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How Dallas Can Really Challenge Its Transportation ‘Status Quo’

Rodger Jones filed another post on the Trinity toll road late last week. He has become the highway’s foremost defender in print, while his colleague Rudy Bush continues to argue the other side intelligently. And for the second column in a row, Jones ends his piece with a curious turn of phrase. “Is the AIA OK with the status quo on downtown’s freeway traffic?” he writes in reference to Bush’s piece about the architectural community’s about-face on the their Trinity toll road support. It’s similar to this line from Jones’ piece that “apologizes” for another of Bush’s columns: “Do [Trinity opponents] think the status quo is good enough for Dallas’ Central Business District?”

Challenging the “status quo.”

This seems to be Jones’ latest strategy in twisting the debate around the toll road, a sly little piece of rhetorical positioning that places highway building in line with a progressive approach to building Dallas’ future. Jones backs up his argument with more understandable concerns, that those who suffer most from congestion in the Mixmaster (which the toll road, he argues, would ostensibly relieve) are those who live south of the city and have to commute to the north for work. He demands highway “capacity” on the grounds of social justice.

Rodger Jones, the champion of the working man and the highways he drives on. It’s a ridiculous, untenable position. The highways were once seen as harbingers of progress. They were certainly forces of change. In Dallas, they were constructed on land torn from the Cedars, dividing it from downtown. They were built by bulldozing Little Mexico. They created a concrete moat that cordoned off African-American communities and turned them into highway-walled ghettos. They helped facilitate the steady growth northward to cheap land, the exportation of value to suburbs, the transfer of job centers away from the city center, and the reliance of those who make their homes south of Dallas on heavily congested roads to get to work. They helped create today’s status quo, which is the hardship that Jones’ describes: the commutes, the time in the car away from family life, the sprawl that makes public transit both expensive to develop and unreliable to use, the precious dollars from low-wage jobs that are wasted on the means of getting to the job, the general wear and tear of auto-centric life.

And yet, somehow Jones’ vision of progress is to merely perpetuate the development models that created today’s situation. He even admits as much in his latest piece, that the way the Trinity toll road will be built is by starting small and then growing continuously. Jones is likely correct there. If it is built, there will be pressure on the toll road to continually expand it. This is what 60 years of highway development has taught us. Highways generate capacity, which swells to congestion, and they are then under pressure to expand capacity only to continue the cycle. It’s also precisely why building the Trinity toll road is an asinine idea. In the long run, it will relieve nothing. It will only destroy the land it will run through, Dallas’ most valuable green space.

But here’s the real problem: Dallas is seduced by “big” ideas, but it is a city with little appetite for truly radical ones. And Dallas’ transportation problem can only be solved by radical ideas.

Not building a toll road in a flood plain is not a radical idea. In fact, doing so is radically backward. But beginning to map out a new highway future, to break the momentum of the sprawling expanse of freeways, for the city to assert itself to regional planning bodies and begin to wrestle away control of their own future — these are radical, though necessary, steps for Dallas. This is the only way the status quo is truly broken. We need a complete rethinking of how to mitigate the impact of the highways. To start, I like the idea of rerouting I-35 through traffic west to loop 12, taking Stemmons down to a boulevard, tearing out I-345, and rerouting I-30 south around South Dallas.

Today, more than ever in this city’s history, there is an indication of the willingness to embrace a more progressive vision. Even more fascinating than the fact that so many high-profile backers of the Trinity toll road have changed their position have been their stated reasons for doing so. They indicate a more nuanced understand of the civic worth — from economic and transportation concerns, to issues of sustainability, walkability, urban aesthetics, and the virtues of the city understood as polis, the functioning organism of civic life — than Jones does with his faux-pragmatics of moving workers in cars to job sites along highways.

Jones is correct on one point, however. A truly radical solution to Dallas transportation — a rewriting of the long-range planning play book — will not be done quickly or without some temporary perpetuation of the present hardship for commuters who travel from the south to the north. But to pretend that a perpetuation of the means by which those economic inequalities were realized is somehow the best solution to solving those inequalities is disingenuous. Cities aren’t built in days. If Dallas wants to fix the way transportation creates geographic and class incongruities, then it needs to undo the mistakes of the previous generation of planners and map out a truly sustainable future. The next generation of South Dallas residents deserves nothing less.