Make It Ugly, By All Means

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

SWAP would like DOT to consider putting the entire project below grade, a solution that would be much more expensive, but also much more aesthetically and environmentally pleasing. Parts of the North Central Expressway in Dallas and I-30 in Fort Worth are being replaced with expensive, below-grade construction, SWAP points out. "Why is it," SWAP asks plaintively in its list of technical objections, "that the citizens of Dallas and Fort Worth are provided with superior freeway facilities while the citizens of Houston are not even given the courtesy of serious examination of alternative designs?"

The answer, of course, lies in politics. When the highway department unveiled plans to double-deck the North Central Expressway in the early 1980s, neighborhood groups raised an incredible din and dogged every politician in town for months. Finally, they helped elect businessman Starke Taylor as mayor. Taylor sympathized with the groups and appointed civic leader Walter Humann to lead a task force to find a solution. It was a task force to which, apparently, DOT could not say no, for the first six miles are being cut below grade through solid rock.

In Fort Worth, DOT's plans to double-deck the elevated I-30 through the southern edge of downtown came head-to-head with a well-financed lawsuit by billionaire Robert Bass, who had sunk millions into historic buildings in the area. After an eight-year legal fight, Bass and his supporters negotiated expensive concessions, including getting portions of the freeway submerged and elevated structures torn down.

The Southwest Freeway expansion is not nearly as critical or expensive as the Dallas and Fort Worth projects, but SWAP is proposing the same radical idea: that a freeway should be designed to improve the inner city, not just carry people in and out of it. The transportation department has agreed to further discussions with SWAP, but if past experience is any indication, the neighborhoods had better keep adding to their legal war chest. And they might think about how they can elect the next mayor, as well as getting the current one out in front for them. Discussions are one thing. Political power is another.

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