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Planning nonprofit suggests stitching Austin back together over I-35

Monday, March 2, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

With last week’s announcement of funding to improve Interstate 35 through Central Austin, the Downtown Austin Alliance is inviting the community to gather around a vision for a more ambitious plan.

Dewitt Peart, president and CEO of Downtown Austin Alliance, said the organization aims to take advantage of the state’s investments in infrastructure for I-35, “the highway that has been somewhat of a scar on our city,” to build something that benefits everyone, including those who live and work in neighborhoods around the interstate.

The alliance invited the Urban Land Institute to study the interstate in consideration of the Texas Department of Transportation’s proposed Capital Express Project. After touring the corridor and surrounding neighborhoods last week, the nonprofit research group presented its vision to bridge the city’s east-west divide using a “cap and stitch” design.

The “caps” would cover the buried highway with a combined 11 acres of public spaces like soccer fields or parks in key downtown areas. The “stitches” would add new right of way for better east-west connections, featuring bike lanes, wider sidewalks and trees.

The state’s plan to expand I-35 has brought both praise and blame from stakeholders, as did the Texas Transportation Commission’s announcement last week of having secured the $4.3 billion needed to fund the central segment from U.S. Highway 290 East to Ben White Boulevard.

Mike Rollins of the Austin Chamber of Commerce and Gary Farmer of Opportunity Austin sent the commission a letter of enthusiastic support for its decision, calling the project a top priority for the region and a necessary element of regional and national economic health.

Bay Scoggin, director of TexPIRG, had a different take, saying the project “won’t solve congestion, will increase our burden on the environment and will exacerbate our reliance on cars.” Covering the project with public space, he said, won’t change any of that.

“While the cap-and-stitch design is attractive and more park space desirable, adding to our car-dependent infrastructure has time and again shown to increase congestion, increase our carbon footprint and worsen health-related air pollution impacts,” he told the Austin Monitor. “If we want an Austin that is healthier and more mobile, we need to be focusing on moving people, not cars, and $8 billion in taxpayer dollars could be spent on proven public transit solutions. … We should be focusing our efforts there, and not on applying cover-up to what would become the most recent in a long line of highway blemishes that don’t solve congestion.”

During Q&A following the Urban Land Institute’s presentation on Friday, a participant raised a similar point: “Why don’t we allocate more money to revamping the infrastructure of mass transit as opposed to making the highway not as visible of a problem?” he asked.

The responding panel members agreed that the I-35 work is critical because the highway is unlikely to go away anytime soon and because in its current form it stands as a major barrier to connectivity between East and Central Austin. Considering that, panel chair Marilyn Jordan Taylor said the bigger issue is not about preserving the highway, but about facilitating as many travel choices as possible and helping people get out of private cars and engaged in their communities.

Besides the cap and stitch, the Urban Land Institute is proposing to hang the surface boulevard lanes over the four new managed highway lanes, freeing up about 22 feet on the surface for street trees, bike lanes or even development. In some areas, panelist Eliza Datta said the design could free up space to allow the city to work with the state to build affordable housing for communities experiencing displacement.

Based on similar projects in cities around the world, the research group estimates the cap-and-stitch solution would cost $313 million. A little more than half of that cost could be covered with a tax increment financing district surrounding the highway from 15th Street to Lady Bird Lake. Other options would be federal grants, allocation of state funding, philanthropy, or highway tolls, an option the state has so far refused to consider.

The state will open a public comment period to approve funding the central segment on March 13. The commission could vote to approve the funding as soon as April 30.

Rendering courtesy of the Urban Land Institute.

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