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Watson presents a new plan for I-35

Tuesday, October 31, 2017 by Caleb Pritchard

State Sen. Kirk Watson unveiled a radical vision for the future of Central Austin on Monday: No more dual decks on Interstate 35.

Watson’s speech before the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce marked the debut of a new plan concocted by the Texas Department of Transportation to add two new tolled lanes in each direction along a 33-mile stretch of the aging freeway between Round Rock and Buda.

Dubbed the “Capital Express,” the plan could see the demolition of the upper decks between Airport Boulevard and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

“This will help to ensure that the express lanes are a reliable alternative, because a single lane could get bogged down by a minor incident or even a slow driver,” Watson said. “It also improves the reliability of transit.”

TxDOT has been working on a strategy to revamp I-35 for years even as activists have called for burying the highway along its pass through downtown and as the Capital Metropolitan Transportation Authority eyes bus stops in the freeway’s median.

Watson affirmed on Monday that bus operations are a key consideration of the new plan.

“Transit, transit, transit,” he said.

While specific details are scarce, TxDOT announced via a press release that “The Capital Express project also includes operational improvements such as longer entrance and exit ramps, intersection bypass lanes, and bicycle and pedestrian improvements.”

Three separate environmental studies along the freeway reconstruction project will be consolidated into one.

“This will add some time to the environmental review,” Watson admitted. “But I’m happy to note that the timeline to begin construction downtown is still in early 2021, as envisioned in our original 10-year plan for I-35 improvements.”

The department did not mention any details about costs in its press release. However, the Austin American-Statesman, which scored exclusive details about the story on Monday, reported that it could cost $8.1 billion. That’s nearly $4 billion more than the most recent iteration of the I-35 redux.

Nonetheless, the department is committed to what it sees as a crucial piece of the region’s mobility puzzle.

“Addressing congestion along I-35 is a top priority for the Austin district,” said Terry McCoy, the Austin district engineer at TxDOT. “I-35 is a critical path through Austin and serves as our state’s main thoroughfare for goods and services. This project will ensure reliability when drivers need it most.”

Multiple stakeholders hailed the announcement on Monday evening. Reconnect Austin, the group advocating for the lowering of the highway below grade through downtown Austin, tweeted “Thanks to Senator @KirkPWatson for big announcements #makingcentexwork.”

And Molly Alexander, the Downtown Austin Alliance’s vice president of economic development, called the proposal “a total game-changer.”

“The biggest thing is you have to connect transit,” Alexander told the Austin Monitor. “Direct connections from park-and-rides into the freeway system and having dedicated capacity, whether it’s the managed lanes or something else, is really, really critical to successful transportation.”

Photo by rutlo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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