Make It Ugly, By All Means

Montrose-area neighborhoods broach a novel idea: Let freeway expansion improve the inner city

In addition to the surge of faxes, SWAP's attorney, Jim Blackburn, who also lives near the freeway, fired off 15 pages of technical concerns to Ed Wueste, regional director of the Federal Highway Administration. Blackburn contended that SWAP's noise expert had detected serious flaws in DOT's noise analysis, which, naturally, found that with well-placed barriers, the elevated structure would exactly meet federal noise criteria.

Blackburn also challenged DOT to deal with recent research showing that particulate matter emitted by diesel engines is more dangerous to human health than previously recognized. Metro, Blackburn pointed out, has recently abandoned its plans to buy cleaner-burning buses fueled by natural gas, and will continue to rely mostly on diesel power.

Highway planners say they don't want to get bogged down in endless analysis. At DOT's district headquarters on Washington Avenue, project engineer Jim Darden unrolled an eight-foot-long multicolored schematic of the plan and began explaining why it is the way it is.

The project is the last leg of a $200 million expansion of the Southwest Freeway that began west of Shepherd in 1989. For approximately $45 million, DOT proposes to build the HOV lanes, add one lane to the freeway in each direction, and replace the four accident-prone bridges at Hazard, Woodhead, Dunlavy and Mandell with higher ones. Metro's contribution for the cost of the HOV lanes is nearly $15 million.

This last phase of the freeway expansion was not built earlier because Metro was trying to decide whether to run a monorail through the area. Once the monorail was killed, a high-capacity HOV lane replaced it. All of Metro's existing HOV lanes are only two lanes wide, with one lane used for breakdowns. Metro contends that the three-lane HOV corridor is needed to meet future demands for capacity that will be created once Metro has completed its Westpark HOV lane in 1999.

That project is expected to yield another aerial monstrosity. As it is now planned, the Westpark HOV lane will feed into the Southwest Freeway at Metro's Hillcroft station, but long-range plans call for extending the lanes down Westpark to where it dead-ends at Kirby. At Kirby, the lane will swoop into the air in a "flyover" ramp above Hooter's restaurant and connect into the middle of the Southwest Freeway. Such a ramp is certain to be protested by residents of the Southampton neighborhood, especially those in an expensive new townhouse project being planned there.

All of these elevated structures would be unnecessary if Metro simply ran its HOV lanes down the middle of the Southwest Freeway at existing grades, a solution that the neighborhoods strongly endorse. But that appears to interfere with DOT's plan for adding two lanes to the Southwest Freeway. These lanes are not for the purpose of adding additional carrying capacity to the freeway, but are really "auxiliary" lanes, Darden explained, designed to help traffic merge. Darden said DOT is especially concerned about the "chicken" lane, in which outbound drivers from Spur 527 must merge with Southwest Freeway traffic coming from behind.

SWAP contends that the additional freeway lanes are not necessarily needed. Although Metro spokeswoman Julie Gilbert insisted that traffic on Spur 527 to downtown is highly congested at rush hour, Baker and several other SWAP members say that the spur is hardly ever congested, even at peak hours.

The real bottleneck occurs where the Southwest Freeway narrows from five lanes to three at Spur 527, a problem for which DOT has no plans on the drawing table. Drivers trying to squeeze through and get to Highway 288 back up in the evenings, sometimes all the way to Shepherd. If the backup is too long, then frustrated drivers exit at Shepherd and cut through the neighborhoods, frustrated and angry and sometimes driving too fast.

Part of the solution to that problem, says Debra Danburg, is to build a long-discussed off-ramp from the freeway to South Main. DOT's Darden has heard that one so often that he almost sighs. A South Main exit would require the expensive rerouting of HL&P power lines, he says. And besides, drivers can get to Main by veering left on Spur 527 and exiting at Richmond. The department has added signs to direct people that way, but people unfamiliar with the area seldom anticipate that they must exit to the left in order to turn to the right, says Danburg. Besides, she says, DOT ought to consider not replacing the aptly named Hazard Street bridge and spending the approximately $4 million on a South Main exit.

With so many people willing to tell it how to go about its business, no wonder DOT appears to dread another public hearing.

DOT has identified far more projects than it has funding, and so each project must be evaluated for its cost effectiveness and compared to others around the state, Darden says. Some alternatives are just so expensive that planners don't even put them down on paper. Going below grade would require taking even more right of way than the department is taking now, he said. And it would require rerouting a major water main that runs through the area, significantly adding to the costs, which is one reason why the Southwest Freeway was elevated through Montrose in the first place.

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