Work begins on $666M redo of I-35E and Highway 67, with a deck park in the plans
Ground was broken Wednesday on the so-called "Southern Gateway" project, a massive $666 million reconstruction of a large section of Interstate 35E and State Highway 67 near downtown through Oak Cliff.
At a harmonious ceremony -- which stood in stark contrast with the acrimonious debate over the future of I-635 East -- state, regional and local officials said they have plenty to like about the highway.
For state officials, the project is about alleviating congestion. For City Council members Scott Griggs and Dwaine Caraway, the project means literally bridging the division the highway created between their two Oak Cliff districts. Mayor Mike Rawlings and State Sen. Royce West, D-Dallas, said the project would be a boon to southern Dallas at large. State Rep. Rafael Anchia, D-Dallas, thought it was important that the highway won't have tolled lanes.
And after years of talks and tweaks, all were happy to see construction begin.
County Commissioner John Wiley Price, who still wants more minority participation on the construction work, said the "project is great" and "long overdue." West said the construction would prove that the city's leaders aren't just talking about growing the city's southern half, they're actually "putting in the infrastructure to get it done."
Rawlings, who has championed a private GrowSouth effort as mayor, said the project would be vital to families in southern Dallas.
"It's important from a pragmatic standpoint," Rawlings said. "But it's also important from a symbolic standpoint. For too long, southern Dallas got bupkis. They got nothing. Nada. We are having these tens and hundreds of millions of dollars spent in southern Dallas. This major metropolitan city deserves this type of infrastructure." Part of the project includes infrastructure for another deck park, similar to Klyde Warren Park over Woodall Rodgers Freeway. The city is putting $7.1 million in bond money -- approved in the fall as part of a $262 million parks proposition -- toward the initial skeleton of the deck park. The Regional Transportation Commission is paying for the remainder of the $40 million cost. City leaders hope philanthropists will chip in millions to help build out the park.
The deck park had the the support of Griggs and Mayor Pro Tem Dwaine Caraway, who returned to the council last year after defeating deck-park opponent Carolyn King Arnold. Arnold had said the bridge would gentrify an area where poverty is common. Caraway said Wednesday he didn't know how anyone could oppose the deck park.
"Look at the jobs that it's going to bring," Caraway said. "Look at the families that are going to be on the deck park. Look at the enhancement that it's going to be."
It's unclear when the deck park will be finished. But the 11-mile highway project should be done by the end of 2021.
For drivers, that might mean a few years of occasional headaches. Texas Department of Transportation officials say they want to keep disruptions to a minimum, but lanes and frontage road closures are inevitable.
The long-term ends, they believe, will justify any temporary inconveniences. The road will go from four lanes on each side to five. In between those lanes, rather than the current HOV lane, will be two reversible non-tolled express lanes to help drivers bypass traffic and some exits.
Bruce Bugg, Jr., the Transportation Commission Chairman, said tackling the state's top traffic chokepoints is a key priority for Texas officials. Gov. Greg Abbott, in a 2014 campaign ad, famously lamented that "a guy in a wheelchair can move faster than traffic on some roads in Texas." But state leaders, including Abbott, have also turned on projects that include optional toll lanes. Many residents near Interstate 35E opposed toll lanes, and eventually their sentiment won out.
Anchia said it was important to Oak Cliff that no tolls were included.
"I don't have anything against toll roads" Anchia said. "But when we have an opportunity to do taxpayer supported roads in communities that for a long time have been forgotten and have paid into the system, it's very important they have an opportunity to be on taxpayer-supported free roads, and not toll roads."
But some City Council members, including Adam McGough, and northeastern Dallas residents have been battling to keep optional toll lanes on the 635 East project.
McGough, who attended the groundbreaking Wednesday, said he's excited for the Southern Gateway project to begin. But he wants the state to allow the 635 East project, which he said is important for traffic and safety in the area -- to move forward. And he wants them to allow his constituents to get their say on whether they want toll lanes.
McGough said hearing all the comments about helping improve the area reiterated "what I'm hearing, every single day and every single night ,from the people who live and travel around 635 East."