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Where should I-35 be covered? Neighbors fight for relief from planned highway expansion

An aerial view of I-35 looking over the upper decks and into downtown. The Austin skyline is in the background.
Nathan Bernier
TxDOT's I-35 plans involve tearing down the upper decks and lowering the main lanes beneath ground level, creating an opportunity to cover the sunken lanes with giant lids called "caps."

With I-35 in Central Austin on course for its most dramatic transformation since opening in 1962, the city is scrambling to find hundreds of millions of dollars to blunt the impact of a multibillion-dollar highway widening.

The Texas Department of Transportation wants to add a pair of high-occupancy vehicle lanes in each direction between Ben White Boulevard and U.S. 290 East as part of the I-35 Capital Express Central Project.

Those bracing for disruption along the project's path have been fighting for resources to mute the effects of expanding an interstate through the middle of America's 11th largest city.

But so far, a once-in-a-generation attempt to conceal the highway under giant lids called "caps" has focused on a single part of the city: downtown.

"The North-Central residential areas have been really left out of the innovation that we're seeing in some of the downtown areas," said Brendan Wittstruck, who chairs the North Central I-35 Neighborhood Coalition, a group of a dozen neighborhood associations along the interstate.

Under TxDOT's plans, I-35's main lanes would be sunk 25 feet beneath ground level. The state agency produced schematics and illustrations showing the interstate capped from Cesar Chavez to East Eighth Street.

A TxDOT illustration showing caps over I-35 in downtown Austin. The northbound and southbound frontage roads under this proposal would be configured to run side-by-side as a boulevard-style thoroughfare.
A TxDOT illustration shows caps over I-35 in downtown Austin. The northbound and southbound frontage roads under this proposal would be configured to run side by side as a boulevard-style thoroughfare.

Some bridges would be widened to make room for extra pedestrian amenities on either side of the road. Officials call the widened bridges "stitches."

An overhead illustration showing a standard width stitch on the right and and broad width stitch on the left. The standard width stitch has a sidewalk protected from the road by a buffer with plants and trees on both sides of the sidewalk. The broad width stitch includes a small plaza and a lawn among other amenities.
City of Austin
The City of Austin produced these illustrations to help visualize the widened bridges called "stitches."

TxDOT will pay for the widened bridges, but Austin has to foot the bill for caps. Early estimates peg the city's portion at $700 million to $800 million. The cost includes the Cesar Chavez to Eighth Street covering, along with smaller caps at several locations and yet-to-be-determined public amenities on top.

"We're going to continue to refine those numbers," said Mike Trimble, director of the city's Corridor Program Office. He said he expected more details on the financial details and cap locations by early next year.

A TxDOT schematic map showing a shaded blue area next to the Holly Street bridge crossing the lowered lanes of I-35. The blue area shows where the city is considering paying for a mini-cap to increase the width of the stitch.
With the main lanes of I-35 lowered, Holly Street would cross over the interstate instead of under like it does now. The shaded blue area shows where Austin is considering paying for a mini-cap to increase the width of TxDOT's "stitch," a term for a bridge with extra pedestrian space on either side of the road. The cost estimate indicated in the schematic does not include any "surface level enhancements" the city would like to add.

TxDOT plans to sink the main lanes through downtown to past Airport Boulevard, creating a wide range of opportunities for concealing the interstate beneath caps.

UT Austin is in talks with TxDOT over the possibility of capping I-35 from East 15th Street to about 30th Street. UT Austin declined to comment for this story, saying it was too early to know what involvement the university might have, if any.

A TxDOT schematic map showing a shaded green area between East 15th Street and Clyde Littlefield Drive. The shaded green area is where the University of Texas could pay to put a cap over I-35.
TxDOT is in talks with UT Austin to pay for a cap over the shaded green area of the I-35 schematic from East 15th Street to about 30th Street. This map shows most of that proposed covering. UT declined to comment saying it's too soon to know what, if any, involvement the university might have.

Sinking the main lanes to Airport Boulevard will also mean tearing down the upper decks — elevated lanes that opened in 1975 — and widening the highway's footprint next to the Cherrywood neighborhood, enveloping businesses along the frontage road and pushing the right-of-way up to people's backyards.

In response, the Cherrywood Neighborhood Association drafted a proposal to cap the lowered main lanes from 32nd Street at least to 38th 1/2 Street. But so far, residents have struggled to gain traction with the city or TxDOT.

