strategic points that would be safe for people to walk or bike over, making the barrier disappear and connecting Fair Park—and Jubilee and Owenwood and Mill City—to the thriving East Dallas neighborhoods they were once part of.

CityMAP showed that TxDOT was willing to stop and think before it poured concrete. It was ushered through approval by former Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff and shepherded along by the state’s highest engineers, Kelly Selman locally and Bill Hale in Austin. When other large Texas cities saw it, they asked for their own. “People in Austin told me it was the most positive press the department had ever seen,” Vandergriff says.

The I-30 project was to be CityMAP’s first true test. “We drew a lot of scenarios that are nice on paper, but now we’re coming to engineering,” says Mo Bur, TxDOT’s top engineer for the Dallas district. “Now we have to make some decisions about where you want to put all these things.”

“I think we left it up to them,” says Majed Al-Ghafry, who oversees infrastructure for the city. “They think they left it up to us.”

Then, in 2017, the whole thing seemed to grind to a halt. There was a meeting in March between TxDOT, people from City Hall, the transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, and Vandergriff. Vandergriff remembers the state’s engineers telling the city that rerouting I-30 was a pipe dream. No way would it get funded. But there was a middle ground that could apply the suggestions in CityMAP for improved connectivity. It would require city money. To lower the highway from downtown past Munger Avenue could require expanding the drainage system, likely needing a water detention facility similar to what exists for Central Expressway. The city would have to pay for that. If Dallas wanted deck parks over the highway, it would have to agree to a commitment there, too. The state wasn’t going to design those elements into the plan if they weren’t sure the city would pay for them. TxDOT was looking for marching orders. The meeting ended. After that, Bur says, the communication stopped for more than a year.

“We never heard from the city,” he says.

Timing matters. The state doesn’t want to fund billion-dollar projects that aren’t shovel ready. This whole matter also came up during a transition at City Hall. City Manager T.C. Broadnax was hired in February 2017. Majed Al-Ghafry was hired in March to oversee infrastructure. Michael Rogers became the first transportation director in the city’s history, in 2018, well after that initial meeting. Voters approved a billion-dollar bond package. In all that, I-30 was forgotten and so was TxDOT.

“I think we left it up to them. They think they left it up to us,” Al-Ghafry says. “We never had that meeting to begin with, to really talk about the dynamic. Not to use this as an excuse, but sometimes you overlook certain things and sometimes it takes an event like this to wake you up and recalibrate you.”

That event transpired at City Hall last spring, where plans were presented for I-30 to the Mobility Solutions, Infrastructure, and Sustainability Committee. Without input from the city, TxDOT had kept working, guessing at the design elements Dallas would want. The state agency hoped that sending over preliminary concepts would prompt a conversation. These were options, a way for the city to understand what would have to occur in order for the state to implement their priorities. Instead, all hell broke lose.

The city, instead of calling TxDOT, began crafting a set of guiding principles. The highway would be no higher and no wider than it currently is. Its frontage roads would feature complete street elements, like trees and a median and bike lanes. It would be taken below grade where possible. And the project needed to be tied to studying the teardown of I-345, the elevated highway that is fed by I-30 and separates downtown from Deep Ellum, a project the state says is independent of any work on I-30.

In January, these principles were presented publicly during a City Council committee meeting. The city went a bit further, calling for I-30 to be narrowed where possible and for some frontage roads to be removed, restoring the original street grid. Dallas was widely praised in the press for taking a public stance in defense of its needs. “I am not sure to what extent people understand how radical what you’ve done here is,” Councilman Philip Kingston told transportation director Rogers.

Meanwhile, TxDOT just wanted its partner to answer the phone. “I’m still in shock about what happened that day,” TxDOT’s Bur said a week after the meeting. “I don’t understand how that happened Monday without ever having a conversation with us about what they like or don’t like.”

That’s what happened from 2017 to January of this year. A transformational project for Dallas stopped because of bureaucracy and confusion. While I-30 stalled, other projects progressed through their design phases, and the state prioritized their funding, such as I-35E north of I-635. There are more coming, including U.S. 380 in McKinney. But the dust-up finally prompted a meeting between all the partners in March. “We have recalibrated our commitment to each other,” Al-Ghafry says. “We didn’t have it.”

Councilman Lee Kleinman, chair of the city’s Mobility Committee, notes that TxDOT is just 10 percent into the design process on the I-30 project. The Southern Gateway Project, a $666 million redo of Interstate 35E south of downtown, got to the city about half-designed. There was still enough time to mandate that it not be any higher or wider and include a deck park and complete street elements along the frontage roads. There’s hope that the I-30 redesign can happen as the city envisions.

In the meantime, the neighborhoods bordering the highway are still isolated. Drivers still speed 50 mph down the narrow residential Ash Lane to get onto the highway. Two drug houses still sit across from each other, not far from a tiny homeless encampment in an empty lot. Leal, the community organizer, likes to note that despite the obstacles, income has risen 54 percent in some parts of Jubilee Park.

Just imagine what it would look like if I-30 weren’t such a blight. The city and the state, finally, appear ready to try.

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