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City Council critiques TxDOT’s I-35 plans

Monday, March 29, 2021 by Jonathan Lee

City Council last Thursday made clear what the city’s goals are for the Texas Department of Transportation’s Interstate 35 expansion, passing a resolution critiquing – though not outright opposing – the preliminary plans presented so far. 

The resolution together with letters from the mayor, Council members and city staff urge TxDOT to prioritize safety and moving as many people – not just cars – as possible.

TxDOT’s multibillion-dollar I-35 Capital Express Central project would add two new HOV lanes in each direction between State Highway 71 and U.S. Highway 290, creating a 20-lane freeway that the agency says would help handle current and future demand. TxDOT is requesting public feedback on a range of possible designs, the first of several steps before a final design is chosen. 

The resolution also says that the project should align with the main goal of the Austin Strategic Mobility Plan – a 50/50 mode split between single-occupancy vehicles and all other forms of transportation – by prioritizing pedestrians, cyclists and transit users, and managing demand for the road.

The city asked for several specific design elements to be included. Instead of the proposed HOV lanes, the city prefers tolled lanes, which it says improve transit reliability. The city also hopes TxDOT will include exclusive bus connections from key streets to the managed lanes, as well as integration with planned Project Connect park-and-ride facilities. 

TxDOT must also create hospitable spaces for people walking or biking, and design the frontage roads as safe, slow, appealing urban boulevards. To decrease traffic on the frontage roads, the city floated providing direct ramps from some commuter-heavy streets onto the freeway. 

The resolution also called for “removing I-35 as a physical and social barrier and instead providing a means to reconnect Austin’s surface street grid and East Austin communities to downtown and Central Austin.”

The city response mentioned the possibility of freeway caps, which TxDOT plans to accommodate should the city choose to fund them.

The response comes amidst strong backlash to TxDOT’s I-45 expansion in Houston, as Harris County and the U.S. Department of Transportation halted the project, which was in final design.

Though Austin’s vision for I-35 differs substantially from TxDOT’s early plans, the city has so far struck a conciliatory approach, calling the resolution part of an “ongoing collaborative process” between the city and state.

The city’s response, however, is not entirely unified. Using more forceful language, Council Member Greg Casar and Mayor Pro Tem Natasha Harper-Madison have come out against expansion altogether. 

In his letter to TxDOT, Casar said, “I cannot support a project that conflicts with the city’s connectivity goals and that could widen the highway unnecessarily without addressing the real traffic needs inside the city.” Harper-Madison tweeted that the project is using a “1950s playbook,” and that “simply adding more lanes for more cars won’t get us where we need to go to make Austin a safer, more sustainable and more connected city.”

TxDOT is accepting public feedback on its preliminary plans until April 9 through a virtual scoping open house. Council’s resolution mentioned plans to launch a city-led public engagement process separate from TxDOT’s.

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