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Photo by TxDOT
Monday, April 12, 2021 by Seth Smalley
TxDOT wants to add four lanes to I-35, but a citizen work group is pushing ‘BAC’
At the April 5 joint meeting of the Bicycle and Pedestrian Advisory councils (BAC and PAC), members reviewed a Google doc detailing their recommendations to the Texas Department of Transportation regarding the I-35 Capital Express Project.
The massive highway project proposes adding two managed lanes, in an attempt to relieve congestion, to each side of Interstate 35, from U.S. Highway 290 East to Ben White Boulevard/State Highway 71.
According to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute, the 19-mile commute between Austin and Round Rock is currently projected to take 2.5 hours by 2035. In 2011, TxDOT and Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization formed Mobility 35 to provide plans to alleviate congestion along the highway. The I-35 Capital Express Project is one such plan.
Several members of the working group, however, still regard the plan with skepticism, citing the concept of “induced demand,” along with a host of other critiques.
“Many studies, including Transportation for America’s Congestion Con report, affirm that widening highways merely induces more driving and offsets short-term congestion gains while impacting safety, air quality, noise, and other environmental and quality of life aspects,” reads the draft recommendations for TxDOT.
On top of the issue of induced demand (“We’re literally paying $4.9 billion to make it suck more,” exclaimed one Twitter user), others pointed out that I-35 still represents and enforces segregationist-era policies. The highway continues to physically separate West and East Austin, providing few crossing opportunities, which the “My35” plan does little to change.
Still others, like urban designer Brendan Wittstruck, criticize TxDOT’s traffic flow projections as gross overestimations to justify the added lanes, pointing to discrepancies between TxDOT’s past predictions for average annual daily trips and actual available traffic data.
“TxDOT’s Mobility35 plan does not adequately address safety for people on bicycles and on foot as it maintains three-plus high-speed frontage road lanes. It also fails to provide any additional safe crossing points, a key aspect of reconnecting East and West Austin,” Tristan Heinen, a former BAC vice chair who is currently unaffiliated, told the Austin Monitor. “It’s a bad plan – 1950s-era thinking applied to a 2020 problem.”
Council Member Greg Casar also weighed in, both in a letter to TxDOT and on Twitter, where he wrote: “For decades, I-35 has been an enforcer of division. We should be working to connect our communities, instead of making that division wider.” Last month, City Council passed a resolution critiquing TxDOT’s current plan for the highway.
The joint council’s other active mobility recommendations to TxDOT included fully burying or dismantling the highway downtown, in accordance with up-to-date data on pedestrian and cyclist safety, and “to enable the city of Austin to reconnect its street grid and repair the divide that presently separates it.” The joint council also recommended that TxDOT increase emphasis on mitigating air and noise pollution.
PAC and BAC also included a host of recommendations related to urban streetscape and human-centric design needs. Among these requests were making use of dead pocket spaces around the highway and under bridges; adding landscaping to smaller “dead spaces,” adding facilities like bike parking, water fountains and benches where possible; adding pedestrian crossings every quarter-mile; and designing turning movements to slow cars while simultaneously maximizing visibility of all road users.
Christopher Heathcott, a BAC chair, addressed the working group regarding TxDOT’s response to their prior round of recommendations. “TxDOT has come back and modified some of the scope. Some of those were positive changes, but we still have a lot to say about what we’d like to see to carry it forward. That’s what this document is about, not necessarily to reiterate everything we said in the prior one.”
Stephanie Webb, another BAC member, made the point that citizen opinion on the matter of highway expansion is ubiquitous, a point affirmed in the work group’s recommendations: “TxDOT received over 2,300 comments in December 2020, from the general public, several working groups, neighborhood groups, local nonprofits and Austin City Council.”
“We wanted to make it clear a lot of citizen and historical input already exists, and basically they’re continuing to put the onus on the public as if this information is not readily available. People can see responses that aren’t pro-highway or pro-auto – it’s all there,” Webb said.
Wittstruck also took to Twitter to criticize the plan: “We still have a lot to learn about TxDOT designs for I-35, but we should be making new crossings a priority in order to meet the goal of improving east-west access. A good place to start is COA’s recommendation of a maximum half-mile between crossings,” he wrote.
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