Don’t Mess With Texas Highways: Demolish a Downtown Dallas Highway to Spur Real Estate Investment? Part I of a Two-Part Series

I-345 MeetingDallas is a fascinating place to live right now. Downtown, urbanists are lobbying for the tear-down of a short but squirrely elevated highway they believe is choking urban living, creating a schism of disruption between neighborhoods and sucking up dirt that could be developed as housing units. Go north of the Park Cities to the junction of Preston Hollow and University Park, an entire neighborhood is battling MORE housing units: a proposed luxury, 220 unit apartment complex that would replace dilapidated, tired housing built in the 1950’s. “No” signs can be seen all the way north to Forest Lane, west to Midway Road. Homeowners with ranches valued from $300,000 to $3 million dollar plus estates are so worried about increased traffic, so protective of the peace of their neighborhood, they have hired a seasoned attorney to represent them before the Dallas Plan Commission. Even former mayor Laura Miller is piping in, demanding a new proxy City Councilman to replace the current proxy. East of Central Expressway, investors want to build a restaurant on park land at the northern end of White Rock Lake, just off Mockingbird Road. Though they are just “feeling out” the neighborhood before plowing ahead, most of the feedback has been pretty negative, especially in a neighborhood known for fiercely defending it’s urban lake. Two years ago this ‘hood battled a plan to mow a meadow called Winfrey Point and turn it into a commercial parking lot. Don’t mess with Lakewood.

But what about our highways? We define so much by them: “we are east of Central, south of Walnut Hill” or “we live north of LBJ”. Our highways are woven into our way of life in Dallas because we are on them so much. That’s the first thing you learn about Dallas when you move here. You can’t do much in Dallas without a car.

I have talked to many Realtors and homeowners who have no idea there is even a discussion about removing a mini Dallas highway, I-345. While I’ve followed the debate, I don’t know enough yet to write intelligently on it. All I know is that I spend a lot of time in San Francisco and the Bay area, where a highway was torn down, and the traffic is AWFUL. I was in Atlanta last summer and was glad to leave — traffic there may be even worse than San Francisco. Recall this January when winter storms crippled Atlanta, with hundreds of accidents and traffic so bad people abandoned cars? Atlanta’s traffic is the seventh worst among major metropolitan areas. Drivers there waste an average of 51 hours in traffic each year, burning 23 extra gallons of gas. That adds up to a cost of $1,120 per commuter annually. Why? Funding: according to The American Society of Civil Engineers, Georgie has the ninth largest interstate system in the country, but it ranks 49th in per capita transportation funding. It also has a poor public transportation system. Bad roads means lots of traffic and back-ups, like when you’re on I-35 and everyone has to merge into one lane for miles.

“Along many major metro Atlanta region corridors,” the reports says, “inadequate capacity and substandard interchanges have created congestion and safety issues.” Only a “small percentage” of the 1,300 traffic signals in Atlanta are synchronized. In Los Angeles, all 4,500 signals are synched up to keep vehicles flowing smoothly.”

Dallas roads are also in bad shape, and we have roughly 121,000 people moving to Dallas/Fort Worth/Arlington per year, congesting them. So does it make sense to tear a highway down rather than repair it? Ed Woodson, a Dallas attorney, and Aren Cambre, a computer scientist, are frequent commenters on local media voicing opposition to the the I-345 tear-down. What better people to ask to examine the issue, and give us their thoughts:

I-345, Public Enemy No. 1 for New Urbanists in Dallas

Patrick Kennedy wants to rip out downtown Dallas’s Interstate 345, and the D Magazine editorial board agrees with him. When we realized this, courtesy of D Magazine’s Front/Burner blog and its 17 posts on this in 2014, we thought “What is Interstate 345?” Upon answering that, our second thought was “That sounds like a bad idea.”

Nothing we’ve discovered since has changed our conclusion. What we have discovered, however, is that much of the evidence used by Mr. Kennedy, et al, is unhelpful and misleading, and Mr. Kennedy’s agenda is broader than we think.

What is I-345?

