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Council to study putting part of I-35 underground to ease congestion

Thursday, June 20, 2013 by Michael Kanin

An item on today’s agenda from Mayor Pro Tem Sheryl Cole and Council Member Chris Riley asks Council members to instruct City Manager Marc Ott to explore the possibility of a ‘Cut & Cap’ project for a portion of I-35 that stretches from Lady Bird Lake to Martin Luther King Boulevard. The resolution would both signal the city’s support for a TxDOT study of the possibility and instruct Ott to contract with a consultant for a financial analysis of the idea. 


At their Tuesday work session, city Transportation Director Robert Spillar repeatedly told Council members that the idea was still in its early stages. Still, Mayor Lee Leffingwell expressed a series of concerns about whether the project would address immediate congestion issues.


“I really think that has to be our number one objective,” Leffingwell said. “We’ve talked endlessly about congestion on I-35 and how to do something about that. Taken on the face of it, the cut and cap proposal, as good as it is, does not really address congestion.”


If it happened, a cut and cap effort would effectively bury a segment of I-35. According to language in the resolution, hopes are that the effort would “connect East and West Austin through the edges of downtown from approximately River Street to Martin Luther King, Jr. Boulevard.”


Resolution language compares the idea to a recently completed project in the DallasFort Worth area. There, engineers buried the Woodall Rodgers Freeway and constructed the new Klyde Warren Park on top of it.


According to a Dallas Morning News article published in October, 2012, that effort took “three years of construction (and) eight years of designing and fundraising” for the park alone. In all, just the park cost $110 million.


Austin’s version is the brainchild of designer Sinclair Black. Black put the price of the project at $550 million in an April 2013 Community Impact story.


Locally, the resolution cites support for the project from a variety of local groups, including the Austin Revitalization Authority, Downtown Austin Alliance, Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association, Rainey Street Neighborhood Association, Cherrywood Neighborhood Association, Real Estate Council of Austin and the Central Texas Chapters of the Sierra Club, American Institute of Architects, and Congress for New Urbanism.


Riley suggested that increased tax revenue could help offset some of the costs of the project. “The argument that has been made by proponents of cut and cap is that recessing the main lanes of I-35 would provide such a tremendous economic benefit to surrounding properties that the incremental tax proceeds from those properties could pay a substantial part of the cost of the project,” he said.


Given that context, Council Member Mike Martinez worried about rising property taxes. “I want us to be keenly aware of the negative side of that impact in that just east of this project are a lot of still working class families that are lower income that will see their property values exponentially increase, therefore see their property taxes exponentially increase,” he suggested.


If the resolution is approved, staff would have 90 days to complete their financial analysis.

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