As planners and staff from the Texas Department of Transportation and city of Dallas overwhelmed residents last night with maps spanning the length of three folding tables and a detailed PowerPoint presentation about the proposed $200 million S.M. Wright project, attendees celebrated the end of Dead Man's Curve, a sharp turn where the C.F. Hawn and S.M. Wright Freeways meet.
Traffic congestion and Dead Man's Curve were the chief reasons for improving this outdated stretch of Dallas freeway, according to TxDOT's Tim Nesbitt, the project's manager. Although TxDOT reps prefer to call it an "accident-prone curve" or "statistically dangerous curve," Dead Man's Curve and that portion of U.S. 175 was only intended for 23,000 vehicles a day when it opened in 1963. As Nesbitt quipped, "People were a lot more courteous back then, they drove slower, and there weren't 18-wheelers," but now the area sees traffic in excess of 100,000 vehicles per day.
"Sure, there's always traffic there, going to work and coming home, and the improvements should help that, but Dead Man's Curve is the biggest thing that needs to be addressed, " S. M. Wright Jr. -- the son of S. M. Wright, the Dallas civic leader and minister for which the freeway is named -- told Unfair Park.
Nesbitt said the proposed S.M. Wright Project could reduce those numbers to 40,000. (He also told us that when -- which is to say, if -- the proposed Trinity Parkway is completed, traffic through the neighborhood could shrink to 31,000.)
The plans presented a handful of options for improvements to Interstate 45 and State Highway 310, as well as the redevelopment of S.M. Wright Freeway into a 35 mph, six-lane, signalized "arterial" complete with landscaping, fancy brick paving and gateway monuments. The event was meant to gather community feedback on the proposed designs options and lush mock-ups before the plans are sent off to the state and feds for approval. And from 4 to 7 p.m., the Martin Luther King Jr. Senior Center was buzzing with folks from the community filling out the stacks of official green comment forms that were readily available on every table in the room.
The meeting was well-staffed with wide-eyed, badge-wearing reps from TxDOT and Richardson-based Halff Associates (which is working with TxDOT on the project) manning each of the folding tables. Inside the room, more than a dozen easels held full-color poster boards detailing the proposed plans. And, in the center of the room, five long, detailed design scrolls drawn up by Halff illustrated the planned location of every improvement, overpass and on- or off-ramp.
"I think the different options are all much better than what we have now," said former city council member Diane Ragsdale. "It is a good step in really beautifying the area and it gets rid of what we who are born and raised in the area call Dead Man's Curve. And even in the worst case scenarios, the displacements that could be caused by the project are very small."
Of the "IH 45 Alternatives," the first one would displace no buildings, while Ragsdale's "worst-case scenario" (option 2B) has the potential of displacing 15 residential buildings and five commercial. Nesbitt said TxDOT is still running traffic models to determine which of the alternatives will work best to alleviate traffic congestion, and once traffic is rerouted onto IH 45, TxDOT can covert the existing 10-lane high-speed freeway into the planned six-lane low-speed thoroughfare.
Traffic is something that Cynthia Sneed, who lives just blocks from the proposed changes to S. M. Wright Freeway, has been dealing with since moving to the area in 1984. And, as she meandered around the room taking in all the plans, Sneed said she thinks the project is just what the area needs.
"I'm all for beautifying South Dallas," she said. Looking at one of the designs, with all its gateways and landscaping, she said, "It'll be like driving through Plano."
Though she did express some concerns.
"If the city can do it in a minimal amount of time and as long as they don't change the name of the freeway," she said. "We need to keep that in honor of Reverend Wright."
While many who attended last night's meeting voiced similar concerns about preserving the name, as far as TxDOT is concerned, a name change issue isn't really on the table -- after all, it would take a legislative act to change it.
"The name change is something that has become a concern within the community, but it isn't in the plans for the project," said Alva Baker of Baker Consulting Associates, sub-consultants working with Halff to confer with people and organizations in the community.
The main bone of contention in this whole planned project is coming from some folks who are backing South Dallas Action Plan, which proposes four lanes on the new S.M. Wright Freeway instead of six. Nesbitt laughed off such an effort and said it would defeat the whole point of the project, which is to alleviate traffic congestion.
"The problem with the four lanes idea is that it would actually create a bottleneck," he said. "We would literally be spending all the time and money to build a bottleneck."
Two hours into the open house, after hearing concerns about everything from the number of lanes to the amount of "greenwalls" and sound-dampening barriers, Nesbitt said things were going well. The comment box was crammed full of the green forms.
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"The meeting tonight is about helping us to collect public input, which then helps us to decide what the best options are as we move forward," he said.
The next step will be a public hearing slated for next summer. But, before then schematic designs will be finalized and environmental impact studies must be reviewed and approved. Then the plans will be off for approval by the Federal Highway Administration, which TxDOT expects by fall 2011. Then there's the small matter of securing the estimated $185 to $200 million needed to finance the project.
So, under the best case scenario, with construction taking two to three years to complete, Dallas could be Dead Man's Curve-free by 2015.