Boulevard or toll road? What kind of road should cross Asarco site

By Sito Negron – El Paso Inc.

A proposed city plan that questions the auto-dominated transit system in El Paso has its strongest challenge at the site of the former Asarco smelter.

The proposed city plan, titled “Connecting El Paso,” argues that the site has historic, scenic and economic value, and that surrounding properties would be damaged by plowing a freeway through them.

The freeway in question is called the Southern Relief Route, a critical piece of a plan to complete Loop 375 around the city and provide local commuters with alternatives to Interstate 10.

The route would connect the Cesar Chavez Highway where it ends Downtown to Interstate 10 at Sunland Park, creating a new freeway that would roughly parallel Interstate 10 as it winds through the Pass of the North.

But to do that, it must find a way through South El Paso, starting at Park Street, cross through the Chihuahuita neighborhood and/or the adjacent rail yards, drive up to the former smelter site as it parallels and eventually meets I-10 at Sunland Park.

According to the plan, “Elevated, high-speed, limited access facilities have significant visual, physical, land use, socioeconomic, noise, environmental, and other impacts to the neighborhoods they tower over and fragment, particularly historic neighborhoods such as Chihuahuita and Segundo Barrio.”

At Asarco, where the planners drew in the right-of-way for a freeway but advise against it, the Southern Relief Route, or SRR, “would dictate a narrow palate of land uses and transportation mobility options while precluding many others.”

City Rep. Beto O’Rourke said the report raises questions and opportunities.

“I’m not sure if I can support it unless it is explicitly and officially clear that the SRR will not contain any kind of overpass through Downtown or along our riverfront. The ASARCO piece is just one component of it,” he said.

But this is a key opportunity to at least study a boulevard as an alternative to a controlled-access freeway, he said.

At the pass
“Connecting El Paso” was prepared by the planning and design firm Dover, Kohl & Partners. It held public meetings called charettes in June, where the public participated in the planning process.

Sessions about the Asarco property drew the most attention. The former smelter is where the Rio Grande passes the southern tip of the Rockies and heads for the gulf. There’s the iconic 828-foot smokestack, and concerns about pollution.

Ideas for the site ranged from arenas to transportation hubs. The report presents most of the ideas, explaining which ones might be possible, which ones are not, and what the challenges are for those that might be feasible but far-reaching, such as a concept for an international village and pedestrian bridge.

But it’s at transportation that the rubber meets the road, and the question of how to maintain all the value of the site’s historic and natural assets while accommodating cars and people is key.

“I would say we probably want to stay with the plan we got,” said El Paso state Rep. Joe Pickett, chairman of the House Transportation Committee, while he acknowledged that the plans could change.

“Nothing is set in concrete yet,” he said. “There’s still time to do things that fit not only our community but specific areas within it.”

He noted that the Southern Relief Route is meant to take congestion off Interstate-10, but not be another national freeway.

“It’s being developed for us, not for people traveling through,” Pickett said.

The plan expands upon that, arguing that for local traffic it might actually be more efficient to create a boulevard using the same right-of-way.

Boulevard of dreams
A boulevard is essentially a major street – think Mesa or Alameda – but with lanes close to the sidewalk, separated by a landscaped barrier from the main road of two or more lanes in either direction. Edgemere, for example, is a form of boulevard.

The planners say a boulevard “will connect and weave the site back into the fabric of the greater community – particularly UTEP and Downtown.”

A highway, they write, does not. It might pull development further to the edges of the city, “in direct contrast to the City’s efforts to revitalize its central neighborhoods.”

Jason King, Dover-Kohl project director, said El Paso is now in the middle of a national debate over how to build transportation networks that are safe, efficient and meet the needs of diverse populations.

“It would appear that both nationally and in El Paso the trend has been toward more balanced transportation networks,” King said. “The question is then simply one of extent and timing.”

In the end, the issue might not be one of philosophy, however.

TxDOT District Engineer Chuck Berry said that his organization is evaluating all options, including a boulevard. And while there is no classification called boulevard, it could be classified as a major arterial, and eligible for highway funding.

But there is one funding mechanism probably not available for a boulevard: tolls.

“The boulevard is probably the same as a freeway in terms of traffic and usability,” Berry said. But he said, “It was conceived and planned as a toll road. We’re going to need to weigh those factors.”