If you thought we could take down an entire highway overpass that cuts off downtown from Deep Ellum before we’re all issued jetpacks and flying Ubers, hate to break it to you. This city can’t even bring itself to ask the state’s road masters to erase one lousy, little-used off-ramp.
Because that’s not what the highway-builders want, not yet. Just in case you wondered who’s directing traffic.
The Dallas City Council was supposed to vote last week to support removal of the Live Oak Street exit into downtown off southbound Interstate 345, better known as the unloved stretch that links North Central Expressway with Interstates 30 and 45.
Took a complete turnover in city management, but City Hall now guesses there’s billions of dollars’ of developable land beneath that overpass. That’s why Dallas is throwing in with TxDOT on a $2.5-million study that could determine 345’s fate.
But TxDOT’s not in any rush to move on 345. It’s far from a priority, well behind, say, a long-desired Interstate 30 makeover. Docs prepared in advance make it clear that "funding is not currently available" for any shade of redo.
But getting rid of the exit ramp is do-able, desirable. At the foot of the exit sits two major investments: Carpenter Park, into which Dallas City Hall is sinking millions in public and private dollars, and developer Jack Matthews’ $50-million redo of Dallas High School, a 110-year-old landmark that rotted for two decades.
God knows that part of downtown ain’t walkable. It’s barely drive-able. Most everyone merging with Live Oak traffic at 55 mph tries to take a left on Pearl Street, despite abundant no-left-turn signs. Vanishing that off-ramp would let folks amble between Matthews’ development, the park and Deep Ellum with less risk of being flattened.
But that’s not what the council voted for. Because TxDOT officials told them not to.
State highway officials say they had no idea the ramp was coming up for a vote until it landed on the council’s voting agenda. Calls and emails were then hastily exchanged between Mayor Mike Rawlings’ office, the city manager’s staff and TxDOT higher-ups insisting this wasn’t a good idea, not now. Texas Transportation Commissioner Victor Vandergriff told me this week that "the timing of it did take everyone by surprise."
The resolution was a symbolic gesture, a way to tell TxDOT that Dallas wants its streets back. They were just some words on a piece of paper that said, "Authorize the City Manager to request that the Texas Department of Transportation pursue the removal of the Live Oak off-ramp."
No one was gonna Robert E. Lee statue this thing. There’d have to be public hearings, impact studies and all the rest. But before the vote was taken, the resolution was rewritten by the council’s mobility committee chair Lee Kleinman at the behest of city staff.
"Pursue" was replaced by "evaluate."
The resolution, before and after it was rewritten during last week’s council meeting
Kleinman’s committee had been briefed on the ramp removal request in early September — and, at the time, no council member had a single comment. Kleinman said assistant city manager Majed Al-Ghafry asked him to "soften" the language at the last minute.
"It became messy when the resolution was stronger than TxDOT wanted it," Kleinman said.
Al-Ghafry said that, yes, "I will admit TxDOT was nervous with the language staff was using. Maybe we didn’t do a great job of communicating."
It shouldn’t have caught anyone off-guard. Talk of taking down or at least altering the off-ramp has been floating around Dallas City Hall for years. Keith Manoy, the city’s former senior transportation planner, told me he looked at removing or realigning it to better serve the Arts District.
"It’s not something new or part of the 345 discussion," he said.
Carpenter Park sits at the base of the Live Oak ramp, which Parks for Downtown Dallas and developer Jack Matthews would like to see removed to improve connectivity and walkability in that part of downtown
Matthews Southwest, which hired Manoy as a transportation consultant, worked for years to make that happen. The developer even hired a firm to conduct a traffic study.
The study says about 4,600 cars use the ramp a day — down from the 4,900 counted in 2009. It says that removing the ramp would be good for Matthews’ development, but that it would also reduce "existing points of congestion," "improve the pedestrian environment" and "have relatively little impact to overall traffic operations or to traffic circulation in that alternative routes contain ample capacity and provide equal, or better, accessibility."
Even TxDOT seemed to be onboard: Its CityMAP study released last year said that no matter what happens to 345, the Live Oak ramp should go. But now, suddenly, not so fast.
Everyone at City Hall and TxDOT said this will get revisited. No idea when, but … Meanwhile Matthews is faced with having to ditch a building — a hotel, maybe — he planned on building along Live Oak, where the ramp remains.
I asked Vandergriff whether TxDOT was sacrificing a quick win for a long-term question mark.
"I think it’s a fair question," he said. Maybe someone at City Hall should have asked it.