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Transportation planners show ‘low-cost’ fixes to I-35

Thursday, November 1, 2012 by Kimberly Reeves

Solutions for the traffic woes along Interstate 35 through Austin continue to evolve, and a picture of short-term fixes has begun to emerge for often-crowded intersections such as Cesar Chavez, Riverside and Oltorf.


Typically, when the traffic woes of I-35 are discussed, the solutions are large scale. Want to join east to west? Maybe the entire freeway corridor should be depressed, like the Central Expressway in Dallas, or extensively widened like the multi-lane I-10 on the western edge of Houston, known as the Katy Freeway. Many Austinites would find such solutions more unpalatable than the current situation. But that’s not the biggest reason such solutions won’t even be proposed.


“The problem is we don’t have money like that anymore,” said Chuck Fuhs of Parsons Brinckerhoff, the firm leading a study of shorter-term solutions on Interstate 35. “There will be no more Katy Freeways.”


Turning I-35 through Austin into another Katy Freeway would require massive purchases of right of way and the uprooting of dozens of businesses. The initial price tag on the Katy expansion project was just over $1 billion; the final tally once completed: $2.8 billion.


Austin City Council, which in May approved a $1.2 million contract out of 2010 bond funds for a study of Interstate 35, is thinking smaller. So Fuhs is working with solutions that fit within the existing freeway footprint, while improving traffic flow.


“What we’re finding is that everybody is making suggestions in the spirit of what we’re trying to do. They’re keeping things grounded,” said Fuhs, whose first major road project was reversible freeway lanes in Houston. “We’ve heard very few solutions that say blow it up. We don’t have the funding for that kind of project.”


What rose to the top of the suggestions likely chosen by the city should fit into the freeway’s existing footprint. 


The William Cannon intersection could be improved with dedicated right-turn lanes, plus better signalization. Fixing the Riverside intersection might require a bridge replacement, and an express lane in each direction could improve the Oltorf intersection.


Fuhs showed off those proposals at a Monday morning open house at City Hall. The showiest project on the board was the proposed improvements to the Cesar Chavez intersection.


The Interstate 35 study proposes a solution at Cesar Chavez that looks something like the Klyde Warren Deck Park, the new 5.2-acre park over the recessed Woodall Rogers Freeway in Dallas. The five-acre privately funded park, which cost $110 million, sits on top of the existing freeway, which flows underneath.


“That would probably be the most expensive project,” Fuhs said.


City officials want this series of meetings to generate projects that could be put to the voters with a future transportation bond issue. Since the contract was awarded, New York-based Parsons Brinckerhoff has conducted 60 stakeholder meetings, generating 300 assorted solutions, Fuhs said.


John-Michael Vincent Cortez of Capital Metro also was at Monday’s town hall meeting. Cortez said the success of the city’s bond proposals, such as creating high-occupancy vehicle lanes, would support Cap Metro’s planned MetroRapid bus service, which is expected to launch in 2014. It will provide more frequent service with better reliability and greater capacity on key corridors. Of the $48 million price tag, federal funding will cover $38 million, Cortez said.


Long term, a regional multi-modal transit system will require the inclusion of population centers like Round Rock and Georgetown. That will be part of the 30-year vision for Cap Metro.


“We all have to figure out a way to work together,” Cortez said. “We need to decide how to deliver mobility and transit solutions together.”


The Interstate 35 study will include another series of meetings in late January or early February, Cortez said. A final review by Council is expected next summer.


Related links:


Interstate 35,

Klyde Warren Park,

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