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Mobility Commission hears plea not to widen I-35

Monday, January 25, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

“BE IT RESOLVED,” read Urban Transportation Commission Chair Mario Champion, “the UTC urges TxDOT in the strongest possible way not to widen I-35.”  

This recommendation, along with many others from the Urban Transportation Commission, amounts to the city’s first official rebuke of the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans to widen Interstate 35 through Austin. At last Thursday’s Mobility Committee meeting, Champion presented UTC’s recommendations, outlining the commission’s vision for a new I-35. 

“There’s a real possibility to make it more human-centered and friendlier,” Champion said. “We didn’t say I-35 needs to go away, but to make it wider is unlikely to address the issues that it says it will address, like congestion. There is a lot of evidence around that.”

Council Member Ann Kitchen indicated that City Council will likely craft a similar resolution. “We really appreciate that recommendation from UTC,” said Kitchen. “A number of us may be moving forward with a resolution for the Council to more formally make comments and endorse the comments our staff have made to TxDOT.”

UTC endorsed the “cut-and-cap” vision that groups such as the Urban Land Institute and Reconnect Austin have floated. In this scenario, I-35 would sit below ground through Central Austin, and parks, a boulevard and possibly new real estate developments would be built on top of the highway and in its right of way. The advocacy group Rethink35 proposes getting rid of I-35 through Austin altogether and replacing it with a boulevard.

During a scoping period late last fall, TxDOT presented three proposed plans; none were cut-and-cap. Though TxDOT said it will still consider the option, it will not pay for the cap.

UTC’s recommendations fell into four categories: climate, safety, equity and high-capacity transit. 

Champion said that the new I-35 should be built with climate change in mind. “Austin faces a climate catastrophe if we don’t act in a concerted way to change how we spend money, especially when we spend money planning for fossil fuel vehicles.”

He also mentioned I-35’s legacy of segregation: “I-35 was a directed and intentional project to physically enforce racial segregation, and widening … does not help ameliorate that.”

Champion said that “the city, the pulse of the citizens” favors high-capacity transit, not large investments in infrastructure for cars. He pointed to the success of propositions A and B in November, saying, “We should try to meet what the citizens have said they wanted.” One UTC recommendation asks TxDOT to consider putting money into Project Connect instead of rebuilding I-35.

The project as proposed, he said, was not in line with any of Austin’s plans and goals, such as Vision Zero or reaching a 50/50 mode share split by 2039 where at least half of all trips use sustainable transportation such as walking, biking or mass transit.

Making such goals a reality requires more closely aligning state and local government priorities. So far, in the I-35 reconstruction saga, state leaders, including Gov. Greg Abbott, have pushed for widening the road. All of TxDOT’s preliminary plans show a wider road, including an option with 20 lanes – eight more than the current number.

Local leaders, for their part, may end up sharing a common vision for the highway. “There’s a lot of alignment (among city leaders),” Champion said. “Whether or not these things can be made to happen of course is the issue.” 

“We understand that the city of Austin is not in charge of TxDOT,” Champion said. “But we have members and we have influence.”

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