Interstate 345 is the elevated freeway on the east side of downtown between US 75 (North Central Expressway) to I-45. Really, it’s just a part of a continuous freeway from Galveston to the Oklahoma border.

There are no I-345 signs; this designation exists only on paper. It runs along Deep Ellum, the Arts District, and the Farmer’s Market. You use I-345 if you travel between US 75 and I-45 or between US 75 and I-30 east of downtown.

I-345 needs about $100 million in repairs, and the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) intends on starting soon.

Why do some want to tear down I-345?

The short answer, as we understand it, is some think downtown’s highway loop (Woodall Rogers, I-345, I-30, and I-35E) is a “noose”, preventing residential and commercial development in downtown’s immediate vicinity. Under the theory, removing I-345 opens downtown’s east to development and removes a barricase. This type of high-density, mixed-use development would help Dallas become a “world class” city and create new tax revenue.

Also, the theory holds that I-345 is primarly used for through-traffic. Therefore, I-345’s teardown will minimally affect traffic as through traffic will exit affected highways before downtown and re-route to other roads: surface streets, Northwest Highway, I-635, George Bush Tollway, Ledbetter, and others. To the extent traffic elects to flow through city streets between US 75 and the the southern highways (I-30 and I-45), that will simply further economic growth in the area to be developed (i.e., busy streets = more customers).

While we have tried to honestly represent Mr. Kennedy’s arguments, please refer to his own site at www.anewdallas.com for his arguments in his own words.

The longer answer, which we think is more enlightening to what is actually going on, is that Mr. Kennedy and his fellow new urbanists don’t approve of how North Texans live their lives, and they see the I-345 teardown as a means for forcing people closer to a utopian urban-ideal lifestyle. While Kennedy pays lip service to the concept that we can have our cake and eat it too (i.e., we can have a new urban downtown Dallas without material impacts on everyone else), that is wrong. We also doubt Mr. Kennedy believes this himself; for new urbanists, inflicting traffic misery on everyone else is a feature, not a bug.

Dissecting the short answer.

Looking at our version of the short answer, a few questions jump out. Will traffic impacts be minimal? Does Dallas need the teardown to be a “world class” city? Is there a “noose” around downtown preventing development? We’d answer those questions with, in order,  “no“, “that begs the question”, and “we don’t know”.

Traffic Impacts

The “A New Dallas” website cites five examples of freeway teardowns in the United States in support of the demolition of I-345, described below. The site claims that these demolitions occurred with minimal traffic impacts while triggering valuable development. Even if one assumes that the development benefits as described by Mr. Kennedy are accurate, none of the examples are remotely similar to the situation in Dallas.

The Embarcadero Freeway (San Francisco)

The figure below illustrates the status of the Embarcadero Freeway (highlighted in red) prior to the Loma Prieto earquake of 1989. The Embarcadero Freeway was intended as an extension of I-480 from the Bay Bridge to the Golden Gate Bridge (both highlighted in green). It was divisive from its inception and aborted mid-construction: the red dots represent the portion of the freeway that was never built.  Cars traveling on the freeway were diverted onto surface streets for about a mile, between the two segments of completed freeway.

At its peak, the Embarcadero only had a half of I-345’s daily vehicle count.

Mr. Kennedy is wrong to compare I-345 to an incomplete freeway with only a shadow of I-345’s traffic.

Perhaps of interest to local politicians, a public referendum to remove the Embarcadero Freeway was defeated prior to the earthquake, and after the Mayor championed its removal post-equathquake (without a referendum), he was promptly voted out of office.

I345pic1Bay Area

Central Freeway (San Francisco)

The map below indicates the location of the Central Freeway (circled in red) in San Francisco. In case it’s not clear from the map, the portion of CA 101 extending north from the Central Freeway spur is not a traditional highway and is, instead, a surface road. When originally planned, the Central Freeway, like the Embarcadero Freeway, would have extended north and connected with the Embarcadero.

