The City of El Paso doesn't have a loop. Dallas has one. Austin has one. San Antonio has one. We have got to get us one of those. We are the only major Texas city without one. Shameful. Really shameful.
Although I have yet to have one constituent come knocking on my door demanding that we get us a loop right away, transportation planners, engineers and politicians are pretty sure that is exactly what we want, despite the costs and despite the consequences. Complete the loop has been the mantra of the transportation planners for the last decade.
Just what is a loop, you might ask. It is a freeway that rings your city, allowing you to travel at high speeds around your city in a circle without ever having to stop once. Which is exactly what I did once in Atlanta. Just went round and round the city unable to distinguish one towering office park strung together with chain restaurants and big boxes from the next and therefore unable to figure out just where to get off.
So what exactly do the fortunate cities with the loops get? Urban legend has it that these loops make you more competitive but if you take a look at Austin, Dallas, San Antonio you will see that loops induce more suburban sprawl, more traffic congestion, more development that is built for the car only at the expense of other modes of transportation, more air pollution and more fatal traffic accidents. Oooh, I can't wait to get us some of that.
You might have thought that Transmountain Road was only a scenic corridor, but it is in fact the skeleton of a freeway loop in the making. Thirty years ago, we hatched the plan. Got to get us a loop. Despite mounting evidence that freeways come with consequences, we have stayed on task without questioning some of the fundamental assumptions that build freeways.
I've been a part of that. In 2008, the City Council approved the Comprehensive Mobility Plan, a billion plan that completes the loop, or so they said. But as I recently learned, it turns out a billion dollars completes the loop, sort of, but not quite. When we approved the Mobility Plan, there was $17 million planned to add another lane to the westside of Transmountain from I10 to the Franklin State Park, an investment of about $5 million a mile. Makes sense. If you are heading west down the mountain on Transmountain, it all of sudden converts from two lanes to one lane. That one lane can't handle all the traffic we have on it now at rush hour. Turns out that adding the additional lanes was only the interim plan, the we're-only-half-way-there-with-a-billion-dollars plan. The real plan was to convert this 3.89 mile section into a full fledged freeway: two travel lanes in each direction with enough right-of-way to add another lane in each direction, four overpasses climbing up the side of the mountain to leap over current and planned aerterials, two frontage lanes on each side and a hike/bike lane on each side. The current road takes up about 42 feet. The planned freeway will consume 387 feet of right of way, almost 9 times the width of the current road. Approximately 187 acres of land running upside the mountain will have to be scraped and graded and turned to accomododate the new freeway. So much for scenic corridors.
Last year, El Paso was awarded $85 million to build the road that the traffic engineers had been dreaming about all along. On August 10 of this year, TXDOT and the property owners came to the City and asked us to change some of the zoning conditions on the property. If we change the zoning conditions, then the property owners will give TXDOT the right of way that it needs to finish the freeway in this section.
We went from a $5 million-a-mile project to a $28 million-a-mile project. All the extra money goes into frontage roads and making sure you don't have to stop your car, building grade seperated overpasses where there would normally be traffic lights. I asked Chuck Berry, the TXDOT chief engineer for this region, what that would mean for a driver. He estimated that going from the $17 million project to the $85 million project will mean a time savings of about 2 minutes for people traveling in their car. Wow. That sure is a lot of bucks spent and a lot of mountain consumed to save people 2 minutes.
But the trick of it is that the City Council and the public doesn't really have much in the way of options. TXDOT has let us know that we either approve the zoning conditions and wholeheartedly support the freeway design as proposed or we kiss $85 million good bye. No chance to weigh in with other options for accomodating growing traffic in the area. There are other ways and other road types that we can build to accomodate growing traffic but TXDOT tells us we don't have the time to consider these other options.
I say we call it a bluff and ask for real options, options that will help us build the city that we want, not the one that traffic engineers dreamed up stooped over a computer screen with the single goal of trying to move as many cars as possible in as little time as possible. I think we ask for an option that consumes less of the mountain, that preserves the character of Transmountain as a scenic corridor, that encourages something other than freeway pattern development, and that assumes that it is okay to slow traffic down a little, especially when traveling down one of our most precious assets, our mountain. Because you know what, everyone has a loop, but few can boast a mountain running through the center of their town.