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UT Austin wants to cover I-35 from Dean Keeton to 15th Street

An aerial view of I-35 north of MLK Jr. Boulevard. Traffic volumes are moderate. On each side of the highway, large UT athletic facilities are visible.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT
Large UT buildings sit along both sides of I-35. On the west side are facilities like the Moody Events Center, Mike Myers Stadium and DKR Memorial Stadium. Facilities on the east side include UFCU Disch-Falk Field, Texas Tennis Center and McCombs Field.

University of Texas officials are hoping to cover I-35 from 15th Street to Dean Keeton once the main lanes of the highway are lowered and upper decks demolished as part of TxDOT's interstate expansion plan.

Covering the sunken highway would create more than 17 acres of new campus space at ground level. UT facilities like UFCU Disch-Falk Field and DKR Texas Memorial Stadium would be separated by a six-lane frontage road instead of the giant highway trench planned through Central Austin.

The so-called capping project "has a lot of support at the highest levels of the university," said Dan Allen, UT Austin's executive director overseeing real estate planning.

"It's a generational opportunity," Allen said, breaking UT's silence on the issue after months of repeated questioning from KUT News.

Two panels pulled from TxDOT's schematic showing UT's caps over the highway shaded in orange. The caps cover most of the western portion of the highway. Frontage roads are at ground level and indicated in pink.
TxDOT
These two panels pulled from TxDOT's schematic show proposed caps over the highway shaded in orange. The top panel is from 15th Street to Clyde Littlefield Drive. The lower panel is from Clyde Littlefield to Dean Keeton Street. The pink lanes are the frontage roads at ground level.

Construction starts next year to plump up I-35 from Ben White Boulevard to U.S. 290 East. The $4.5 billion expansion is the largest highway construction project in Austin since the interstate opened in 1962.

The Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT) will add two lanes in each direction along the 8-mile stretch, demolish the upper decks and lowering the highway for much of the distance from Oltorf Street to Airport Boulevard. The new "managed" lanes will be reserved for vehicles with at least two passengers, public transit and first responders.

TxDOT would design the highway with wider and deeper foundations to support the extra weight from caps. But the state agency says the city and UT have to pay for the extra structural support and other needed infrastructure like fire suppression, powerful fans and emergency escapes.

Those costs would come on top of paying for the caps themselves — or deck plazas, as TxDOT calls them — and anything on top of the coverings like benches, parks, plants, lighting, irrigation or buildings.

The City of Austin is looking to cover the main lanes from Cesar Chavez to Eighth Street. The caps are being designed to hold buildings up to two stories tall.

More recently, plans emergedfor another cap either from 32nd Street to 38 1/2 Street or from 38 1/2 Street to Airport Boulevard. TxDOT made this an either-or choice — much to the disappointment of neighbors pushing for a cap — citing a need to maintain access ramps to Saint David's Medical Center.

An animated gif showing what caps over a lowered I-35 would look like downtown.
TxDOT
This 2015 TxDOT animation is somewhat outdated but gives a basic idea of the capping concept.

For Austin, the price tag for caps could reach $1 billion or more, not including annual maintenance costs.

Finding the money "is our next big challenge here," Austin Mayor Kirk Watson told KUT. "I certainly hope we can. We're going to have to be very creative."

TxDOT wants to be paid by December 2024 or the caps won't get built.

Allen wouldn't provide a cost estimate for UT's caps, saying the plan was in the early stages as university officials collaborate on the design with TxDOT engineers.

"We don't feel any stop signs, just a lot of question marks that we're still working through together," Allen said.

But TxDOT estimates the cost of building UT's three caps between 15th and MLK at almost $400 million. That doesn't include more than $10 million in annual maintenance costs.

"Right now, we're primarily focused on how to make [all three caps]. That would be our desired outcome," Allen said. "We've got a lot of creative people that will improvise and adjust as needed."

A rendering showing what Dean Keeton could look like if UT builds caps.
TxDOT
I-35 at Dean Keeton would look a lot different if UT pays to install caps over the lowered main lanes of the highway.

Covering the highway would help create a new sports and entertainment district at the university, said Sinclair Black, a UT professor emeritus of architecture.

"It eliminates the one extremely dangerous thing about the campus, and that's the highway," said Black, who taught at UT for 50 years. "It never should have been there."

An illustration showing crowds of people, many in burnt orange shirts walking across a four lane road towards the football stadium.
Reconnect Austin
Sinclair Black's Reconnect Austin, a group that advocates for burying I-35, produced this rendering as part of a report pushing UT officials to cover I-35 after TxDOT lowers the main lanes. Black said he shopped the idea around to UT officials: "Anybody that I could get to listen."

Black has been a longtime critic of I-35 and co-founded Reconnect Austin, which pushed for burying the interstate. Last year, the advocacy group produced a report pitching the idea of caps to UT officials.

"The Longhorns are a big deal and raise a lot of money, enough to cap [the highway] of course," he said. "It's not another band-aid. It's a long term solution, for many, many lifetimes."

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