It was also controversial from its inception, aborted mid-construction, and removed following significant earthquake damage. Prior to demolition, the spur was a highway to nowhere, and its removal simply meant that cars entered surface streets less than a mile farther south than prior to demolition. Yet again, Mr. Kennedy is attempting to argue that the destruction of an incomplete, dead-end freeway somehow relates to his I-345 removal fantasy.I345 image002.jpgBay area

Park East Freeway (Milwaukee)

We may have identified a trend. The map below shows the location of the Park East Freeway in Milwaukee. The part of the freeway that was demolished is in red. The part of the freeway in green however, was never built. For the third time, Mr. Kennedy is comparing the I-345 to an incomplete, “dangling” freeway that ended in surface streets.

I345 image003.jpg teardown

Harbor Drive (Portland)

Harbor Drive was actually completed prior to its demolition. Portland is not, however, a strong argument in favor of destroying highway “nooses” around downtown necks. The figure below is a map of Portland freeways. As the arrow points out, like downtown Dallas, downtown Portland is encircled by freeways

I345 image004.jpg Portland

The former position of Harbor Drive within Portland is illustrated below (highlighted in red).

I345 image005

Harbor Drive bisected the downtown Portland loop and occupied prime river-front real estate. Furthermore, Harbor Drive was removed only after traffic levels declined thanks to the opening of the Fremont Bridge. Therefore, the removal of Harbor Drive followed a change that reduced its need, and its removal did not impact the major flow of traffic in the city by breaking up a direct connector between two heavily-used freeways. Yet again, this freeway is not remotely similar to I-345.

West Side Highway (New York City)

Though cited by Mr. Kennedy as the West Side Highway, it might be more accurate to describe the demolished highway as the “West Side Elevated Highway” since a new “West Side Highway” replaced the earlier, elevated version. The elevated highway, which was old and too poorly-designed to handle commercial traffic, was closed in 1973 following a partial collapse. It was replaced by a modern, urban highway that was completed in 2001. We do not know what this case study is intended to illustrate, as even the comparative traffic flow figures (before and after demolition) seem to have no value given the 28 year period between the “before” and “after” statistics.

Interstate 345 (Dallas)

The function and use of I-345 in Dallas are dramatically different from the case studies cited by Mr. Kennedy. The map below shows the major highways within the I-635 loop in Dallas (we apologize profusely for the limitations of our MS Paint skills):

I345 image006.jpg Dallas metro

In central Dallas, five “Northern” freeways feed into the downtown loop:I-35E, US 75, Texas 114, Texas 183, and the Dallas North Tollway (the blue arrows). In addition, six “Southern” freeways feed into the downtown loop: I-30 from the east, I-30 from the west, I-45, US 67, US 77, and US 175 (the red arrows).

Those two groups of freeways are connected by the two sides of the downtown loop (highlighted in green), I-345 on the east and I-35E on the west. Those two routes are choke points between Dallas’s northern and southern freeways, and the overall capacity of the highway system is limited by the capacity of these choke points. The fact that they are serving a vital function is supported by the large volume of traffic which flows throgh them. If I-345 were removed, any traffic which didn’t “disappear” or reroute to the outer loops (Loop 12, I-635, Bush Turnpike) or to surface streets would be forced through the Mixmaster (the intersection of I-30 and I-35E and nearby freeway segments).

For anyone who drives in Dallas, that is terrifying. The Mixmaster is already highly congested, causing peak hour backups on all of the freeways leading to downtown. Shifting even a portion of the traffic from I-345 to the Mixmaster will make things far worse. Note that this will impact not only through traffic, but also commuter traffic into and out of downtown. Even worse, part of the Mixmaster is about to undergo a three year reconstruction ( “Horseshoe” project), during which conditions will further deteriorate. Common sense says that even if you wanted to tear down I-345, Dallas should stage its construction projects so that the teardown occured after completion of the Mixmaster upgrades.

This situation, and the 200,000 cars travelling on I-345 each day per TxDOT’s 2012 traffic counts (or 160,000 per Mr. Kennedy’s optimistic but inaccurate figure), is vastly dissimilar to that found in Mr. Kennedy’s case studies. Quantitatively, even the Embarcadero Freeway, the largest cited by Mr. Kennedy, only experienced 100,000 cars per day of traffic. The qualitative differences are even more stark, and make us seriously question how anyone could honestly attempt to rely on such case studies in the first place. Mr. Kennedy seems like a smart man. Based on that, we can only assume he realizes this and just doesn’t care.