An overhead illustration showing a deck covering I-35 from 32nd Street to 38 1/2 Street with a shaded section suggesting the cap could be expanded further to 41st Street. The cap appears to have parks and trees, tennis and basketball courts, a dog run, parking, playground and a pavilion.
Cherrywood Neighborhood Association
Cherrywood neighbors used TxDOT's schematics to develop this illustration showing a deck covering I-35 from 32nd Street to 38th 1/2 Street. A shaded section suggests the cap could be expanded farther to 41st Street.

"What we're really asking for immediately is that TxDOT draw plans for this section of highway that allows for it eventually to be capped," said Brandy Savarese, vice chair of the Cherrywood Neighborhood Association. "If TxDOT designs the highway the way they are currently planning to design it, we can never cap this section."

TxDOT says its main concern with the Cherrywood North-Central deck proposal is access. The agency didn't make anyone available for an interview, but said in an e-mail that capping I-35 in Cherrywood could restrict ramps needed not only for operation of the high-occupancy vehicle lanes, but also for vital access to St. David's Medical Center at 32nd Street.

An aerial view of the I-35 upper decks looking north
Nathan Bernier
St. David's Medical Center (bottom left) is at 32nd Street and I-35, across the highway from the Cherrywood neighborhood.

Cherrywood Neighborhood Association President Jim Walker says TxDOT is oversimplifying an engineering issue.

"There's still a lot of space there where you could add caps across. But we'd like a continued conversation. That's the period of the project we're in," he said.

The City of Austin is considering small caps over I-35 at 32nd and 38th 1/2 Streets that would build off the widened bridges, but it's a small improvement compared to what the neighborhood association wants.

A schematic map showing a shaded blue area next to the bridge over 38th 1/2 Street where the city is considering paying for a mini-cap to increase the width of the stitch.
The shaded blue area next to the 38th 1/2 Street bridge is where the city is considering paying for a mini-cap to increase the width of the stitch.

"Multiple neighborhoods along the corridor would like to see as much as they can for their neighborhood and their community," Trimble said. "We understand that and we definitely are open to that."

Cherrywood has the most detailed proposal yet among the neighborhoods next to I-35, according to Wittstruck. But he says across the board, people want the daily impacts of the highway mitigated.

"They want the presence of it to be less in their lives. That could be safety. That could be noise. That could be air and water pollution," he said.

For example, Austin City Council Member Chito Vela — whose District 4 includes I-35 from Cameron Road almost to Braker Lane — is incensed that no major crossings are planned between 51st Street and U.S. 290 East.

"It is a huge distance in the middle of a major urban center," he said. "Completely unacceptable."

TxDOT has proposed a pedestrian-only bridge across I-35 near the Capital Plaza Shopping Center. Vela says that's not good enough.

A schematic map showing a pedestrian crossing over I-35 north of 53rd 1/2 Street at Capital Plaza Shopping Center. The blue line indicating a crossing shows how people would have to walk switchbacks to gain enough height to cross over the interstate.
The blue line over I-35 shows a suggested pedestrian crossing at Capital Plaza Shopping Center. This would be the only crossing between 51st Street and U.S. 290 East. The main lanes would not be lowered at this point, so the blue line indicates switchbacks people would have to walk up to cross over the highway.

"I do not want a dinky little pedestrian bridge that very, very few people will use. I want an actual east-west crossing that vehicles can use, that bikes can use, that pedestrians can use, so we can start to stitch together Windsor Park and Ridgetop, East and West Austin," he said.

As the I-35 widening is set to disrupt life along the highway and neighborhoods look for ways to take the edge off, the City of Austin is getting ready to launch a new round of public outreach over the cap and stitch plans, likely in the late summer or early fall.

Meanwhile, TxDOT will hold a public hearing on caps and stitches early next year. The state agency expects to have funding agreements with the city in place by next spring with payments for the caps due by the summer of 2024.

Construction on the I-35 expansion in Central Austin is scheduled to start in late 2025.

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Nathan Bernier is the transportation reporter at KUT. He covers the big projects that are reshaping how we get around Austin, like the I-35 overhaul, the airport's rapid growth and the multibillion-dollar transit expansion Project Connect. He also focuses on the daily changes that affect how we walk, bike and drive around the city. Got a tip? Email him at Follow him on X @KUTnathan.
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