Downtown I-10 expansion to undergo environmental review

The controversial $750 million project to extend Interstate 10 through downtown El Paso is set to undergo a rigorous study that will examine how the project may affect everything from the environment businesses and residents of the region.

The study, known as an environmental impact study, historically requires architects, scientists, ecologists and engineers to study the impact of a project on its environment. Work on the impact study will begin this month and could take years.

“I’m glad to hear that they’re going to do this further study, but we’ll see what happens — I’m not very optimistic,” said El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, who was frank on his opposition to the expansion project.

The first Downtown 10 project scoping meeting — which will allow residents to review and comment on the plan, its purpose and alternatives, and any anticipated environmental impacts — is scheduled for 4-7 p.m. Nov. 30 in the room. Juarez of the Judson. F. Williams Convention Center. The meeting is open to the public.

In its notice of meeting issued Nov. 8, the Texas Department of Transportation noted that the agency was reclassifying the project — which would include adding lanes to the freeway below the lower portion of the freeway — as requiring a full environmental impact statement as opposed to a much more limited environmental assessment.

“There are a lot of things that need to be changed and for the good (like) exit ramps, traffic calming, walkways, pathways,” said Ted Houghton, former chairman of the Texas State Transportation Commission. “I think it’s a good process and good things will come out of it.”

The Downtown project, which has been in development since 2019 as part of a Re-Imagine I-10 study, covers a 5.6-mile stretch of the freeway from Executive Center Boulevard to Copia Street, which may require the demolition of up to 30 commercial and residential buildings. .

“TxDOT just dots the I’s and crosses the T’s because any project where you’re going to use eminent domain to take ownership is still sensitive, but that wouldn’t stop it,” the former rep said. State, Joe Pickett.

Pickett served as chairman of the state’s Environmental Regulatory Committee as well as the Transportation Committee while in the Legislature from 1995 to 2018.

“Under the National Environmental Policy Act, an environmental assessment is a concise review document taking into account the purpose and necessity of the proposal, any alternatives, and a review of the impacted environment” , TxDOT El Paso District Engineer Tomas Treviño said in an email. responses to El Paso Matters.

One of the alternatives, called the no-build alternative, would look at the impact of not building anything – in this case, leaving the 1-10 range as is.

Treviño said it was necessary to require an environmental impact statement because the project is being developed on a “critical national artery” that better guarantees opportunities for public feedback.

A statement is a much more comprehensive document than an assessment and would also require a “fuller discussion of reasonable alternatives and consideration of the cumulative impacts of the proposed project area,” Treviño added.

Asked how long the process will take, Treviño said “the timeline varies depending on the complexity of the project.”

The Environmental Impact Assessment for the 375 Border Highway West Loop Extension Project, for example, took about five years. Work on this impact study began in 2007 and was completed in 2012. Construction of the loop extension did not begin until 2015.

Once completed in accordance with the requirements of the National Environmental Policy Act, the statement is reviewed and approved internally by TxDOT’s Environmental Affairs Department, Houghton said.

Construction bids for the Downtown 10 project are expected to open in mid to late 2025, according to TxDOT Fact Sheet.

Houghton said he didn’t anticipate the assessment would slow the project down.

But the project has already met with opposition, including rejection from city and county governments and some community members who don’t believe it will help ease traffic congestion.

In March, the city council passed a resolution asking TxDOT to eliminate the planned frontage roads in the project and replace them with pedestrian-friendly streets, on-street parking, streetlights and trees.

TxDOT officials at the time said they were already incorporating some of these elements into the project and that frontage roads in an urban core would not be similar to those in other parts of El Paso such as Sunland Park. .

Last fall, the El Paso County Court of Commissioners hired an independent transportation consulting firm to study the expansion project. The study determined, in part, that the TxDOT models exaggerate the benefits of freeway expansion.

An artist’s rendering of what a patio park might look like over Interstate 10 in downtown El Paso. The image on the left shows the current area. (Illustration courtesy of Paso del Norte Community Foundation)

Impact on the future bridge esplanade

At the same time that TxDOT is developing the Downtown 10 project, the Paso del Norte Community Foundation is advocating for a patio on I-10 in the same downtown neighborhood. The foundation’s board of directors established the Downtown Deck Plaza Foundation to support and help raise funds for the project.

Treviño said the bridge plaza designs will not be part of TxDOT’s environmental impact statement.

The bridge plaza project, however, is getting bigger with a recent US$900,000 Department of Transportation grant awarded to the city for a design study. Initial concepts for the Deck Plaza envision it as a green and recreational space.

TxDOT officials said a bridge plaza would be a separate project that would not be paid for by the state, but the Downtown 10 expansion can be constructed in a way that could support its future construction. TxDOT will partner with the city to apply for federal grants through the U.S. Department of Transportation in May to fund the project.

City Manager Tommy Gonzalez, during a presentation to city council in October on grant opportunities, said the goal was to have the project funded entirely with federal funds.

Houghton, who also chairs the El Paso Mobility Coalition which champions transportation initiatives and funding for the region, said that at some point the two projects will have to merge and be built together.

Tracy Yellen, executive director of the Paso del Norte Community Foundation, agrees.

“The Deck Plaza feasibility study will help us better understand how a green ceiling on I-10 in the downtown corridor can enhance and interface with TxDOT’s work on I-10. to meet community needs, address community concerns, and integrate into the fabric and scale of the urban core, as we work to create better connections for our community,” Yellen said.

Pickett said once a project gets funding for a study, it’s likely to come to fruition.

“People are misled into thinking that a study is like you and I are hanging out, actually collecting data and making the decision to go ahead,” he said. “If you get money for a study – it basically says, ‘We’re going to do it,’ and the study is just going to tell us all the hurdles we have to jump through to do it.”

Stout said he thought Bridge Square would be a nice green space, but it was run by developers, not the community. He also said he objects to his reliance on expanding downtown I-10.

“The bridge park is this big shiny object that they’re dangling in front of our face so that behind our backs they’re really pushing something (the expansion project) that’s going to be very detrimental to us,” he said. “I don’t think we should settle for that.”