TxDOT goes big with $8.1 billion I-35 plan; official says reconstruction years away, 'will be messy'

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33 miles down 35
An $8.1 billion plan to improve traffic on I-35 could have big results for Central Texans—but not without major headaches during years of construction.

On Oct. 30 the Texas Department of Transportation unveiled its updated Mobility35 plan for Central Texas to add two new lanes that could be tolled in each direction between Round Rock and Buda, depress the main lanes through downtown Austin, make other improvements throughout the three counties and keep the existing number of nontolled lanes.

“It will be messy, particularly downtown when we reconstruct I-35,” said Terry McCoy, Austin district engineer for TxDOT and a Georgetown resident. “We’ll do the best we can in phasing that, but there will still be some impact on the traveling public.”

Feasibly funding the plan

Planning for I-35 improvements in Central Texas began in 2011 after the Texas Legislature earmarked $300 million to improve mobility in the state’s most congested corridors. Central Texas received about $31 million of these Rider 42 funds. TxDOT released its implementation plans in 2014-15.

Instead of funding the entire plan—initially calculated at $4.3 billion—TxDOT opted to fund projects piecemeal as money became available. To date, $329.8 million has been put toward nine area projects, mostly funded from voter-approved propositions 1 and 7.

If the new lanes on I-35 were to be tolled, TxDOT would face challenges in funding those lanes because funding from propositions 1 and 7 cannot be used to build tolled facilities.

Additionally, in a Nov. 16 letter to the chairman of the Texas Transportation Commission—the governing board for TxDOT, Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick stated he opposes TxDOT’s plans to add toll lanes on 15 projects in the Unified Transportation Plan, the agency’s 10-year plan for construction, development and planning activities.

A TxDOT spokesperson said the agency is still studying additional lanes on I-35 and that those lanes could take a variety of forms.

TxDOT could also apply for federal funding specifically for tolled facilities through Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization, said Doise Miers, CAMPO’s community outreach manager.

Austin Mayor Steve Adler laid out three options he sees for funding improvements. The first is for the Texas Legislature to fund more infrastructure in the next session or to allow for public-private partnerships to leverage dollars. The third option would be for state lawmakers to step out of the way and let local jurisdictions figure out funding.

“It’s a state and national project,” he said. “Everybody in all levels needs to participate.”

Adler also expressed support for depressing the main lanes of I-35 in downtown Austin and removing the upper decks. He would also support capping the depressed lanes so that infrastructure, such as a park, could be built on top—an item TxDOT said it would not fund.

“I think the city would consider raising money philanthropically or otherwise to cap a lowered I-35,” he said. “It could be a lot of uses like a downtown people mover, it could be buildings or parks.”

Next spring, the public will have another opportunity to weigh in on the plan’s environment assessment that looks at the impact to the community and environment, Mobility35 Program Manager Karen Lorenzini said.

“This stage is where we need the most public input,” she said.

That study includes moving forward on the concept to depress the main lanes from Cesar Chavez to Eighth streets as well as at 15th Street.

Phasing the build-out

Construction of the four new lanes, if funded, would not begin until at least early 2021 when several other key regional projects are completed, McCoy said. This is to give travelers more options to get around Central Texas and provide reprieve from construction.

The Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority—which builds and oversees some area toll facilities, including express lanes on MoPac—will complete its US 183 South toll project in 2020. That $743 million project is adding three tolled lanes in each direction on US 183 between Hwy. 290 and SH 71.

The agency is also planning to build three flyover ramps between Hwy. 290 and SH 130. That project will go out for construction bids in February. And TxDOT is planning to seek construction bids in December for its project to add a third lane in each direction on SH 130 between SH 45 N and SH 71.

“We’re trying to set this up to where people have options,” McCoy said.

Construction of any new lanes likely would begin in downtown Austin first, McCoy said. TxDOT is still working out how to fit in four toll lanes, but he said in areas with the least amount of right of way, TxDOT likely would have to build two levels below ground—one level for the new lanes and one for the main lanes—to have the frontage roads and cross streets remain at surface level.

TxDOT ultimately plans to extend the new lanes through Hays and Williamson counties, but McCoy said the plan is to prioritize the area with the most congestion: downtown Austin.

“Given the magnitude of the cost you kind of have to focus where you’re going to make those improvements first, where you’re going to get the biggest bang for your buck,” he said.

Impact on the public

Chris Riley, Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association president, said sinking the elevated I-35 lanes would be a major step for the city.

“The big picture is that [the project] will go a long way in removing the barrier that I-35 has represented for decades between downtown and East Austin,” Riley said. “It’s clearly a step in the right direction, but exactly what we’ll wind up with remains to be seen.”

The project would create the potential for a protected pedestrian environment, but Riley said he worries about TxDOT’s control over the streetscape design. Although the city of Austin’s Great Streets Program emphasizes street trees and the pedestrian experience, TxDOT’s streetscapes usually feature fast-moving traffic and lack street trees, he said.

“There’s an opportunity here to have that dramatically improved environment for all Austinites,” Riley said. “DANA is interested in … a plan that would produce an urban environment that would be appealing and inviting for anyone in the area, whether downtown or East Austin, on foot, or on [a] bike or in a car.”

Molly Alexander, a member of downtown advocacy group the Downtown Austin Alliance, said sinking the I-35 lanes downtown presents a “once-in-a-lifetime” opportunity to reshape the urban core and connect the social fabric of the community.

The short-term effect of the project may create roadblocks for downtown transportation; however Alexander said that, too, presents a valuable opportunity for people to become transit conscious.

Alexander explained that in major metropolitan areas like New York City, the residents must remain vigilant in knowing their commuting options. The I-35 project, Alexander said, should encourage people to learn about alternative ways to get to work.

“This opportunity allows us to rethink how we decide to travel on a given day,” Alexander said. “It’s empowering for the individual to take that into their own hands and try to figure it out.”

Additional reporting by Christopher Neely
By Amy Denney
Amy has worked for Community Impact Newspaper since September 2010, serving as reporter and then senior editor for the Northwest Austin edition and covering transportation. She is now managing editor for the nine publications in the Central Texas area.


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