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Dallas freeway becomes national target for highway teardown movement

After spending years as a target of Dallas activists, I-345 is now among a list of U.S. highways that a national group thinks should be torn down. But a lot may have to happen before city leaders decide the freeway's fate.

I-345 in Dallas, Texas on Jan. 28, 2017.

Like many urban stretches of Texas highways, an elevated Dallas bridge known as Interstate 345 carries hundreds of thousands of motorists to and from work every day while also serving as another link within the nation’s expansive web of freeways.

Still, a grassroots group of urban planners and civic leaders for years have called for tearing down the freeway on downtown’s east side. Their effort got a big boost last year when the Texas Department of Transportation released a study that showed removing the aging structure could spur the neighborhood's real estate and economy without creating the kind of traffic nightmare many fear. 

And on Monday, the push for doing away with the freeway connecting U.S. Highway 75 and Interstate 45 garnered national support.

Congress for the New Urbanism, a group that advocates for the creation of dense and walkable city neighborhoods, included Interstate 345 on its latest list of “Freeways Without Futures.” The report advocates for removing highways that isolate city neighborhoods, require costly maintenance and arguably suppress economic development potential on land surrounding the freeways.  

CNU’s list comes as cities in Texas and across the U.S. wrestle with how to maintain or replace aging highways built after World War II that were designed and constructed during an era of city planning that many say prioritized vehicular traffic to the economic and cultural detriment of urban neighborhoods.

Texas officials are also considering whether and how to relocate part of Interstate 45 in downtown Houston and lower a portion of Interstate 35 that runs through Austin.

“Do we sink another 50 years of our resources into concrete and asphalt?” said Lynn Richards, president and CEO of Congress for the New Urbanism. “Or do we invest in a beautiful, accessible, people-friendly alternative—and seize this opportunity to improve air and water quality, reconnect people to opportunity, reverse urban blight, and save millions in taxpayer dollars?”

The national group’s latest list of highway targets also comes as urban planners, transportation experts and construction firms await more details about how President Donald Trump’s administration plans to approach updating the country’s transportation systems. 

“Whether or not this administration ends up being a helpful partner, you're going to see cities and certain states really charge forward with this important work,” said Sam Warlick, a spokesman for CNU.

But whether Texas cities contemplating the futures of their urban highways ultimately remove, relocate or lower them remains to be seen. And in Dallas, I-345’s fate may not be determined until after city officials decide whether or not to build the Trinity Parkway, a tolled highway that has been the source of decades of debate. “Everything is on the table,” said Lee Kleinman, who chairs the Dallas City Council’s transportation committee.

A major link that lacks a household name

Even North Texans who rely on I-345 aren’t familiar with where or what it is. The elevated bridge that separates downtown from Deep Ellum doesn’t have any road signs or map markers noting its presence. Instead, the small highway is either labeled as U.S. Highway 75, which runs north to Oklahoma, or Interstate 45, which runs south to Galveston.

A few years ago, urban planners Patrick Kennedy and J. Brandon Hancock started an advocacy group called A New Dallas that push for the highway’s teardown. Among their arguments was that I-345’s presence interrupted the city street grid, segregated the central business district and Deep Ellum and stifled economic development by blocking denser land uses where the highway sits.

Unsurprisingly, their advocacy for a teardown prompted pushback from North Texas residents and government officials who argued that removing a major link in downtown’s chain of highways would snarl freeway traffic and overburden city streets.

TxDOT, though, shed light on a number of potential effects of removing, lowering or replacing I-345 last year when it released the initial draft of a study of downtown Dallas highways called CityMAP.

That report found that rebuilding I-345 as a trenched highway below street level or removing it altogether may not substantially worsen traffic in and around the urban core. In fact, the study concluded that depending on how other downtown highways are rebuilt, removing or lowering I-345 could slightly ease congestion compared to just reconfiguring some of the its entrance and exit ramps or not updating it at all.

At the same time, the study found that removing or lowering the highway could free up enough developable land to spur a population and job boom in the area. That, in turn, could increase city tax revenues by the millions and property values by the billions.

It was those conclusions that prompted CNU to put I-345 on its list Monday, three years after it identified A New Dallas’ once burgeoning push for removal as a “campaign to watch.” Since 2012, the North Texas urbanism group has spawned a political action committee.

“We're thrilled to have the support of a growing consensus across the country that advocates for removing I-345 and replacing it with boulevards and neighborhoods,” said Matt Tranchin, executive director of Coalition for a New Dallas, the original group’s PAC.

Throwing another controversy into the mix

TxDOT’s CityMAP did not make recommendations for what to do with I-345 or any of the other downtown corridors that were studied. Instead, the agency’s report encourages the Dallas City Council to determine how to move forward with updating the city’s aging urban highways. To help officials make those choices, CityMAP estimated ways in which different options would impact neighborhood connectivity, economic development and road congestion for a wide swath of Dallas.

“This document is the first of its kind to study the economic and quality-of-life impacts outside of the corridor boundaries,” CNU leaders wrote in the latest Freeways Without Futures report.

CityMAP did not extensively review different options for Trinity Parkway, a tolled highway Dallas plans to build alongside a riverside park. That road is a joint project between the city and the North Texas Tollway Authority, the region’s toll road agency.  

But after CityMAP’s initial release, Dallas Mayor Mike Rawlings asked TxDOT to go back and analyze Trinity Parkway so the city could determine how that potential new road could impact the other downtown corridors.

Texas Transportation Commission member Victor Vandergriff spearheaded CityMAP. He said he’s currently trying to figure out the best way to proceed with adding an analysis of Trinity Parkway as a supplement to CityMAP since the North Texas Tollway Authority not TxDOT – is currently expected to build the road.

Vandergriff said he does not want any study of Trinity Parkway to step on NTTA’s toes or to insinuate that TxDOT wants to take over the controversial project. But, he said, there is value in TxDOT reviewing its impacts on the adjacent highways for which the state agency is responsible.

“I’m the one that’s just been weighing things,” Vandergriff said.

Providing Dallas leaders with more data on Trinity Parkway could also help state and local officials determine how to reconstruct highways which may (or may not) see some traffic relief from the riverside toll road. 

“It’s important to get a better grip on the actual anticipated utilization of that facility so we can decide our path going forward on it,” said Kleinman, the city council member.

Coalition for a New Dallas, though, could turn city councilmembers' stances on both projects into election issues in the coming months. Tranchin said that many city leaders are either unfamiliar with urban planning best practices or lack the “political courage” to oppose car-centric infrastructure even if the projects could harm neighborhoods or economic development.

“We hope to change that this May,” he said.

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