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Local advocates envision I-35 as a boulevard

Monday, November 16, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

As the Texas Department of Transportation begins the scoping process for the Interstate 35 Capital Express Central project, a new campaign aims to help clarify the decision at hand. Should Austinites allow the state to build its “expensive, polluting, dangerous, unpleasant highway expansion that makes congestion worse” or support a vision for a “beautiful, safe boulevard with street life and transportation choice”?

The campaign, called Rethink35, proposes removing I-35 and replacing it with a transit-friendly, walkable, surface-level boulevard. Advocates of the concept say it would help the city address everything from gentrification and displacement to climate change, air quality, traffic congestion and safety, all of which have been made worse by the construction and presence of the interstate.

“This project could be a national best practice in improving quality of life for everyone and for narrowing the gap between communities of different socioeconomic backgrounds,” Rethink35 spokesperson Adam Greenfield told the Austin Monitor. “We’re talking about a significant improvement to that part of Austin, and we have the tools to make sure that benefits people who have been disproportionately harmed in the past from I-35.”

The Rethink35 boulevard should not be confused with the “downtown boulevard” concept being explored by TxDOT as an alternative to its preferred design scenarios for the Capital Express Central project. This version of a boulevard would still expand the interstate at a cost of roughly $6.6 billion but would hide the main traffic lanes below the surface, leaving only frontage roads, sidewalks and bike facilities visible. The agency has not expressed serious interest in pursuing this alternative, but it is listed as a potential design option in the ongoing I-35 open house.

Rethink35 is also distinct from the plan known as Reconnect Austin, which seeks to bury I-35 through the city center, cap it with a six-lane boulevard and develop the right-of-way now occupied by access roads with affordable housing.

Greenfield said the Rethink35 vision has several key benefits over these proposals to bury the interstate. At the top of the list, removing the freeway can help combat climate change, traffic violence, poor air quality and suburban sprawl. He added, “Burying a highway addresses a lot of the land use issues but it doesn’t address safety and a lot of the environmental and health impacts.”

The boulevard concept would also circumvent one of the most striking components of TxDOT’s plan – the nearly $5 billion in construction costs alone. Without providing an estimate on the potential savings, Greenfield said the boulevard would prove “very lucrative” over time. “If we don’t dig up the earth we’re already looking at something massively cheaper,” he explained, noting as well the added tax revenue from freeing up right-of-way for development.

“No city that has done a highway-to-boulevard treatment has ever regretted it,” Greenfield said, referencing the early 90s removal of the Embarcadero Freeway in San Francisco. “In fact, no freeway or highway removal has ever been a bad thing; it’s always been a good thing in the history of it happening.”

A 2015 study of I-35 conducted by Texas A&M Transportation Institute concluded that about 86 percent of vehicles on the interstate at any given time are traveling locally, and that, among those traveling through the city of Austin, trucks account for only 1 percent.

Advocates of the boulevard conversion claim much of the local interstate traffic could be dispersed by restoring the city grid that was cut off by the interstate. Much of the traffic, they say, would also be replaced by more trips made by public transit and other sustainable modes. For large trucks and the remaining through traffic, the Rethink35 vision anticipates many drivers will choose an alternative route better suited to high-speed travel.

“We also need to revive the concept of the regional train,” Greenfield added. “People have been talking about trains to San Antonio and beyond for a long time … and I think this is our opportunity to do that.”

The TxDOT I-35 virtual open house is available for comment through Dec. 12. A second scoping meeting will take place in early 2021. The agency has identified 2025 as a potential start date for construction on the eight-mile Capital Express Central project.

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