Will I-35 See A Cap Someday?

September 20, 2013 by Kate Harrington

Here’s the good news when it comes to potential solutions to address the congestion on I-35: from the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) to the Texas A&M Transportation Institute (TTI), several entities in the state are working hard at finding strategies to improve the highway. Here’s the bad news: no matter what strategy is implemented, there’s no easy fix for the highway that’s been officially dubbed the most congested corridor in the state.

At a Sept. 18 meeting with the Downtown Austin Alliance mobility committee, TxDOT and TTI representatives summarized their findings regarding solutions to ease traffic woes and improve safety on I-35. The way TxDOT sees it, there are three viable options: a modified version of the existing highway, which would raise I-35’s southbound lanes at Cesar Chavez and add some east-west connectivity; a depression of I-35’s main lanes from Holly Street to 12th Street; or a depression of those lanes plus partial caps over some of the depressed downtown lanes.

The price tag on those possible solutions ranges from $142 million for the simplest modifications all the way to $615 million for depressed downtown lanes and partial caps. TTI didn’t propose a specific strategy, but instead presented analyses its staff did on different design possibilities for I-35. The scenario that did best in reducing traffic jams included added capacity, plus an active attempt to reduce trips and expand travel options with public transit.

There is another option that’s been floating around Austin, proposed by architect Sinclair Black. Black’s initiative, Reconnect Austin, builds on TxDOT’s depressed lanes and partial cap idea, but adds to that the idea of a complete cap over the depressed lanes in downtown Austin. Reconnect Austin also envisions reducing the current right-of-way in order to transform about 30 acres of under-utilized land into space for mixed-use projects. Additional managed lanes could also provide funding.

Reconnect Austin
Reconnect Austin’s vision for I-35

“Based on a conservative 25-year build-out projection, this idea could support over 7,000 residents, create about 48,000 jobs, yield $3.2 billion in new tax base, and generate an estimated $1 billion in recurring, new property tax revenue,” says Reconnect Austin’s website. “Other benefits include reducing noise and air pollution, helping revitalize Waller Creek, setting the stage for the Medical District, and reconnecting Austin in a way that makes I-35 a better neighbor for all.”

Not so fast, says TxDOT. Lorena Echeverria de Misi, the TxDOT director of planning and development who gave the Sept. 18 presentation, says that Reconnect Austin’s plan doesn’t meet interstate standards, doesn’t include tunnel safety and ventilation measures or structural support for the caps, and would require more right of way than currently exists. In addition, it would require moving current utilities, which the state has to pay for by law.

While Reconnect Austin’s version of the I-35 cut and cap plan could happen, de Misi says, TxDOT sees the more modified version of depressed lanes and partial caps as a more viable scenario. The department recently partnered with the city of Dallas and private donors to build the Woodall-Rodgers Freeway and Klyde Warren Park, an already existing depressed-lane stretch of highway that got a new park cap.

No matter what scenario ends up taking shape on I-35, funding it will be a huge challenge. TxDOT estimates its total I-35 corridor initiative, which includes improvements to the highway in Hays, Travis and Williamson counties, will cost $1.3 billion to $1.9 billion in 2013 dollars. And according to de Misi, the current available funding TxDOT has doesn’t even begin to scratch the surface of that total.

For more information on TxDOT’s I-35 improvement program, click here. For more information on Reconnect Austin, click here.

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Written by Kate Harrington

Kate is a former reporter, most recently for the Austin Business Journal, where she covered real estate, economic development and transportation. Since 2010 she has been running Thumbtack Communications. Thumbtack provides writing, editing and marketing services. Before moving to Austin in 2002 Kate lived in her native New England, which she still visits often to escape the Texas heat.