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UTC calls TxDOT proposal to expand I-35 ‘just so weak’

Friday, September 9, 2022 by Samuel Stark

Urban Transportation commissioners voiced their continuing concerns Tuesday about the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans to reconstruct and expand the portion of Interstate 35 that goes through Austin’s downtown.

TxDOT is currently studying the environmental impacts of the two design options it has left – Build Alternative 2 and Updated Build Alternative 3 – and is scheduled to present the study results by the end of this year. But while TxDOT accelerates its plans, the Urban Transportation Commission wondered if the proposals are the best routes forward for the future of the city.

“I feel like there is a real gap between where TxDOT is … and where the community is. I’m really struggling with this project,” Commissioner Susan Somers said.

TxDOT aimed to address some of the community’s concerns about the expansion when updating the plans for Build Alternative 3, which it unveiled in January 2022. This plan lowers the main lanes of I-35 from Ben White to U.S. Highway 290 East, creating more opportunities for highway coverings, or caps; adds more pedestrian and bike crossings; and creates a boulevard-like section by moving the northbound frontage road to the west of downtown. 

“This is better than some things we could have imagined 10 years ago. Is it really what I imagined for the community now? I’m struggling with that,” Somers said. “I’m struggling with it mightily and I honestly think we deserve better than the alternatives that we have,” she added.

Some, however, continue to hold out hope for a completely different path forward. Rethink35, a grassroots organization that opposes expanding Interstate 35, was one of three groups that filed a lawsuit in June against TxDOT for its expansion plans. Rethink35 proposes rerouting non-local I-35 traffic around Austin’s downtown area and replacing the current highway with an urban boulevard.

Through community outreach and input, TxDOT enumerated a list of requests Austinites had for the expansion plans. Tommy Abrego, a TxDOT program manager, presented some of those desires to the Urban Transportation Commission. Some of the things community members requested include: 

  • No higher, no wider
  • More east-west crossing for better connectivity
  • More bicycle and pedestrian enhancements
  • Encourage transit
  • Maintain Holly Street connection
  • Urban feel to downtown
  • Use TxDOT right of way to create land for the development
  • Reduce impact on homes and businesses

“I agree these bullet points are great to address, but how are they physically really truly addressed?” Chair Mario Champion asked. “That kind of lack of vision really … it kind of works me up,” he said. “It’s just so weak.” 

“What is it about TxDOT that is always just about building new roads?” Champion asked. “It’s the Department of Transportation, it is not a department of road building. Is there a sentence somewhere that someone has said in the entire organization, about how we can move people and not just build roads to move cars?” he continued.

If TxDOT is successful in selling either of its two plans, the agency will begin construction in late 2025. The estimated price tag is $4.9 billion and the city of Austin would need to raise an additional $313 million to execute the highway capping. 

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