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City seeks federal transit funds to improve east-west connections along I-35

Thursday, October 6, 2022 by Chad Swiatecki

The city has hopes of securing federal transportation funds intended to reconnect communities severed from economic and other opportunities by transit infrastructure, specifically Interstate 35.

Last week City Council approved a resolution to submit the Our Future 35: Connecting Equitably Study to the U.S. Department of Transportation for funding consideration as part of the new Reconnecting Communities pilot program.

The $1 billion pilot provides $250 million for planning costs and $750 million for capital projects to communities to “restore connectivity through the removal, retrofit, mitigation, or replacement of eligible transportation infrastructure.”

The resolution, which passed 8-0-1 with Council Member Mackenzie Kelly abstaining, specifies the Texas Department of Transportation’s proposed cap-and-stitch approach to lowering much of I-35. An amendment from Council Member Chito Vela directs city staff to include the entire Capital Express Central Project between U.S. Highway 290 East and State Highway 71/Ben White Boulevard in the scope of the plan for possible funding.

Vela said burying the roadway through sections of his District 4 portion of the city would greatly improve east-west access that is severely limited in areas around 51st Street and Rundberg Lane.

“There are places in my district where it’s one and a half miles without an east-west crossing … in a major American city that is just unacceptable for the purposes of mobility,” he said. “TxDOT knows this and so they’ve proposed a pedestrian bridge because of there being so many deaths that have happened from folks trying to walk across I-35.”

The program’s planning grants can be used to study the feasibility and impacts of removing, retrofitting or mitigating an existing facility or structure, with the goal of removing or otherwise mitigating it and reconnecting affected communities.

Capital construction grants can be used for projects that have already gone through the planning phase, with the same end goals as the planning grants.

Mayor Pro Tem Alison Alter suggested that Council’s Mobility Committee put an item on its next agenda to discuss the state of east-west connections along I-35.

While supporting Vela’s amendment, Council Member Ann Kitchen said the entire I-35 project should be examined to promote easier movement across the city in all regions.

“I support this, but I would just say that we need to continue to look at the east-west connections through the entire length of 35,” she said.

“There are problems in the south, also, and I would say the segment down to Ben White is the biggest problem because what has been suggested is an elevated freeway there. So we’re just pushing the elevated portion from where it is now to further south, which is going to create greater divisions.”

Council Member Paige Ellis echoed Kitchen’s sentiments, pushing for the city’s northern and southern regions not to be overlooked as the high-volume interstate road undergoes massive reconstruction in the years ahead.

“I know the central corridor is where all the focus and attention is right now, but the north and south areas … generally in Austin and other Texas cities we need to better understand how to not further divide communities,” she said.

“Since the south and north don’t get as much attention, it is important to at least have the conversation to figure out where we’re at and what we can possibly do to incentivize better decisions and more community engagement moving forward, and also try to do something creative here locally to bring communities physically back together.”

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