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I-35 plans take center stage at City Council work session

Wednesday, September 1, 2021 by Elizabeth Pagano

With plans on the table to build a 20-lane road through the heart of the city, Austin City Council took some time during its Tuesday work session to address TxDOT’s vision for the future of Interstate 35.

In his presentation to Council, TxDOT district engineer Tucker Ferguson stressed the need to increase capacity on the road, but pushed back against the idea that it was all about adding lanes. 

Addressing concerns from the community about the plan to expand the footprint and impact of I-35 through downtown, Ferguson said that the transportation authority had looked at alternative plans proposed by community groups and had them evaluated by the Texas Transportation Institute. He said Reconnect Austin’s proposal to cap the freeway from Cesar Chavez Street to Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard, and Rethink 35’s plan to turn the road into a boulevard through the city’s core, would both push an unacceptable amount of traffic onto nearby surface streets.

“Interstate traffic needs to stay on the interstate,” he said. “Pushing it into the neighborhoods … it’s simply not the right thing to do.”

That said, Ferguson told Council that TxDOT had incorporated some of the concepts forwarded by Rethink 35 and Reconnect Austin. Current plans call for the highway to be sunk below grade downtown and include public art, buffers, shared-use paths, and bypass lanes on the frontage road that will allow drivers to skip traffic lights.

In addition, a suggestion from the Urban Land Institute to cap and stitch “certain locations” to create expanded plazas is now being included in the plans. Though those details are not yet finalized, Ferguson said expanded crossings at Airport Boulevard, 38th Street, Dean Keeton, 12th Street, and Cesar Chavez were being considered, and TxDOT was working with the city to finalize locations and find funding sources. 

“The one thing that we have heard loud and clear through our public outreach and visiting with the community is that we need to prioritize moving people over moving vehicles,” said Ferguson, who touted managed lanes for carpools and buses. “We’re always accused of just adding lanes, but the use of the lanes is just as important.”

On Tuesday, Council members echoed the same worries that Austinites have expressed about the project, which threatens to encroach into neighborhoods that border the freeway and has the potential to exacerbate economic justice issues.

“It’s not just a highway. It’s about how we get around town and we all know it was built on top of a red line from our city plans from 1928. We find that unconscionable today, and so this is our moment to identify those needs,” said Council Member Paige Ellis, who asked that the project be evaluated to ensure it acknowledged the climate crisis and modes of transportation other than cars.

Mayor Steve Adler stressed the need to reduce the footprint of the project as much as possible, and pushed for a cap over the freeway.

“I think there needs to be a cap or a lid on this. And I think it’s something that ought to be part of the project cost that is paid by TxDOT,” said Adler, who said he hoped the federal government would require capping due to environmental concerns. While TxDOT is willing to build infrastructure to support a cap, the actual cap would need to be funded through local dollars.

Adler said he thought it was going to be important to get local support for the project, suggesting it might be worth waiting “four or five years” if that’s what it takes to get it right. 

“Doing nothing is still on the table,” Ferguson said. “But it would be disappointing to take all the progress we made to this point … and throw that all away.”

“This is a really tough project,” Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar said. He said that removing I-35 wasn’t an option, and keeping the current state of affairs wasn’t either, given safety and capacity concerns.

Spillar explained that he has been working with TxDOT to “skinny up” the options for expanding capacity on the road. He said he was “surprised” by the number of displacements that could take place as a result of the project and was working to make sure that the only displacements were “absolutely unavoidable.” 

“I think we need to acknowledge the role of this freeway in creating the divide that it has been,” he said. “We obviously have a role in bridging that divide as well.”

Spillar told Council that the city has been involved and will stay involved in the project. “A transformational project is desperately needed,” he said, explaining that they would continue to make sure the project reflects the goals and policies of the city, including the minimization of displacements throughout the corridor. 

Council members and a coalition of local businesses and organizations will hold a press conference today at Stars Cafe – one of the businesses slated for demolition to make way for more road – to urge officials to rethink the current plan.

“On Aug. 10, the Texas Department of Transportation announced plans to expand I-35 through Austin to more than 20 lanes. To accomplish this, TxDOT intends to seize 32 acres of land to demolish 72 homes and 75 businesses, including beloved institutions Stars Cafe, Escuelita del Alma day care center, and the Austin Chronicle building,” a press release from Walk Austin explains, saying speakers will gather “to demand Austin’s most prominent scar be healed, not made higher and wider, reminding local leaders of the immense harm I-35 has caused to local communities for decades.”

TxDOT has agreed to extend its public comment period on the proposed I-35 expansion through Sept. 24. Comments can be submitted online.

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