TxDOT to seize part of Waller Beach Park for I-35 construction
I-35 in Central Austin is on the cusp of a once-in-a-generation change as the Texas Department of Transportation gears up for an almost $5 billion transformation of the highway that slices through the city's core.
Before the state's contractors start eight years of construction, residents get a chance to weigh in on the sweeping project from Ben White Boulevard to U.S. 290 East. A federally mandated 60-day public comment period ends at 11:59 p.m.
Many of the far-reaching effects of expanding the 8-mile span are buried in plain sight among the 517 pages of the draft environmental impact statement — the document open to public comment — which balloons to almost 9,000 pages with attached technical reports, land surveys, maps and appendixes.
One of the lesser known impacts: TxDOT plans to seize 1.2 acres of Waller Beach Park at Lady Bird Lake and use the land as a construction staging area for at least six years. After construction, TxDOT will keep the land for maintenance operations on the I-35 bridge.
The state will also restrict access to about 25 acres of Lady Bird Lake itself, stopping people from any recreational boating near the bridge during construction.
Sectional barges about 50 feet by 40 feet are being considered as construction platforms on the lake, TxDOT told KUT.
The state agency is contemplating building a dock or pier that would stretch at least 200 feet offshore to support heavy equipment like cranes, excavators and large trucks.
Waller Beach Park's closure would mean an almost 1,000-foot detour of the Ann and Roy Butler Hike and Bike Trail for six years. The trail is Austin's most popular recreational feature with more than 5 million annual visitors, according to the nonprofit Trail Conservancy.
The trail detour would run along East Avenue, a two-lane road without sidewalks that runs underneath I-35. The city wasn't sure yet if the street would be closed to cars and trucks.
The Trail Conservancy, which is primarily responsible for operations and maintenance of the Butler Trail, has met with the state to talk about detour routes.
"We have provided TxDOT with input regarding any potential reroutes due to construction on I-35," Trail Conservancy CEO Heidi Anderson told KUT in a statement. "We recognize that we are one part of the bigger puzzle and plan to stay engaged in the conversations. Our primary goal is to ensure the safety of Trail users, especially throughout this project."
Because parts of Waller Beach Park were bought with federal funds, TxDOT can't just cut the city a check for the 1.2 acres of parkland. The state agency is required by federal law to replace the land with park space of at least equivalent value. The replacement property must be approved by the National Parks Service and the Texas Parks and Wildlife Department.
"Obviously, you can't replace exactly that, so it has to be an alternative that gives you the same, somewhat, characteristics," said Ricardo Soliz, a division manager who oversees park planning for the City of Austin.
TxDOT says its search for replacement parkland has included reaching out to more than 20 property owners, but so far, nothing has been settled.
"The timeline for acquisition of a replacement property has not been determined at this time," TxDOT spokesperson Brad Wheelis said in an email.
When work is done on the new I-35 bridge, TxDOT says the Butler Trail would be returned to its original condition. The construction pier would be converted for recreational use and left in place.
Waller Beach would be the most severely impacted of nearby parks, but others would be affected, too.
Edward Rendon Sr. Park, on the northeast side of the I-35 bridge right next to Waller Beach, would temporarily lose about 0.7 acres for construction activities. That would last about six months, according to TxDOT.
Norwood Park, a 10-acre area with an off-leash dog park on the southwest side of the bridge, would lose more than half an acre for up to a year.
International Shores on the southeast side of the bridge would lose 0.6 acres for up to one-and-a-half years. The temporary closure would prevent access to the Butler Trail, which is the main purpose of the park.
TxDOT says construction will require periodic closures of the trail near the I-35 bridge on both sides of the lake for up to three days at a time.
The I-35 Capital Express Central Project intends to boost the capacity of the highway by adding two high-occupancy vehicle lanes in each direction from Ben White to 290 East.
Plans call for removing the upper decks and sinking the main lanes below ground level for much of the distance between Oltorf Street and Airport Boulevard. The city wants to raise up to $800 million to cover the sunken highway from about Cesar Chavez to Eighth streets.
TxDOT says it will look at all comments given during the two-month public feedback period on the draft environmental impact statement and "assess their feasibility for incorporation into the design."
The state hopes construction will begin in the spring of 2024.