With funding in place, experts begin to reimagine I-35′s future

By Mark D. Wilson

The next 10 years of transportation improvements to Interstate 35 in Austin will be megalithic and could alter the face of the city like never before.

When the Texas Transportation Commission last Thursday approved a funding plan that would pump nearly $8 billion into the redevelopment of I-35 through the heart of downtown, it created an opportunity to remake a traditional dividing line in Austin.

The plan would fund a once-in-a-generation reworking of the highway that could add a few managed lanes to increase capacity.

That same week, a team of experts from the Urban Land Institute met in Austin to brainstorm how a reimagined I-35 could not only improve the flow of traffic on the highway’s main lanes but also forge connections within the city.

The end result could be the highway getting lowered, and topped with green space, bike lanes, amenities for pedestrians and boulevards lined with businesses.

Over the past 50 years, the evolution of I-35 has become something of an asphalt allegory for Austin itself.

The two-lane road formerly known as East Avenue began its journey to becoming a major international connector in the late 1940s when government officials carved out more land for the road. East Avenue became a full-fledged interstate in 1962, and development north continued into the mid-1960s. According to texasfreeway.com, the Inner Space Caverns in Georgetown were discovered while the highway was being built in 1963.

Growth continued with the addition of the upper deck in the 1970s, and saw lane expansions and connections with U.S. 183 and U.S. 290 in the 1990s and 2000s.

But it has swelled into a massive concrete complex routinely gummed up with traffic.

As more vehicles cram onto the thoroughfare, the highway has been unable to absorb the load, remaining relatively unchanged since the 1970s.

Austin’s population and property values, though, continue to soar — igniting suburban sprawl that sends more people to homes up and down the highway to Round Rock, San Marcos or farther. The stretch of the highway through downtown has become one of the most congested in the state.

By 2040, state transportation officials expect 116,000 more cars a day to traverse Austin via I-35. That prospect has brought city and state leaders to a critical juncture, where they must transform the highway to reduce congestion while considering the past, present and future of Austin.

Thursday’s move by state transportation officials pushed that goal closer to reality than at any time in recent memory.

The changes to the interstate’s main lanes obviously won’t happen in a vacuum. Miles of the road abut the University of Texas campus, the city’s popular Sixth Street entertainment district and areas near downtown that are primed for development and investment as part of numerous long-term city projects, including the Austin Convention Center and Palm School. But local, not state, forces will be responsible for the community vision along and over the highway.

After the upper decks of I-35 went up in the 1970s, and long before, the highway was a barrier that divided Austin’s eastern sector — home to many black and Latino residents because of 20th century segregationist policies — from the rest of the city.

“I-35 has been a barrier, not just a symbolic barrier, but a physical barrier to access between downtown and the east side,” Austin Transportation Director Robert Spillar said. “Now that we have a chance to rebuild it, we need to rebuild it better.”

Colette Pierce Burnette, president and CEO of Huston-Tillotson University, said the new interstate project will give Austin a chance to invest not only in growth, but also in healing.

“Traditionally, highway projects in our nation have been projects that have either displaced or disconnected communities, generally communities of low-income status or communities of color,” she said. “Austin was not separated from that concept in our nation’s history, with I-35 tending to be seen as a divide in our city. Today, we have an opportunity to move beyond that.”

The end result of the latest redevelopment plan could include features such as caps over the top of the highway that become parks, green space or pathways for bikes and pedestrians, not just bridges for cars to traverse. Such structures could form a boulevard above the highway filled with athletic fields or trails and lined with businesses or housing. More importantly, it could create several connections tying East Austin to downtown.

Urban Land Institute panelist Ilana Lipsett said she heard from many Austinites during a weeklong series of site visits and discussions hosted by the Downtown Austin Alliance last week that I-35 is a scar across Austin that the city needs to heal.

“This one particular project can’t right the historical wrongs of bad transportation planning and bad development decisions in the past, but a process that centers on marginalized people, that centers on displaced people, that acknowledges the past pain and impacts of past development choices can be part of the process of healing,” Lipsett said.

Dewitt Peart, president and CEO of the Downtown Austin Alliance, said his organization invested nearly a quarter of a million dollars to bring the Urban Land Institute group to town. With the funding announcement from the Transportation Commission, the event took on a new sense of urgency.

Because the Texas Department of Transportation’s plans are still in the early phases, it’s unclear to what extent plans developed by the panel could be implemented. Peart said the key to the project is getting involved in the process early, well ahead of the design phase.

Spillar said the highway through downtown is at a point in its lifespan where it needs to be rebuilt anyway, so city and state leaders can create something unique that better serves Austin residents and drivers.

“The reality is I-35 is at an age where, you know, we have problems,” Spillar said. “We have bridges that are too low; we’ve got roadway lanes that are too narrow; we’ve got exits that are insufficient and entrances that are insufficient. And at some point, you have to just admit you’ve got to tear it down and start over. And it takes as long as it takes. I mean, there’s there’s no way to get around it.”

State officials are shooting for a 2025 construction start date and for possibly completing the project within five years. But the city would face its own workload to construct and improve corridors around the new lanes. That could further draw out the process and the ensuing traffic nightmare.

“Even if it starts in (2025), which is the projection, having developed large freeway projects before in my career, you know, we probably have a decade of construction ahead of us as a community,” Spillar said.

TxDOT is developing a public engagement plan during which Austin residents can weigh in on the proposal beginning in the fall. But panelists said the next several months will be critical in crafting the community’s idea of I-35 in the future.

“Once it’s designed, it will be too late,” Peart said. “I think people need to realize that ultimately, the interstate is going to be improved one way or the other. (The question is) how do we make sure that the community benefits the most from that major investment?”

View the original article on the Austin Statesman here.

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