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TxDOT opens I-35 scoping phase

Wednesday, November 11, 2020 by Ryan Thornton

Mobility advocates are calling on the Texas Department of Transportation to reimagine its plans for the Interstate 35 corridor through Central Austin as the agency prepares to open the public scoping phase of the project this week.

The Capital Express Central virtual open house will begin Thursday afternoon and continue through Dec. 12, offering residents an opportunity to provide feedback on the proposed $6.6 billion interstate expansion that would add two non-tolled managed lanes in each direction, from U.S. Highway 290 East to Ben White Boulevard. However, TxDOT says the open house is also an opportunity for the community to comment on the purpose and need of the project as well as a range of alternative designs.

Local transportation advocates are urging the state to reshape its outlook for the project as part of the upcoming scoping phase. A group of undisclosed community organizations have drafted a forthcoming document articulating the various concepts that should be part of the scoping process. These include human and environmental health impacts; economic sustainability and socioeconomic disparities; per capita vehicle miles traveled and mobility access; compatibility with the goals of the city and its adopted plans; and thorough study of all meaningful design alternatives and how each of these issues is addressed.

“The community has a very full range of needs and so the design alternatives that TxDOT puts forth should reflect that breadth of need,” Adam Greenfield of Walk Austin, a nonprofit focused on improving mobility options and access, told the Austin Monitor. “We want to see a number of alternatives that are very different from each other, that give the public an idea of the full range of what we can consider.”

Susan Fraser, project manager for the Capital Express Central concept, told the city’s Pedestrian Advisory Council in July that TxDOT anticipates considering a diversity of alternative scenarios as part of the scoping process. Board members said the alternatives should include a more sustainable design with stronger consideration for all transportation modes, an option to reroute the interstate along State Highway 130 and a “no-build” scenario.

Despite the state’s plans to improve facilities for bicycles and pedestrians as part of the redesign, Greenfield said the current proposal is worse than what exists today. He added, “It’s a highway expansion; if they’re interested in managing lanes, then they should do that with the existing ones. You’re going to have all the traffic that you have today, plus whoever’s in the managed lanes.”

The Texas Transportation Commission amended its 2020 Unified Transportation Program in April to add $3.4 billion from state revenues for the Capital Express Central segment. The Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization replaced $633 million of projects – including public transit and active transportation facilities – from its 2021-2024 Transportation Improvement Program in order to help cover a portion of the funding gap for the interstate expansion.

Drawing upon the state’s proposal to depress the highway lanes through the city core, both the Urban Land Institute and Reconnect Austin have created individual designs seeking to reclaim portions of the surface for public use through a “cap and stitch” project. TxDOT has not rejected the concept, but has refused to offer any financial assistance.

The agency is accepting comments online at the open house web page or via email or phone at 512-651-2948.

Photo made available through a Creative Commons license.

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