I-35 overhaul in Austin advances, but some activists balk

Dive Brief:

  • Texas is planning a massive three-part overhaul and expansion of Interstate 35 in Austin, which runs through the city’s downtown. The highway is old and needs repairs, and has topped most-congested lists for years. It has also been the site of many pedestrian, bike and other traffic deaths, according to Texas’ Vision Zero data
  • TxDOT proposes to revamp the interstate to make it safer and more efficient, and to improve mobility for cars, transit and other modes. However, some community groups, business leaders and others are criticizing the plan, saying the expansion will only worsen traffic, displace residents and local businesses and also perpetuate a racist legacy of using the highway to separate communities.
  • Plans for the last of the project’s three sections could change between between now and next year. The Central portion is in an earlier stage than the North and South sections, and there are two alternative designs on the table. If the process goes forward without major delays or alterations, construction could begin in 2022.

Dive Insight:

The I-35 Capital Express Program project is a TxDOT proposal to revamp 28 miles of road from State Highway 45 North and State Highway 45 Southeast. The highway sees nearly 200,000 vehicle mile trips every day, according to the city’s website, and the goal of the project is to improve safety and relieve congestion by adding two non-toll lanes, as well as bike and pedestrian enhancements. 

The project, part of the state’s overarching Mobility35 program to update the highway from Gainesville to Laredo, is broken into three standalone parts:

  • The I-35 Capital Express North project would add one non-toll managed lane in both directions from SH 45 North to US 290 East. At a cost of about $400 million, the project would also rebuild six bridges and make safety and mobility upgrades. 
  • At $300 million, the I-35 Capital Express South project proposes to add two non-tolled managed lanes down both sides of I-35 from State Highway 71/Ben White Boulevard to SH 45 Southeast, according to TxDOT’s fact sheet.
  • The I-35 Capital Express Central project will cost about $4.9 billion and would add two non-tolled high-occupancy vehicle (HOV) managed lanes along I-35 from US 290 East to SH 71/Ben White Boulevard. 

The North and South projects are set to start in 2022, and are expected to take between three to four years to complete. While the construction on the Central project is slated for 2025, the timeline depends on the final design for the plan. 

The entire project is to be paid for using a combination of state and federal tax and gas money, according to TxDOT.

The I-35 Capital Express project encompasses three major phases.

Retrieved from TxDOT on November 05, 2021

 

Is there a better way?

As the project moves forward, there has been increasing pushback from groups concerned that the expansion will displace residents and businesses, and won’t address congestion long-term thanks to a phenomenon called “induced demand.”

TxDOT is currently developing an Environmental Impact Study for the project, a requirement from the National Environmental Policy Act (NEPA). But some don’t feel the NEPA system is “designed to incorporate the level of community involvement that Austinites want for this project,” Heyden Black Walker, co-founder of Reconnect Austin, a grassroots campaign to rework the I-35 plan, told Construction Dive.

Reconnect Austin, along with another local group Rethink35, have a different vision of the future of I-35, in particular the Central portion, which is located in the heart of the city. 

TxDOT’s current plan prioritizes congestion relief as the reason for the expansion, but other impacts such as increased air and noise pollution, separation of the city and housing shortages are not being meaningfully evaluated, Walker said. Reconnect Austin aims to bury and cap I-35 in downtown Austin, and repurpose the corridor as public space and developable land.

Rethink35 co-founder Adam Greenfield said his group is looking to create a boulevard in downtown Austin and direct I-35 traffic around the city instead of through it.

Where the project stands

While plans for I-35 South and North are further along and seem solidified, the Central portion is still in flux. During the time since the project was proposed back in 2012, there have been several public forums, and the final section is now going through the EIS process.

There are two alternative designs from TxDOT on the table right now, both of which expand I-35 to 20 lanes. Walker said that while some ideas from local groups were incorporated into TxDOT’s plans, no community proposal was chosen as an official project alternative.

The process to move ahead with a preferred alternative on the Central portion is slated for sometime in the fall of 2022, but Greenfield and supporters of Rethink35 are still optimistic that their vision for I-35 will be embraced by the public.

“Until the shovel hits the ground, this is in play,” Greenfield said.