'M' is for mad as hell

Petty politics detour the M Streets traffic plan

Gather a group of McCommas and Monticello Avenue homeowners together, and traffic horror stories flow as steadily as the cars streaming through their neighborhood at rush hour. For decades, commuters heading east and west between Central Expressway and Greenville Avenue have used the M Streets, particularly McCommas and Monticello, as a convenient cut-through.

Mary Essler, a mother of three young children who lives on McCommas, once watched a speeding car jump the curb and plow into her neighbor's bungalow, shearing off several bricks.

Speed bumps the city built several years ago slow some people down, says Joy Bell, who watches 5-o'clock traffic blow past her house on McCommas. But other drivers, having escaped the grueling traffic ofCentral Expressway, hit the bumps with bat-out-of-hell fury. "You can see them just fuming," says Bell, a grandmother who moved to the East Dallas neighborhood 5 1/2 years ago.

The neighborhood enjoyed a three-year respite when construction choked off the exits from Central Expressway, but that hiatus ended earlier this month when the McCommas Avenue bridge reopened to two-lane traffic. The cars are back, and so is another round in the tight-knit neighborhood's seemingly endless battle to ease the flow of speeding commuters on its streets.

Many in the neighborhood thought a solution was finally at hand last month when 70 percent of M Streets and other East Dallas residents--represented by the Greenland Hills, Glencoe Park, and Vickery Place neighborhood associations--voted in favor of a consultant's proposal that would cut daily traffic on the area's most congested streets by more than half.

But the latest plan has once again bogged down in neighborhood bickering and petty politics. Three city-council members--after heavy, last-minute lobbying from people who mostly live outside of the area--are stalling the proposal. And in a personal snit, Councilman Craig McDaniel went so far as to send a snippy letter to the boss of one neighborhood activist, ultimately prompting her to resign from the board of her neighborhood association.

The latest traffic plan would close McCommas, Martel, and Mercedes at Central, except to local traffic. All east-west streets south of Monticello and north of Richard Avenue would also be closed at Central.

Drawn up after a lengthy traffic study by Dallas engineering firm Kimley Horn and Associates, the "Neighborhood Protection Plan" also calls for traffic circles and diverters throughout the neighborhood and an "arbor street" along heavily trafficked McMillan Avenue. The greenery and diverters would, in consulting jargon, "calm" traffic flow, forcing drivers to slow down or to take other routes, says Bill Waddill, project manager for Kimley Horn.

Not surprisingly, most people on McCommas and Monticello loved the proposal. "Our sense of community has been disrupted for years with all this traffic," Essler says. "I supported the plan because it's the best way to have a real neighborhood. It really was the best compromise for everyone."

But in the days leading up to a scheduled April vote on the plan by the city council, a block of opposition developed. People in nearby Lakewood and Swiss Avenue neighborhoods--whose residents can save time by driving though the M streets--were especially riled.

"Part of my opposition is based on what I call the neighborliness problem," says Bill Weatherford, an architectural designer from Lakewood Heights. "The people in Greenland Hills and Vickery Place feel they have the right to create a walled community and shut off the rest of the neighborhood."

In response, East Dallas-area council members Mary Poss, Craig McDaniel, and Chris Luna prodded the council into tabling the plan. The three council members criticized the engineering firm that conducted the study, and said they objected to the way neighborhood meetings on the proposal were held.

The city's contract with Kimley Horn required a series of public meetings with residents and East Dallas "stakeholders," the diehard neighborhood activists and business owners who would be most affected by traffic restrictions. In all, 14 meetings were held, says Kimley Horn's Waddill. Residents were notified of the meetings by direct mail, door-to-door literature drops, and through 10 separate neighborhood newsletters. The process moved at breakneck pace by most standards for such projects; the meetings and subsequent study were completed in 90 days.

Council member Poss says that pace was, in fact, too fast.
"I said from the beginning that 90 days was a very unrealistic timetable for this study," says Poss, whose 9th district encompasses most of the M streets and some of neighboring Lakewood. Poss believes that many residents were misled into thinking their vote for a plan would set the changes in stone. "There were a couple of people in the community who talked about one of the plans as though it were a done deal. But it was always subject to final council approval."

(Council members McDaniel and Luna also represent portions of the study area and its neighbors--Lakewood, Lower Greenville, and Swiss Avenue. Luna did not return calls from the Observer. An aide for McDaniel responded to a request for an interview by saying, "Councilman McDaniel asked me to relay that he isn't interested in talking to the Observer because in the past you haven't been very friendly to him.")

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