Highway to hell or heaven?

Photos by Danny Fulgencio

Bill Clinton was president when Lake Highlands leaders first began dreaming of a glorious new LBJ Freeway. Those ambitious planners named the new road “LBJ Ultimate.”  

Twenty years passed, with negotiations and meetings.

Eventually, some privately hoped they could just achieve “LBJ Anything-But-This.”

A handful of the original dreamers are still around, and a new generation of fed-up motorists joined them. Now this volunteer squad appears to have pulled off a moon shot. They have the money — about $1.6 billion. They have a plan. And if we hang on for six or seven more years, engineers say we should be able to average 50 mph at rush hour along the 11 miles of Interstate 635 between U.S. Highway 75 and Interstate 30.

This stretch of interstate, now known by the modest handle “LBJ East,” will have more free lanes and one or two express lanes to soak up some of the excess traffic. Continuous frontage roads will replace the fragmented patchwork of access roads that confuse today’s drivers and render a lot of prime real estate worthless for business development. 

Many in Lake Highlands consider the crown jewel of the project to be the Skillman Gateway, an arched bridge that will flow into an all-new interchange and straighten out the bewildering maze where Audelia and Skillman meet. 

Concrete pillars supporting sound-damping walls are popping up near homes that back up to LBJ. Homeowners have been begging for these walls for years, desperate for some relief from the droning roar of traffic. 

A few of the project’s champions reflected on the bruising journey that brought us to this point. And they recall, most important, their delighted amazement as a platoon of rookie civic activists joined them at the eleventh hour.

“It was the community getting active and fighting for what is most important to them and just watching it,” Dallas City Councilman Adam McGough says.  “For me, it was a beautiful thing.” 

Click on the questions below to find out more about LBJ East.

What Do We Get?

Susan Morgan, neighbor who worked 20 years on planning the Skillman Gateway: It will give us the continuous frontage roads, which are essential to new economic development coming in to the area.

Adam McGough: The sound walls are going up as we speak, right now. That alone is a huge victory for our neighbors.

Michael Morris, transportation director, North Central Texas Council of Governments: Part of LBJ’s problem is the interchanges are all at the wrong locations. So all that’s being fixed. As it is today, if you want to go east-to-west on the frontage road, you’re forced to get on the freeway.

Susan Morgan: How many places do you know with traffic counts in the area of 250,000 per day in one direction and 50,000 in the other direction, and Starbucks can’t survive?

Michael Morris: It’s kind of like when Central Expressway was built. Central Expressway didn’t have continuous frontage roads. So all those short trips that used to get on the freeway are now on the frontage roads. And that’s going to happen on LBJ.

What’s next?

The construction crews will work from west to east, ending at I-30, for six  years before it’s complete. Forms, sketches and plans are moving back and forth, and we’re not close to the day that contractors can bid on the job. The Texas Department of Transportation says we won’t even see dirt fly until late 2019.

Adam McGough: The priority is that the [Skillman Gateway] goes first as soon as we possibly can, but there’s no way to know what the timeline will be on the bridge itself.

Why the hold up?

McGough and City Councilman Lee Kleinman hope they can speed up construction, perhaps as soon as mid-2019.  The project was stalled in December 2017 when Gov. Greg Abbott kept a campaign promise: no new Texas toll roads. Local State Senators Bob Hall and Don Huffines kept that drumbeat steady in Dallas. Meanwhile, engineers figured that for every month the project was delayed, the total price would go up by $5-million

Kathy Stewart, executive director of Lake Highlands Public Improvement District: The problem we had was the primaries coming up and the election year, and the promises that our officials made to their constituents that there would be no new tolls.

Susan Morgan: I started out building a bridge, and I inherited a freeway. The freeway plans had been on the books since the mid-’90s, where we had the community approving this approach with the optional managed toll lanes. So that was pretty shocking.

Adam McGough: TxDOT told us, look, if you wanted us to take LBJ and build 20 lanes, if they’re all free lanes and we don’t have a way to manage them, all we’ll be doing is building a 20-lane parking lot.

Brad McCutcheon, firefighter and first-time activist: The opposition, the lawmakers who were making the decisions, were never really able to demonstrate any tangible opposition, other than just themselves.

What is LBJ Now?

An advocacy group called LBJ Now quickly lit up a social media campaign and began scouting Lake Highlands for foot soldiers. The response energized the faltering campaign.

Brad McCutcheon: My main focus was to just spread the word to our friends and neighbors in Lake Highlands.

