Project to improve I-35 in Central Austin faces funding gap

Photo courtesy Jeremy Lohr. Illustration by Shelby Savage. Source: Texas Department of Transportation/Community Impact Newspaper
Photo courtesy Jeremy Lohr. Illustration by Shelby Savage. Source: Texas Department of Transportation/Community Impact Newspaper

Photo courtesy Jeremy Lohr. Illustration by Shelby Savage. Source: Texas Department of Transportation/Community Impact Newspaper

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Sources: Texas Department of Transportation, Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority, Texas A&M Transportation Institute/Community Impact Newspaper
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Two projects totaling $700 million are planned to add lanes to I-35 in North and South Austin. Dubbed the Capital Express North and South projects by the Texas Department of Transportation, the additions would be the first major I-35 expansion since 1974, when Austin’s population was just under 300,000, said Tucker Ferguson, Austin district engineer for the Texas Department of Transportation.“We’ve at least tripled—possibly quadrupled—the population in the city of Austin and haven’t added any lanes substantially to I-35,” Ferguson said. “This will be a welcome relief.”

State Rep. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, called the Capital Express North and South projects as well as some other ongoing, smaller improvements on I-35 in Central Texas “pearls in a necklace,” and said if that necklace can be strung together throughout the region it will improve the lives of commuters traveling down I-35.

That connectivity is the long-term goal, according to TxDOT officials, who said the north and south projects need to be completed first in order to allow drivers an option to bypass the construction downtown once the central project starts.

However, while TxDOT has officially announced the plan for the approximately 8-mile central stretch from SH 71 to US 290 East, it has secured just $560 million of the estimated $5 billion downtown project, according to Susan Fraser, program manager for TxDOT’s My35 project.

If that funding gap cannot be mended and the downtown project does not get off the ground, Watson said the north and south improvements will only take travelers to the bottleneck faster.

“I am happy, pleased, and ready to be accepting of money to fund the north and south segments. I am unhappy, displeased and ready for an answer on where the money is going to come from to finish that central segment,” Watson said.

Political gridlock

In 2017, TxDOT announced a plan to add two managed toll lanes in each direction on I-35 from RM 1431 in Round Rock to SH 45 SE in Buda. However, just a few weeks after those plans were announced, Gov. Greg Abbott and Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick indicated they would •not support TxDOT using certain oil, natural gas production sales and use taxes and motor vehicle sales and rental taxes for tolled projects.

Today, TxDOT is going forward with managed high-occupancy vehicle, or carpool, lanes.

“Our hope is with the HOV lanes, we will encourage carpooling [and using] transit, and that will help add the capacity we need [by freeing up the main lanes],” Fraser said.

The Capital Express North project would add one HOV lane in each direction on I-35 from SH 45 to US 290 East, while the Capital Express South project would add two HOV lanes in each direction from SH 71 to SH 45 SE. Construction on both is projected to start in 2022.

There is no timeline for the central project because construction is contingent on the state receiving the necessary funding, but TxDOT said it expects to perform environmental study and schematic design from 2019-23.

Although the state’s political leaders have drawn a line in the sand to prevent tolls, there is still a push locally to revive tolls as part of the I-35 plans.

Casey Johnson Burack, general counsel and vice president of government relations for the Downtown Austin Alliance, said managed the MoPac Express managed toll project has improved commutes and contributed to 70% increased ridership on Capital Metro bus lines that travel for free in the toll lanes.

“It’s the only way [the I-35 project] is going to work. I don’t know how else [TxDOT] is going to find that much funding to build it,” Johnson Burack said.

However, data from the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority also shows drivers paying an average of more than $6 to travel the entire length of MoPac Express during weekday evening rush hours. Terri Hall, the director for Texans for Toll-Free Highways, a statewide political action committee based in San Antonio, said those fees create a unequal benefit for those with means, and funding for nontolled projects is available if projects are managed effectively.

“We have billions coming into the state of Texas being mismanaged and not prioritized for big projects like downtown Austin that frankly should have been addressed 15 years ago,” Hall said.

'A terrible neighbor’

There are some, like Brendan Wittstruck, who are less worried about the vehicles on I-35 and more concerned with the way the highway has splintered Austin neighborhoods.

Wittstruck, who lives in North Central Austin, was involved in the resurrection of a group called the North Central I-35 Neighborhood Coalition, or NCINC2, around 2013. The group brought together residents from 11 North Central Austin neighborhoods including Cherrywood, Hancock and Mueller to create a clear message on what residents wanted to see in the I-35 project.

Some in the group wanted to talk about fluid access to their jobs and downtown, but Wittstruck said many saw the highway as a “terrible neighbor” and an “environmental catastrophe” that cut residents off from points on the other side of the highway. •“We wanted to talk about the ecosystem around the highway, underneath the highway, what it’s like to cross the highway. It’s a land use and transportation conversation that really has nothing to do with the highway itself,” Wittstruck said.

The group has advocated for building a better environment around the highway and removing the upper decks between Martin Luther King Boulevard and Airport Boulevard, which TxDOT is considering.

“It is still a possibility that [the upper decks] could come down,” Fraser said. “We are looking in that section at possibly a tunnel, so that’s where the capacity would go.”

Heyden Black Walker, who started a local effort called Reconnect Austin along with her father, Sinclair Black, to bury I-35’s lanes underground, said depressing the lanes will be key in stitching Central Austin’s street grid back together.

“If they’re going to move forward, it should benefit the city,” Black Walker said. •The official opening of I-35 in Austin was in 1962. Since then, Johnson Burack said, it has been “a wall that’s divided our city.” Austin Transportation Department Director Robert Spillar said it has outlived its lifespan.

“It’s not an aesthetic thing. It’s old infrastructure,” Spillar said.

With a rare opportunity to take on a major project that will both help stitch Austin back together and aid millions of travelers passing through, Watson said this is a critical juncture for the center of the city.

“If we know as we do this that we’re probably doing this for the next 50-plus years, let’s do it right,” he said.

Amy Denney contributed additional reporting to the story.