Downtown El Paso I-10 expansion project labeled among nation's worst 'boondoggles

The Interstate 10 expansion project through Downtown El Paso is gaining recognition, but it's likely not the kind advocates would hope for.

The Public Interest Research Group — a national think tank focused on issues like public health, transportation and consumer protection — recently identified the El Paso interstate project as one of the worst "boondoggles" in the nation.

The El Paso interstate expansion is listed alongside 72 other projects across the county, originally slated to cost around $173 billion, identified as "wasteful or unnecessary."

Nine projects are listed across Texas for more than $22.5 billion.

More: Texas Transportation Commission OKs Downtown I-10 expansion despite Stout's opposition

The Public Interest Research Group provides a number of reasons for the project's moniker, including that the Texas Department of Transportation's forecasts for increased traffic along the corridor are inaccurate.

Additionally, the report notes the myriad concerns from El Paso residents over the impact the Downtown I-10 expansion will have on neighborhoods, homes and businesses in the area.

For El Paso County Commissioner David Stout, who has been a vocal opponent of the I-10 expansion project as prescribed by TxDOT, the report's classification of the El Paso project is accurate.

"Doubling down on inequitable, polluting transportation infrastructure that won't address congestion in El Paso," he wrote in a statement,"... is the definition of boondoggle."

In a statement, TxDOT stood by its forecasts and noted that no final plans have been drafted for the Downtown project.

"The 'Preferred Alternative' for the proposed Downtown 10 Project has not been selected and will be dependent on the findings of the environmental phase currently in progress," TxDOT El Paso District Engineer Tomas Trevino said in an email. "This will include the finalized traffic analysis and input from the public hearing planned for next year."

More: I-10 East to close for construction in West El Paso

Report questions TxDOT traffic forecast

In 2016, TxDOT initiated the Reimagine I-10 project to begin researching potential upgrades to a 55-mile stretch of I-10, broken down into four segments, from Farm-to-Market Road 3380 in Tornillo to the Texas-New Mexico state line.

Segment 2 of the project covers 5.6 miles through Downtown El Paso from Executive Center Boulevard to Loop 478 on Copia Street. The project is expected to cost around $750 million, $300 million of which has already been approved by the Texas Transportation Commission — the remaining funds have not yet been secured.

Construction continues on Interstate 10 near Artcraft Road in West El Paso on Wednesday, Oct. 25.
Construction continues on Interstate 10 near Artcraft Road in West El Paso on Wednesday, Oct. 25.

From the original 18 build proposals, TxDOT has whittled the list down to three, all of which include the addition of eastbound and westbound "adaptive lanes," an additional general use lane on both sides of the freeway, a shared use path and new accommodations for pedestrians along overpasses.

TxDOT has asserted the changes will alleviate congestion, decrease collisions and bring the interstate up to current standards, but the Public Interest Group questions that.

"According to TxDOT, peak afternoon traffic on the highway of around 200,000 vehicles per day in 2018 will increase by 50% over the next two decades, rising to 300,000 by 2042," the group wrote in its report. "However, traffic data from 2003 to 2019 show that annual average daily traffic volume (AADT) on this stretch of highway over this period has remained almost exactly constant. In 2021, AADT dropped to a low of 155,000."

"While this is consistent with the broader decline in commuter traffic due to the pandemic and the rise of remote working," the report continued, "even if volumes rise again, long-term trends indicate that TxDOT's projection of 300,000 is likely to be a major overestimate."

More: El Paso commissioners request TxDOT review of alternatives to Downtown I-10 expansion

For Stout, the forecasts from TxDOT are even more concerning when noting that the department's first study examined a stretch of highway between Raynor Street and Executive Boulevard, never altering their findings after the parameters of the project changed.

"I consider this to be dishonest," Stout wrote. "Most of the congestion from their 'study' is around the Spaghetti Bowl, especially on the East Side of the interchange, but they are applying those numbers to a 'project' that does not include that area. I'm not sure why they're allowed to do that. By expanding I-10 where it isn't needed, all they're going to do is make the congestion even worse at the Spaghetti Bowl, while bringing more pollution to Central and Downtown El Paso. It's truly the worst of both worlds."

But Trevino said TxDOT's plans include more than just to tackle congestion along the highway.

"The Need and Purpose of the project includes more than improved mobility and long-term congestion along the corridor," he wrote. "It involves reducing conflict points and improving incident management and bringing the facility up to current design standards such as bridge clearance and pavement design life. The project will also include improved bike and pedestrian facilities."

El Paso residents concerned about I-10 expansion project's impact

Beyond challenging TxDOT's traffic forecasts, the Public Interest Research Group's study draws attention to a range of concerns raised by El Paso residents., including the fear that the Downtown I-10 project may result in the demolition of 30 residential and commercial buildings.

Many worry that the project could create the same situation that unfolded when the highway was originally constructed in the 1960s, which resulted in historic Sunset Heights being cut off from the rest of Downtown El Paso.

"Fifty years after the freeway created a barrier between neighborhoods and businesses on the north and south sides of I-10, TXDOT proposes to make that worse," Stout wrote. "That is unacceptable. Between the Downtown 10 project and the Bridge of the Americas ports renovation, which offers an opportunity to remove commercial traffic from that crossing, we have a once-in-a-generation opportunity to not only right historic wrongs but improve quality of life for tens of thousands of people if we do this correctly."

More: Work in progress: How to transform out-of-date Bridge of the Americas into 'beautiful' port

Other concerns cited in the group's study include worries that the project may worsen congestion rather than alleviate it.

"A 2022 independent analysis by consultancy firm Smart Mobility, Inc., supports these concerns, concluding that adding more lanes will not only be futile for reducing traffic volume on I-10, but would also encourage more cars to use the highway for short, local trips," the Public Interest Research Group's report stated. "In sum, the project's opponents argue, TxDOT's predictive models presented inaccurate projections that overestimated benefits of the widening."

For Stout, a better option to address traffic woes in Downtown El Paso would be to address the highway's current issues rather than invest in a potentially disastrous and expensive project.

"TXDOT should fix what needs to be fixed as soon as possible," Stout wrote. "If it's in danger of failing, waiting years for a mega-project instead of taking care of the immediate problem more quickly and less expensively, is a disservice."

This article originally appeared on El Paso Times: Report identifies El Paso I-10 expansion as among worst "boondoggles"