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UT pledges $13.5 million to cover I-35 from Dean Keeton to 15th Street

An aerial image of I-35 looking northbound south of MLK Jr. Boulevard. Mid-day traffic volumes are moderate. It's a sunny day. The Frank Erwin Center hasn't been torn down yet.
Nathan Bernier
/
KUT News
This portion of I-35 between 15th Street and Dean Keeton Street would be covered by UT-financed deck plazas called caps, after TxDOT lowers the main lanes and tears down the upper decks.

The University of Texas is making a $13.5 million down payment to cover I-35 from 15th Street to Dean Keeton, a feat that will be made possible by a state project to widen and lower the highway through Central Austin.

UT System Regents voted Thursday to approve a funding agreement with the Texas Department of Transportation (TxDOT). The initial payment will produce early designs for the so-called "caps" to cover the highway and fund the preparation of federal environmental clearance documentation.

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 UT's 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.

The caps would cover more than 17 acres of main lanes between 15th Street and Dean Keeton Street, bridging the highway that separates UT facilities on either side. The valuable new land could be used for parks, water fountains, trees or buildings, concealing a gaping highway trench.

TxDOT estimated the cost of the caps at $394 million, but the actual price could be higher depending on what amenities UT plans to put on top. Maintenance and operation costs, which include installing and maintaining powerful jet fans to ventilate the tunnel created by covering the highway, are estimated at $10 million a year.

An illustration showing I-35 frontage roads at Dean Keeton if UT-Austin pays to install caps over the highway. The mainlanes are not visible in the illustration.
TxDOT
A possible depiction of I-35 at Dean Keeton Street if UT foots the bill for hundreds of millions in caps.

Regents talked about the plans privately during their executive session, a portion of the meeting typically reserved for confidential or sensitive issues. The nine-member body approved the funding agreement in public without discussion.

UT has largely kept its I-35 plans private, in stark contrast with the City of Austin, which has held numerous open meetings about the capping plans with city council members and TxDOT officials.

The city's caps are planned to cover about 12 blocks: from Cesar Chavez to 7th Street, from 11th to 12th Street and from 38 1/2 Street almost to Airport Boulevard. Smaller "mini caps" — 1.3 acres or less in size — could also go in south of Holly Street and 32nd Street and north of 51st Street.

A high-level view showing possible caps covering Cesar Chavez to 7th Street. Another cap would be installed between 11th and 12th Streets. UT-Austin is considering covering the highway from 15th Street to Dean Keeton. A smaller stitch is possible at 32nd Street. And the last cap would stretch from 38 1/2 Street to Airport Boulevard.
TxDOT
Under the city's plan, I-35 would be covered from Cesar Chavez to 7th Street, from 11th to 12th Streets, from 15th Street to Dean Keeton and from 38 1/2 Street to Airport Boulevard. Smaller decks called "stitches", which don't require fire suppression and ventilation equipment, could be built at Holly, 32nd and 51st Streets.

TxDOT says it won't pay for caps over the highway but will design and construct them — if UT and the City of Austin foot the bill.

Austin's cost estimate is more than $800 million for the caps and amenities built on top. City staff have secured a $105 million federal grant, applied for a TxDOT loan for $191 million and are seeking a second federal grant of $124 million. A bond election, asking voters to pay the remaining costs with higher property taxes, is also under consideration.

In what will be the biggest overhaul of I-35 since the highway opened through Central Austin in 1962, TxDOT is starting construction this year to expand the highway from Ben White Boulevard to U.S. 290 East. Two "managed lanes" — reserved for first responders, transit vehicles and cars or trucks with two or more passengers — are planned in each direction along the eight-mile stretch.

The project includes tearing down the upper decks, constructed in 1975, and lowering the main lanes 30 to 40 feet beneath ground level from about Holly Street to Airport Boulevard.

The I-35 Capital Express Central Project, as it's known, is one of three expansion projects along the interstate through Travis County. Construction started last year on the northern portion, a five-year effort to add one managed lane in each direction from U.S. 290 to State Highway 45 North. The southern portion is further along, with large concrete pillars being erected south of Ben White Boulevard to support elevated lanes.

An illustration showing two elevated lanes in each direction running down the middle of I-35.
TxDOT
A TxDOT illustration from a 2020 presentation showing what the elevated lanes could look like south of Ben White Boulevard.

A lawsuit attempting to disrupt the I-35 expansion is proceeding in federal court. Plaintiffs are led by Rethink35, a local organization that's part of a national movement opposed to building highways through large population centers — a practice that was commonplace during the development of the interstate highway system in the 1950s and 1960s.

A separate civil rights complaint was filed with the Federal Highway Administration, drawing on the history of I-35 as a racial dividing line, arguing that perpetuating and expanding the highway is knowingly engaging in acts of discrimination.

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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