Southern Dallas Commuters Need Fewer Highways, Not Another One, to Get to Work

Vonciel Hill says not building more freeway in southern Dallas is racist.
Vonciel Hill says not building more freeway in southern Dallas is racist.
Mark Graham

Once in a while a really brilliant idea pops up in a relatively obscure place, a diamond in the coal mine. The particular coal mine I have in mind is the letters to the editor section of The Dallas Morning News (why not just put your idea in a bottle and toss it into White Rock Lake?), and the idea is about commuting from South Dallas to the Stemmons corridor.

Commuting from South Dallas to the Stemmons corridor comes up because our mayor, Mike Rawlings, recently added the South Dallas commuting problem to the list of reasons we need to spend $1.8 billion on a toll road along the Trinity River. Councilwoman Vonciel Hill, who represents southern Dallas, has even charged that failure to build the toll road would comprise an act of racism.

See also: "Rawlings's New Years Message."

The idea that sparkled recently in the otherwise unbroken gloom of the daily newspaper's letters column was in part a concession that perhaps southern Dallas really might have a commuting problem. Some opponents of the toll road have argued that blue-collar workers are never going to pay a hefty toll in order to shave a couple minutes off their commute, but maybe that's not the point.

Michael Morris, transportation director of the North Central Texas Council of Governments, has argued th at commuting from the job desert of southern Dallas to the job mart along the Stemmons Expressway (Parkland Hospital, etc.) is a real problem. But if it is, why is a $1.8 billion toll road the best solution?

Robbie Good, a graphics designer and community activist, sent a letter to the News published December 12 that took the South Dallas commuting problem as a given. In it, he said the reason for that problem to occur should be easy enough for anybody, let alone transportation experts, to figure out.

"Hop on Google Maps," he said, "and take a long, hard look at the street grid (or lack thereof) in South Dallas and the Cedars. Of course mobility is a problem when you've got dead ends all over your neighborhoods!"

He's right. I don't know how many people who talk about this stuff actually drive around a lot in that area. I do. It's incredibly frustrating. Every time you drive four blocks you run into a dead-end. Then you wait for six 18-wheelers to exit a yard.

In his letter, Good put his finger on the reason: "The irony is that the majority of these dead ends were caused by highways, not to mention heavy industry and railroads," he said. "This is a neighborhood that was ravaged by highway developments. The last thing it needs is another one."

The solution, he said, rather than slicing up the area yet another time with a giant autobahn designed mainly for suburban pass-through traffic is to straighten out the existing street grid and make it flow.

"Instead of spending $1.5 billion (he uses the low estimate) on a tollway, spend $10 million-$20 million to fix the street grid. Instead of the tollway, connect S.M. Wright Freeway with Riverfront Boulevard, a street that is woefully under capacity and leads directly to the jobs in the Medical District and the Stemmons corridor."

It's a brilliant idea at a number of levels, but mainly because it's an in-their-face challenge to the people trying so cynically to racialize the toll road decision. If their hearts are where they say they are, if they really want to make it easier for people to drive from southern Dallas to jobs in the Stemmons corridor, then why not do it with a hugely cheaper fix that won't impose a toll on those commuters?

At the very least, if people want to keep using this issue as a selling point for the toll road, then somebody needs to do a straight-up comparison balancing the real number of commuters against the cost and effectiveness of Good's fix versus the toll road. Somebody needs to set this diamond in an engagement ring.


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