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Austin City Council demands changes to I-35 plan

An aerial view of I-35, looking north from Ben White Boulevard. The Austin skyline can be seen in the distance. The sky is blue.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
TxDOT plans a major expansion of I-35 starting in 2024, with construction spanning an estimated eight years. The plan from Ben White Boulevard to U.S. 290 East includes adding two high-occupancy vehicle lanes in each direction, among other major changes.

Austin's City Council wants I-35 to have more crossings and fewer semitrucks, among other changes, as the Texas Department of Transportation gears up for a sweeping expansion of the highway through Travis County.

But the list of City Council demands approved on a 10-1 vote Thursday — with only Mayor Kirk Watson opposed — underlined an irritating political reality for opponents of the highway widening: Local government has limited power to slam the brakes.

"I'm conscious of the power dynamics between the state and the city," District 4 Council Member Chito Vela, a driving force behind the council resolution, said after hearing from numerous residents demanding that Austin fight harder against TxDOT's plans.

"It's going to be a balance. We're going to have to work with TxDOT," Vela said. "But this is a once-in-a-generation opportunity. We've got to get it right."

City Council's list of demands for the I-35 Capital Express Project include the following:

  • I-35 should have a "full east-west crossing" around every quarter mile, and should not go more than half a mile without a crossing.
  • As much of I-35 as possible should be lowered and covered.
  • Construction should be done to maximize the possibility to add more coverings in the future.
  • The number of properties seized to expand the highway's right-of-way should be minimized.
  • Eighteen-wheelers should be incentivized to use Texas State Highway 130 instead of I-35.
  • Water runoff from I-35 should be filtered and treated.
  • Frontage roads should have speed limits no higher than the local street network.

The I-35 Capital Express project involves increasing the highway's capacity through Travis County. The 28-mile project is split into three separate parts — North, Central and South. A federal lawsuit alleges this division was done to skirt environmental law.

Construction began last month on the South segment from Ben White Boulevard almost to the Hays County line, with plans to add elevated lanes from Ben White almost to Slaughter. Work on the North project starts soon.

The Central portion of the project — by far the largest, costliest and most impactful of the three —would add two non-tolled, high-occupancy lanes in each direction from Ben White to U.S. 290 East. The upper decks north of Manor Road would be torn down. Dozens of homes and businesses would be seized.

"I question the feasibility of demanding TxDOT design the project as dictated by the resolution given that we have yet to identify a funding source for the caps alone."
Mayor Kirk Watson, who voted against the list of TxDOT demands

Mainlanes would be sunk beneath ground level for most of the distance from Oltorf Street to Airport Boulevard. Austin is considering covering the lanes with decks from about Cesar Chavez to Eighth Street, if the city can find the estimated $800 million to pay for it.

TxDOT has proposed UT Austin pay to cover I-35 next to campus. The university is in communication with TxDOT but won't reveal anything about internal deliberations.

"Still too early to know what, if any, involvement we might have," was the entire response from a spokesperson in President Jay Hartzell's office to a list of questions from KUT.

As modest as the City Council's demands may have seemed to critics of the I-35 expansion, they went too far for Austin's mayor.

Watson — who pushed as a state senator for the I-35 project to receive billions in funding — said the city hasn't even come up with the $800 million to pay for covering the sunken lanes.

"You all know that I’ve been deeply involved with this project for many years, and the vision has changed considerably because of the community engagement process that we started in 2011," he explained this week on the council message board.

"I question the feasibility of demanding TxDOT design the project as dictated by the resolution given that we have yet to identify a funding source for the caps alone," he wrote.

Watson said he was also concerned about pushing 18-wheelers to SH 130. TxDOT says the policy would have a negligible benefit on congestion, claiming only 7% of all traffic on I-35 is made of freight trucks traveling through Austin without stopping. And the shift would cost $3 billion in lost tolls, TxDOT said.

Some people who spoke during public comment Thursday told council members their demands didn't go far enough to reduce the harms caused by growing the highway's footprint by 42 acres.

"I really hope that you take this opportunity to act with more vigor and leadership against TxDOT," said Luis Osta, an Austin resident who said he was raised in Katy and saw the effects of repeated expansions of the Katy Freeway. He said the city was being "too friendly, too demurring."

Some Central Austin neighborhood groups — like in Hyde Park and North Loop — agreed with the call for more east-west connections but remained worried about the overall project. The Cherrywood Neighborhood Association questioned the traffic modeling used by TxDOT to justify the I-35 expansion.

The City Council is transmitting its desires to TxDOT as the agency is accepting public feedback on more than 7,000 pages that purport to explain all the environmental consequences from the I-35 project, from air quality to land seizures to noise pollution. The process is required by the federal government.

Anyone can let TxDOT know what they think. You have until March 7 to check out the documents and leave a public comment.

If you found this reporting valuable, please consider making a donation to support it. Your gift pays for everything you find on KUT.org. Thanks for donating today.

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 nbernier@kut.org. Follow him on Twitter @KUTnathan.
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