Saturday, April 12, 2014

I-345 poised for fast-tracked study

The future of Interstate 345 and a short-term study on the effects of tearing it down appear headed for Dallas City Hall.
But the fate of the elevated downtown highway connecting U.S. Highway 75 and I-45 could also now be tied to the future of the controversial planned toll road along the Trinity River.
State transportation officials said Thursday that they plan to work with the City Council’s Transportation and Trinity River Project Committee to study the feasibility of demolishing I-345. The study would probably be finished far quicker than a decade-long, full-scale environmental impact analysis, Texas Department of Transportation spokesman Tony Hartzel said.
TxDOT said it will work with the council transportation committee to set the scope of the feasibility study. That includes deciding whether to look at potential economic development benefits and likely traffic complications.
But the chair of that council committee voiced staunch opposition Thursday to demolishing I-345 if the Trinity Parkway isn’t built.
“There has be something to replace it, and it is not surface streets,” said Vonciel Jones Hill.
The Trinity project’s fate hinges on receiving federal clearance — and the city finding the $1.4 billion needed to build it.
The North Texas Tollway Authority could finance the project, but it’s too soon to tell whether that will happen.
“We’re just not there,” said NTTA spokesman Michael Rey.
Hill’s comments came during a meeting of the Regional Transportation Council discussion about I-345. The RTC sets regional transportation policies and funnels several sources of government funding to area projects.
Its 43 members, including Hill, are appointed by area cities, counties and transportation agencies.
Group optimistic
TxDOT and Dallas City Hall teaming up on an I-345 demolition study could be a milestone in a grass-roots group’s push to rid downtown and Deep Ellum of the aging highway that separates them. J. Brandon Hancock, who co-founded A New Dallas, said he’s cautiously optimistic about Thursday’s developments.
Hancock is glad TxDOT is doing a faster study than originally planned, but said the scope and parties involved will determine the breadth of its findings.
The group and national urban planning experts say replacing the highway with a surface-level thoroughfare could ignite a real estate boom in and around downtown. Hancock wants the potential economic and quality-of-life benefits to be part of the study.
“If it’s just traffic planners only, I can tell you what the results are going to be,” he said.
Hartzel said that whether those parameters become part of the study depends on what final scope Dallas leaders and TxDOT officials set.
“That discussion hasn’t happened yet,” he said.
200,000 trips a day
I-345 isn’t well-known by its name. Maps and road signs mark it as either U.S. 75 or I-45. I-345 is actually the raised connector between those two north-south highways. It forms the eastern border of downtown Dallas. More than 200,000 trips are made on it each weekday.
There has been much debate around who uses the highway — and where they’re trying to go. The North Central Texas Council of Governments, the umbrella group that covers the RTC, estimates that almost two-thirds of I-345 trips are made by people who are coming from or driving to somewhere within Dallas.
Hill said she opposes tearing down I-345 without the Trinity Parkway replacing a connection to I-35E because her constituents in South Dallas use it to get to jobs north of downtown.
“There is not anything else out there to replace how my folk get from south to north and downtown,” she said.
The Trinity toll road is envisioned as 9 miles inside the east levee of the Trinity River. It would connect I-45 southeast of downtown to I-35E and State Highway 183 northwest of downtown.
‘A little flimsy’
Hancock said TxDOT needs better data on how people use I-345. He said the Council of Governments’ origin and destination data doesn’t show where people come from, how they move through the downtown network of highways and where they end up.
“That’s a little flimsy,” he said.
RTC and Dallas council member Sandy Greyson said Thursday that TxDOT’s feasibility study should be conducted before determining whether the Trinity Parkway is needed to handle displaced I-345 traffic. She told NCTCOG transportation director Michael Morris he was premature to reach the conclusion that the Trinity Parkway must first be in place before rethinking I-345 in an opinion piece Morris co-authored in The Dallas Morning News this week.
Hancock echoed Greyson’s statements in an interview later Thursday.
Morris said he can’t imagine discussing an I-345 teardown without also looking at the heightened need for the Trinity toll road. He told RTC members that if they support demolishing I-345, they need to register their position on Trinity Parkway.
Official apologizes
Morris on Thursday also apologized to demolition supporters for saying last week that they were mostly wealthy and white people who don’t rely on I-345. He made those comments during a conversation in which he said debate about the highway needs to include more voices — particularly from working-class residents and minorities who rely on the highway as a way to get to their jobs.
Morris on Thursday called demolition supporters leaders who are trying to make Dallas a successful city. He said his initial remarks made the focus of the debate about those involved and not the matters at hand.
“That was a mistake on my part,” he said.
Follow Brandon Formby on Twitter at @brandonformby.