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A Deeper Look at Austin Plans to Bury I-35

Austin traffic can be awful. And Austin drivers know that a great part of that congestion comes from stop-and-go traffic on Interstate 35.

Big problems demand big solutions – and the "cut and cap" proposal to bury I-35 is gaining momentum. The plan, developed by Austin architect Sinclair Black would “cut” I-35 from Cesar Chavez to 12th Street. Those lanes would then be built underground, and “capped” by something. The Austin City Council OK’d a closer look at the plan back in June.

Black’s plan returns I-35 to its earlier incarnation as East Avenue – a simple line of surface streets. The idea is to tear down the barriers separating the east and west sides of the city – that’s why his version of the project’s called Reconnect Austin.

“We would be on a street with wide sidewalks – tree covered,” Black says. “About 100 feet away would be the edge of a surface boulevard. The east-west streets would all be stitched back together.”

The Texas Department of Transportation’s (TXDoT) idea is slightly different. Engineer Terry McCoy says the cut and depression of lanes would still take place. But “the difference comes in with respect to the frontage roads,” he says. “With our proposal, the frontage roads would essentially stay where they are. With the Reconnect Austin proposal, the thought would be to move those over the top of I-35. So that’s the basic fundamental difference.”

Newly-built Klyde Warren Park in Dallas rests atop a "capped" portion of Interstate 35.

What TXDoT proposes is very similar to what Dallas finished last year. Dallas capped its highway with what’s now known as Klyde Warren Park.

Black says the newly gained interconnectivity between uptown and downtown Dallas is invaluable. So is the peacefulness that surrounds Klyde Warren Park. But one thing Black says is easier to value would be the revenue that could come if the Austin City Council decided to pursue his proposal – and contrary to TXDoT desire – raised the frontage roads.

By freeing up 30 acres of developable land downtown, Black says “a very, very conservative development in a 25-year period would create 3.2 billion dollars in tax base.”

Black’s proposal is attracting private investors into the conversation. Private equity funds built Dallas’ Klyde Warren Park in almost three years. But TXDoT says it has no money for this project – and lobbying for funds could take decades.

At the moment, Austin City Manager Marc Ott is evaluating the economic merits of both proposals.  He will make a presentation before city council by the middle of fall.

Click on the image below to see an animated gif of how a sunken and redeveloped I-35 area could look, viewed from Fifth Street.

Credit Reconnect Austin

Texas Standard reporter Joy Diaz has amassed a lengthy and highly recognized body of work in public media reporting. Prior to joining Texas Standard, Joy was a reporter with Austin NPR station KUT on and off since 2005. There, she covered city news and politics, education, healthcare and immigration.
Wells has been a part of KUT News since 2012, when he was hired as the station's first online reporter. He's currently the social media host and producer for Texas Standard, KUT's flagship news program. In between those gigs, he served as online editor for KUT, covering news in Austin, Central Texas and beyond.
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