Part II: What is a “World Class City” tomorrow.

 

12 Comment

  • So, exactly how is freeway traffic supposed to flow from South Dallas and it’s suburbs and North Dallas and it’s suburbs? That’s like having a river splitting the city in two without a bridge to cross it (the proverbial right side of the tracks and wrong side of the tracks). None shall pass.

  • It would be more feasible to tear down Woodall… but even that isn’t feasible.

  • thank you Candy for thoroughly picking this apart. I grew up in SF and remember the embarcadero well. I was just there visiting with my Wife and we enjoyed walking down market to the Ferry building uninterrupted. For the South of Market Urbanist its all good. But for everybody else trying to commute from the east bay to the golden gate bridge and beyond it must be hell.

    • mm

      I know! We were there in late January and driving from Redwood City, where my son lives, to Napa and we were in downtown San Fran for 1 hour going from 101 or 280 (I think it was, he usually drives so I cannot recall the highway) to the Golden Gate. I actually thought tearing down I-345 (not 30) might be good for downtown development AT FIRST but now I want to see more research WAY more research! About to post Part II.

  • When this issue first surfaced, I wondered “WHERE is 345??” When I realized the part of the freeway that they were speaking of, my reaction was “You’ve GOT to be kidding”. For anyone who lives east of Dallas and uses 30 to get to town, or especially, NORTH of town, this is a VITAL connection. If it were removed, the enormous amount of traffic that it carries daily would be added to the already highly congested “canyon”, and the only “diversion” would be directed right through old East Dallas to get from 30 to 75. As a resident of the Junius Hts/Lakewood area, I say “No, Thank You” to adding to our traffic load with a MILLION cars every 5 days. This would be horrendous. This idea seems to have sprung from the mind of someone who obviously does not utilize the east side highways, so it certainly would be no hardship for him. That freeway is not what inhibits growth in the area, but that kind of traffic certainly could.

  • It’s an absolutely bizarre idea that could only be floated by powerful land owners to see an increase in the value of their properties while screwing… well just about everybody. Chances are new development would get some sort of “wink, wink” tax break anyway, the small businesses there would have their asses handed to them.
    It’s crap….. but even more… just the idea itself is crap.
    If you drive from 30 to …. well just about anywhere you will notice one thing… the existing portion of the interstate (30 just south of downtown) is almost always bumper to bumper… that’s before removing a vital route that is used as an escape route so you can get to Woodall rogers from 30 then to 635. Then…. the Unicorn believers say, “well they can just use the side streets”….. to that I say… you mean the already clogged ones?

    The only people for this idea are money hungry developers and tree huggers. The average person gets stuck with the hassle and the bill.

  • Well, clearly we should just demolish ALL the freeways within Loop 12, to remove constraints to Dallas becoming a REALLY super-duper extra world class city. Maybe even ban private cars, and only allow public transport and bicycles, for even more “class”.
    Or, how about quitting these tiresome schemes to somehow twist and force Dallas into an idealized dream-version of some other city, and just let Dallas be Dallas?

  • One sentence says it all about Mr. Kennedy’s position: “We also doubt Mr. Kennedy believes this himself; for new urbanists, inflicting traffic misery on everyone else is a feature, not a bug.” Traffic is already clogged through this area & tearing down 345 would create a nightmare – think Austin traffic on steroids. This is a very well-written and well-researched article – keep up the good work, Candy!

  • Thank you so much for explaining what I’ve been struggling with putting into words. None of the examples from around the country that are constantly referenced relate to the situation in Dallas.

    While the areas around and underneath 345 are terrible, uninviting, and imposing to pedestrians, they exist this way because nobody has really thought about or designed the space below the roadway. If the space below is simply redesigned and re-imagined, the vehicle connector (above) and the pedestrian connector (below) can live in harmony with each other.