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Watson takes his I-35 plan for a spin

Friday, May 27, 2016 by Caleb Pritchard

A huge crowd packed into the ballroom at the Hyatt Regency on Lady Bird Lake on Thursday afternoon to hear state Senator Kirk Watson deliver his plan to fund billions of dollars’ worth of projects on Interstate 35 from Williamson County down south to Hays County. The vision includes significant changes to the roadway in Austin, especially as it passes through downtown. Watson’s speech expounded on details he gave to the Austin Monitor on Wednesday: funding would come from, among other sources, the Texas Department of Transportation, toll revenue and, potentially, tax increment financing. “We need an everything-and-the-kitchen-sink approach,” Watson declared. However, one option is decidedly off the table: Watson confirmed that he wouldn’t suggest a bond proposal for Austin voters to consider. Instead, he explained that city money could be used as part of a credit swap with TxDOT. The state agency would be able to pay back the city, which has a lower borrowing rate, said Watson. He explained that putting local money on the table is imperative to realizing the ambitious goal of putting I-35 below grade between Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard and Lady Bird Lake. TxDOT has assimilated the ambitious cut-and-cap proposal envisioned by Reconnect Austin and produced a synthesis that Watson said is called the Lowered Option. It would sink the highway, replacing the virtual wall dividing downtown from east Austin with a chasm that could be covered with deck parks. Reconnect Austin Project Manager Heyden Black Walker attended Watson’s speech and offered her reaction to the Monitor afterwards. “It’s not a great reconnection,” she said. “It may be pretty, but it’s still a huge concrete highway that spews air pollution, noise and all those things that highways do.”

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