As soon as you tell people about the project, people are interested. It didn’t make sense to people why that project would have been pulled at the last minute. And we just started to gain momentum.

Christie Myers, neighbor, Grow South volunteer and Dallas ISD employee: We started following the traffic reports and really understanding the number of accidents that are actually happening on a daily basis. I mean it really is a huge part of people’s lives every single day.

We went down to Austin every month for those meetings … folks who have never spoken at any kind of public meeting. They were uncomfortable, and they were scared, and they were anxious about what they were going to say, but they did it. Because they felt compelled to. Even now it gives me goose bumps.

Kathy Stewart: When you see that kind of commitment to give our neighborhood a voice, that’s just awesome.

Brad McCutcheon: Even after they had taken it off the table, we kept showing up. We kept making respectful comments. I think they realized pretty quickly that this group of people were not elected officials, not lobbyists, not professionals. We were just people from the neighborhood, and we weren’t going anywhere.

Some people who theoretically work for us had decided that this project was going to get pulled, and we were able to quantify our support and I think influence them to reverse their decision. Yeah, it was very rewarding.

What’s the cost of compromise?

Five months into the standoff, it was decided that LBJ East could have one optional toll lane, not two.

Adam McGough: One lane is just not smart for congestion management and looking into the future.

Susan Morgan: It is not what the public had asked for. It is not what the public had approved, but we’re willing to go ahead with it.

Why such opposition?

Tolls aren’t a major concern for Texas residents, according to Texas Lyceum Polls. So why did it matter so much?

Susan Morgan: The public got very disillusioned with toll roads. For instance, Collin County is bounded on three sides with freeways that you cannot use unless you pay a toll.

Lee Kleinman, Dallas City Council Transportation Committee Chair: The reason we have so many tolling roads in Dallas is because very conservative legislatures 10 or 15 years ago were all about privatization and pay-as-you-go.

Susan Morgan: And now they’ve changed their minds and said “no tolls,” and we continue to have inadequate road building in Texas.

Adam McGough: As we pay the roads that are currently tolled off and move on to other projects, let’s convert some of those lanes back to free lanes. I would totally support that, but leave the option of tolling as a mechanism for managing the traffic.

Susan Morgan: Much of the community is still disappointed in the leadership in Austin for having put us through this. They confuse the issue with their rhetoric because their focus is on campaigning. You can’t adequately address the intricacies of transportation in a campaign slogan.

Lee Kleinman: Here’s what boggles my mind: If they were true conservatives, they would say, “Pay as you go; pay for the service you need.” The conservative position is that we should privatize as much of the government as possible, so the government’s not in people’s business.

Susan Morgan: They continue to confuse the issue with their rhetoric, because their focus is on campaigning.  You can’t adequately address the intricacies of transportation in a campaign slogan.

Give it a grade

Susan Morgan: Getting the bridge will be excellent, getting the continuous frontage road will be excellent, getting the increase in the extra lanes is going to be excellent, and keeping that one optional managed (toll) lane is sufficient for now.

Adam McGough: I’d say a solid B that could either turn into an A, or could drop down to a C-minus depending upon how this thing ends up over the next couple of years. The really special part about this has been the community engagement in this process. Because without that, we’re not even sitting here talking about it.

Motivated by LBJ NOW? Here’s other ways to get involved in Lake Highlands.

Kathy Stewart: One of the most important things is to become involved in what is happening in your life at that moment. If you have children in school, get involved in PTA, their sports activities, the booster club, whatever it is. If you live in a neighborhood that you love, get on the board of your neighborhood association. Contribute your time and your energy to making your neighborhood strong. Be a part of crime watch. Be a part of the VIP program.

Brad McCutcheon: Develop a relationship with the elected officials who represent you, your city council person, state rep or senator, even your congressman, depending on the issue. Try to develop a relationship with their office. Don’t just start off attacking them on social media, because you’re never going to insult anybody into agreeing with you.

Christie Myers: If there is something that you are personally passionate about, that matters at a legislative level — and most things do — reach out to your city councilmember. You just have to do it.

Brad McCutcheon: Find as many people as you can who agree with you and who you can motivate to support the cause. There’s a tipping point for every issue. And the more you can quantify the support you’ve got, the closer you get to that tipping point, and the more likely they will be to listen to you.

Kathy Stewart: If you’re passionate and you want to be involved, you have to start engaging. And “engaging” doesn’t mean being a critic on social media. You can absolutely speak up and voice your opinion on social media. But that alone is not how to become involved. You have to couple that with some hard work, getting to know people — work with people and not just fuss at people.