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Is the plan to cap I-35 doomed?

Reconnect Austin’s innovative vision severely compromised by state Highway Department’s current plans

It seems like, and has been, years since esteemed local architect and UT profesesor Sinclair Black, a principal of Black + Vernooy, and nonprofit Reconnect Austin, revealed proposed plans for addressing the traffic hellscape that is the downtown stretch of IH-35 during rush hours (and at many, many other times).

In the beginning, there were a few variations on the proposals—some made by the Texas Department of Transportation, which is ultimately responsible for whatever changes are made—but all include some variation of a “cut and cap” plan that would bury the highway between from Cesar Chavez through 12th streets, sending interstate traffic through a tunnel and putting a wide, treelined boulevard similar to Memorial Drive in Houston or Austin’s own Lamar Boulevard, but wider (at least that’s how we envisioned it) on top. (Some early versions had current overpasses at East 12th and 11th Streets merely expanded to include wider lanes, bike lanes, and some pedestrian-friendly green space. It also incorporated an existing TXDoT plan to add optional toll lanes in each direction on the highway.

Reconnect Austin plan
Black + Vernooy

According to this 2016 explainer in UT alumni magazine Alcalde, Black intended the plan not only to reduce congestion, as it would essentially widen highway space by eliminating some frontage roads and barriers, as well as taking those traveling only a short distance in the downtown area off the highway, but also to reconnect that section of East and West Austin.

The latter is not simply a matter of making the space between downtown and the Eastside prettier and more pedestrian/bicycle-friendly; it would also be a way to reunite the city’s various cultures and communities that were divided by city-charter-mandated segregation in the 1920s. The building of IH-35 between the two areas in the 1960s created a much more formidable and symbolically freighted barrier than the avenue that had been their border and kept the city functionally segregated for decades after.

Reconnect Austin plan cross-section
Black + Vernooy

Supporters of Reconnect Austin pointed to a similar project completed in Dallas years 2012—Klyde Warren Park, which Alcalde notes has “won national awards and revitalized the northern edge of the city’s downtown.” The magazine also includes San Francisco, Boston, and Portland as cities that have had successful highway-removal projects.

Others found claims of successful congestion reduction dubious, though studies have consistently found that more conventional approaches, such as widening freeways, only invite more traffic and thus make congestion worse.

As an article by James Rambin on Austin real-estate site Towers pointed out in May, the Reconnect Austin plan (which Rambin asserts would also add about 30 acres of developable land options to downtown, allowing an increase in density, and would also improve transportation experiences on Dean Keeton Street and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard with roundabouts and other features) might not, in the end, stand much of a chance of being realized.

The two plans being considered by TXDot, Rambin explains, bear only a small resemblance to the one proposed by Reconnect Austin. The first (depicted in the video above) pretty much just adds lanes to the upper deck of the highway (which currently exists only from MLK Boulevard to East 51st Street; that plan would shoot a hideous monstrosity of highway create equally dismal underpasses through downtown.

The second plan being given serious consideration (see above video), according to Rambin, “does bury I-35 in similar fashion to Reconnect’s vision, but with key differences—it doesn’t move the frontage roads or fully cap the highway, preventing much of the development the organization believes is necessary to join the city’s two sides back together in earnest.”

Rambin also points out that, despite significant and repeated support for the Reconnect Austin from the city—not to mention a failure to solicit opinions from the state’s resident, who will pay for the project via sales and property taxes—TxDOT is relying primarily on its own research, conducted by consultants, shutting out much civic or voter involvement.

Since the deadline for the review is in early 2018, and construction is targeted for 2020, Rambin notes, combined with the fact that it seems already to have narrowed its choices to the two above, it seems unlikely that TXDot will adopt any more aspects of Reconnect Austin’s proposal.

Whatever the plan, it might be the last opportunity to improve the highway for quite some time to come.

Have an opinion on how to solve I-35’s traffic congestion problem? Let us know in the Comments below.

TXEXplainer: The Proposal to Bury I-35 Underground [Alcalde]

The Fundamental Law of Road Congestion: Evidence from US Cities [American Economic Association]

Reconnect Austin’s I-35 Plan Is Running Out of Time [Towers]