News & Media

Trans Mountain plan gets more scrutiny

by Chris Roberts (El Paso Times)
July 7, 2012


Two pieces of a plan to widen the western reach of Trans Mountain Road — an entrance to Franklin Mountains State Park and a wildlife crossing — are receiving new scrutiny.

Proposed changes could save millions of dollars as well as provide a safe, unobtrusive entrance to the park and a wildlife crossing animals will use.

The expansion of Trans Mountain to four lanes nearly completes a loop around the city meant to relieve congestion on Interstate 10 and other El Paso roads.

The original Texas Department of Transportation design required eastbound drivers to enter the state park’s Tom Mays Unit by turning left across oncoming freeway traffic without the aid of a traffic light.

Critics said the design would lead to traffic deaths.

The original design also failed to include a wildlife crossing, which meant deer and other animals would be running across the road, creating another safety hazard.

A 2011 El Paso Times story based on emails obtained under the Texas Public Information Act showed that TxDOT officials worked closely with developers who were planning a strip of big-box stores on Trans Mountain near Interstate 10.

That process resulted in an additional interchange and extensive frontage road access to private property, but it gave short shrift to other aspects of the plan.

One email stated that “plans for Transmountain (sic) had long been completed,” before public meetings were held in early 2011.

Nonetheless, public input did lead to a few changes. The plan TxDOT submitted to the Federal Highway Administration, whose duty it is to ensure the plan conforms to federal environmental standards, included consideration of an alternative entrance to the park and a wildlife crossing.

An additional exit off Trans Mountain where the current entrance is located was endorsed by park Superintendent Cesar Mendez last year. He said the entrance should provide a clear front door so users can easily find the park.

Concerns arose that an overpass would block expansive mountain views that are unique to El Paso — one of the original objections to developing the pristine Chihuahuan Desert along Trans Mountain nearly up to the park.

So some suggested an underpass that would allow Trans Mountain to remain at its current grade. That plan would cost about $7.5 million.

El Paso veterinarian Rick Bonart, a Public Service Board member, said he has been advocating for an alternative entrance to the park for 10 years. He does not support the underpass, which also would require concrete and asphalt for the access roads.

“And you’re still going to have signage and lights,” Bonart said. “You’re going to create an eyesore there. … It’ll give people a place to drink beer and spray paint.”

He is suggesting a spur road from the planned Paseo Del Norte exit — which is closest to the park — that parallels Trans Mountain.

Bonart’s plan would cost about $2.5 million.

“There are many routes it could take,” Bonart said. A northern entrance to the park has been suggested and would cost about $4 million, he said. If that were used as a park entrance, it would mean only one road would need be constructed through open space.

“We’re evaluating the alternative for the park entrance including the option suggested by Rick Bonart,” said Blanca Del Valle, a TxDOT spokeswoman.

The city is also studying the possibilities.

“We don’t have a formal recommendation (for the El Paso City Council) yet,” said Mathew McElroy, the city’s development department director. “Our goal is to minimize the number of structures, to minimize scarring.”

He said officials need to ensure that funding can be transferred to a new option. An agreement could come within the next 30 days, he said.

“We don’t want … (the right of way) widened any more than necessary,” McElroy said, “and we don’t want more roads than necessary.”

Public comment on the original TxDOT plan also resulted in a department proposal to convert a large drainage culvert into a wildlife crossing.

The culvert is on an arroyo that is slated to remain as open space. The crossing would have an earthen bottom that can be used by deer, and TxDOT committed to adding more wildlife-crossing warning signs along the road.

Without a crossing, the road and associated development could have long-term effects on wildlife — mule deer in particular — that include severing of migration routes and erosion of home ranges. Park Superintendent Mendez has said the crossing must be placed in a strategic location so animals will use it.

And state wildlife officials have criticized the proposed design. A federal judge hearing a Sierra Club lawsuit filed to stop the widening project recently echoed that criticism after hearing testimony from those officials.

“I’m not here in the role of somebody who’s going to tell you how to do your business,” said U.S. District Judge Lee Yeakel. “But it just seems obvious to me that the … (wildlife officials don’t like) a 600-foot corridor, which … is even a bit daunting to me.”

Yeakel, who described the crossing as a “pipe,” said he would “recommend to the Texas Department of Transportation that you get back with Parks and Wildlife and see whether you’re wasting three quarters of a million dollars on a wildlife corridor that … the experts have said they’ve never met an animal that will use it.”

Del Valle, the TxDOT spokes woman, said she could not comment on that issue “because of pending litigation.”

McElroy said city staffers have not been involved in designing the wildlife crossing.

“We may be asked for information or a consultation,” he said.

Chris Roberts may be reached at; 546-6136.