Leah Binkovitz | @leahbink | June 20, 2016
Picture this: a booming city at the crossroads of five major railroads, a hub of international business, with parks and streetcar suburbs all at the busiest port of entry along the U.S.-Mexico border.
That was El Paso in 1925. And, in some ways, it’s the concept the city of 650,000 is trying to revisit today.
The border city is working towards implementing a set of ambitious projects it adopted in a 2012 mater plan that addresses improved walkability, bi-national connectivity, historic preservation, tourism and better air quality, among other topics. Connecting many of those priorities is a system of four planned bus rapid transit lines that El Paso hopes will be part of its effort to transform the border metropolis into a more urban destination. Getting it all right will be critical to realizing the dreams that El Paso leaders have for their vision of a new kind of city.
El Paso launched its first bus rapid transit route in late 2014, with plans for three more in the works. Now, a streetcar is also under construction, with a three-phase plan that could eventually send the line across the border to connect El Paso and Ciudad Juárez in Mexico. The 2012 plan also includes the possibilities of light-rail, commuter rail and intercity rail projects, all of which would be part of transforming the city.
To create a vision of the future, the city looked to older plans. Embracing the City Beautiful movement, its 1925 plan is credited with creating “showpiece public parks.” Today, city leaders want to build on that concept. “What the 1925 plan did for the design, functionality and inclusiveness of the City’s parks, Plan El Paso seeks to achieve for streets, those other great shared spaces of city life,” reads the report.
The city’s focus on streets and transit is about more than just connectivity, though. As was the case in many Texas cities, El Paso’s streetcars gave way to cars and sprawl in the 1980s. Today, the recent turn to transit-oriented development plays against a complicated history.
Though the city proudly touts its reputation for safety, its economic outlook suffered in the second half of the 20th century. “Relative to the U.S.,” concluded a report from 2001 by Christine Brenner at the University of Texas at El Paso, “the post-WWII years have seen El Paso County’s position slide further and further behind U.S. families’ economic success.”
Today, there’s a range of median household incomes in the county, depending on where you look; from $59,145 in the Mission Hills neighborhood to $12,013 to the east of I-10. And those divides have been present from the start of talks to revitalize downtown when the city approved a plan crafted by private business leaders in 2006.
That plan featured “a sports arena, a hotel, shops and an ‘arts walk’ resembling San Antonio’s River Walk,” wrote Debbie Nathan for Texas Monthly. It also included plans to demolish parts of El Segundo Barrio, an area with deep history, particularly for the area’s African-American and Chicano communities. In a city that is more than 80 percent Hispanic, the downtown plan did not sit well in some quarters.
“Why does the entire Segundo Barrio, one of the oldest neighborhoods in El Paso, not have a historic district designation while relatively newer and more affluent neighborhoods such Sunset Heights and Kern Place do,” asked David Romo, an author and El Paso native. To many, Segundo Barrio was the Ellis Island of the border, according to Romo. And the threat to the neighborhood recalled scores of older moments in the city’s history in which development meant displacement.
The plan faced vocal opposition so the city responded with a new draft plan in 2010 that was eventually adopted in 2012. This one won national acclaim — in particular garnering plaudits from the urban planning community — and it addressed the whole region, not just downtown.
Excitement, verve and energy
The new plan was hundreds of pages long. It included musings on the importance of beauty and outlines for projects like a bi-national rail project that would connect the bordering cities of El Paso and Ciudad Juárez.
“The City of El Paso wishes to become the least car-dependent city in the Southwest, through meaningful travel options and land-use patterns that support walkability, livability, and sustainability,” the city wrote in the report. “Over time, El Paso will join the ranks of the most walkable and transit-rich metropolitan areas in the country.”
To that end, the city’s Mass Transit Board began planning a new rapid transit system. It was a long process that included branding analysis with help from a communications company. In the end, Sun Metro settled on “Brio” — Spanish for “excitement” — as the the new service’s name.
Coming from the west side of the city into downtown, Brio’s Mesa line was the first to be open in 2014. Traveling east and south from downtown, the Alameda line is expected to be completed in early 2018, according to Raul Escobedo, assistant director for development for Sun Metro. That leaves the Dyer line, which goes north of downtown, and the Montana line, which will run east from the Five Points Terminal just north of downtown and includes a stop at the international airport. Most of the lines are being funded by a mix of state and federal funds, except for the Alameda, which the city of El Paso funded on its own.
“The four corridors consist of the major state highway thoroughfares in the city,” explained Escobedo. The Mesa line connects the west side of town with hospitals, the local University of Texas campus and the downtown branch of the city’s community college.
“With the introduction of bus rapid transit, thousands of riders throughout the city’s Mesa corridor will have affordable, reliable access to jobs, education, medical services and other destinations,” Ray LaHood, then U.S. Transportation Secretary said in a statement when construction along the first rapid transit route began in 2013.
Ridership on the Mesa line started strong. Within months of opening, it was one of the most-used routes, averaging 63,000 riders per month in its first year, according to Escobedo. But that number dropped to what is now 46,000 average riders per month. He attributed the decrease to lower fuel costs, ongoing construction that impact the route and the decreased value of the Mexican peso, which potentially impacts both tourism and local, transnational communities.
The stops are roughly a mile apart, and the city sees each one as an opportunity. “Each of these stops has the potential to generate or reinforce compact walkable redevelopment due to increased pedestrian activity,” according to the report. The transfer centers along the routes are described as sites for “future compact neighborhoods,” or “opportunities to grow without the constant outward expansion of past decades.”
Plan El Paso “calls for an increase in the number of pedestrian pathways, bicycle paths and facilities and transit-oriented developments,” said Escobedo. Brio is “the first major step in this direction.”
The system, he said, “will encourage patrons to potentially leave the use of a private vehicle, move into urbanized areas and thus increase the economic vitality and sustainability of El Paso.”
For now, the buses share the road for portions of the route with other vehicular traffic but the system does use coordinated traffic signals to get them through intersections. And the city’s master plan leaves the door open for converting parts of the system to light rail.
The next step is the El Paso Streetcar, which is currently under construction, recalling the old streetcar that once included an international line between Ciudad Juárez and El Paso before shutting down in 1974. The projects, which includes three phases, will eventually restore service across the border.
The plan also raises the possibility of commuter and intercity rail.
Transit options like those not only strengthen the city’s multimodal vision but also provide the backbone for all its other ambitions, including its “policies on walkability, travel choices, re-investing in Downtown first, and re-shaping El Paso’s urban form and economic development through public transit and transit-oriented development.”