Planning Agency Offers North Dallas a Tunnel; East Dallas Sees a Rat

Like the vampire who lies dead in the crypt, then awakens, the concept of a “Crosstown Expressway” in Dallas — a new highway to run east and west across the northern half of city — has never been truly dead, as in dead-dead. Stephen Young observed here presciently that the Crosstown Expressway idea has been escaping its tomb and frightening Dallas neighborhoods since the early 1980s.

As much as I enjoyed Young’s piece, however, I can’t help pointing out that he should never have said the name, Crosstown Expressway, out loud. If you say its name, it wakes up. Now barely three weeks after Young uttered the creature’s name, reports are coming in that the Crosstown is abroad on the land once more, striking fear in the hearts of innocent neighborhoods where now, once again, the people must shield their necks in stovepipe. Thanks a lot, Stephen.

Since the 1980s, every time the Crosstown has risen from the dead, it has started out looking like a great idea. Almost all the big highways in Dallas go north and south. So what if you need to go east and west?

But before it has even brushed the grave-dirt from its lapels, the Crosstown always turns into a hideous monster. When people actually start looking at it, they realize the Crosstown wants to cut across their neighborhoods. Then it’s stovepipe on the necks and everybody waving garlic and crucifixes.

And it comes back why? Two reasons. East. And west. What are you gonna do?

This latest version involves two different possible crosstown routes, one through Oak Lawn and Uptown, the second along Northwest Highway. The theory is that right now there are only three fat roads running east to west across the crowded northern hemisphere of the city — the Woodall Rodgers at the north edge of downtown, Northwest Highway farther north and the LBJ Freeway at the top.

Even with the recently completed super-fattening of LBJ, all three existing east-west routes are way too jammed, so we need another one. That’s the theory.

I have to be very careful what I say now, because I live in Old East Dallas, and if you utter anything even remotely moderate about the Crosstown in Old East Dallas, they come for you in the night with torches and pitchforks. So I am not even remotely soft on the Crosstown, OK? I’m just doing my job here and telling you what some other people — not me — say in favor of it.

The people who live in the areas along Northwest Highway — Preston Hollow, North Dallas, University Park — argue that Northwest Highway has turned into a traffic nightmare and mobile parking lot for most of the daylight hours and that the cars and trucks responsible for the congestion are not from their area.

Ashley Parks, who is the zoning liaison for the Preston Hollow East Homeowners Association, tells me that neighbors have seen traffic studies showing between 40,000 and 50,000 vehicles per day traveling a half-mile stretch of Northwest Highway near the intersection with Preston Road. She says surveys of cellphone signals have shown that a large percentage of that traffic is trying to get across town east and west rather than coming from or going to local locations.

Former Dallas Mayor Laura Miller, who lives nearby and has been an active member of a traffic and planning task force for the area, is more specific: “Of the 48,380 cars that are travelling across the tollway at Northwest Highway every day, 42 percent of them are not starting or ending within five miles of the tollway and Northwest Highway. That’s all through traffic.”

Miller and Parks both say neighborhood groups and their joint task force have heard presentations from the North Central Texas Council of Governments (NCTCOG) suggesting one way to take a lot of that traffic off Northwest Highway would be to dig a high-speed tunnel underneath it. NCTCOG, a federally mandated metropolitan planning organization, is the main government funder and promoter of new highways in North Central Texas, often working hand in hand with major real estate interests.

Miller says her part of town is not inviting NCTCOG to bring any new regional traffic to the area. She says any solution that took some traffic off Northwest Highway would be coupled with a demand that Northwest Highway then be narrowed. By turning it into more of a boulevard and less of a highway, the area would achieve the overall “traffic quietening” that is every good neighborhood’s goal.

I haven’t heard anybody in Oak Lawn or Uptown say they like the proposed southern route through their area, and that one doesn’t seem to have any active constituency the way the Northwest Highway one does. I spoke briefly yesterday with City Councilman Philip Kingston, who suggested half-jokingly that the southern route might be “a distraction” or even a threat to get people in that part of town to back something farther north.

See what happens, Stephen, when you say “Crosstown” out loud?

Former East Dallas City Council member Angela Hunt brings a high degree of skepticism and wariness to any dealings with NCTCOG on the issue of the Crosstown. She confirms that NCTCOG officials promised her a year and a half ago that the Crosstown was dead and in the grave forever. NCTCOG officials are now saying this current version is not the same one they walked to the crypt 18 months ago, because this new one isn’t going into East Dallas.

To that, Hunt says, “Yet.”

She says the danger is any small initial step by which NCTCOG is able to lull neighborhoods into accepting a project that will eventually morph into a major regional corridor through the city, bringing with it vast new quantities of traffic, pollution and degradation of nearby neighborhoods.

“This is something they are incredibly adept at,” she says, “biting off a bit of the elephant at a time, because they can wait out mere mortals.

“The concept here would be, yes, they can do this crosstown connector, and it has nothing to do with this idea of a Northwest Highway connector or any other connector through East Dallas, until they discover that, no, they cannot do a tunnel, and, yes, they really do need to alleviate traffic and probably [an elevated highway] is the only way they can do this financially.

“And this will be after tons of community meetings and talks, and then it will come through East Dallas. That might be 15 years from now, I don’t know.

“I think letting this camel under the tent at all is dangerous. I have not seen a large-scale transportation project be beneficial to neighborhoods in Dallas.”

So while she’s talking, I’m thinking: If those NCTCOG rascals did try to change the Crosstown around like that and turn it into something we, the public, don’t like, well, then hell, I guess we’d just put our foot down and say, “Hey, get outta town with that.”

You know. Like we’re doing with the Trinity River toll road, the 20-year-old snake that we’ve never been able to slay with an axe. Hmm. In fact, they actually have several of these things at NCTCOG that can’t be killed once they’re going.

NCTCOG has its headquarters out in Arlington on Six Flags Drive near Six Flags Texas amusement park, not too far from Ripley’s Believe It or Not and Louis Tussaud’s Palace of Wax. Those are scary places, too. You want to go out there with me at midnight one of these nights and see what we can see? C’mon! You chicken? I’ll go.

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Jim Schutze has been the city columnist for the Dallas Observer since 1998. He has been a recipient of the Association of Alternative Newsweeklies’ national award for best commentary and Lincoln University’s national Unity Award for writing on civil rights and racial issues. In 2011 he was admitted to the Texas Institute of Letters.
Contact: Jim Schutze