As TxDOT begins process to improve I-35, local groups see opportunities for improvement

(Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)
(Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

(Jack Flagler/Community Impact Newspaper)

Less than 24 hours after the Texas Department of Transportation announced it would secure $4.3 billion to add two managed lanes on I-35 through downtown Austin, a group of national experts with the Urban Land Institute presented plans on how the highway could improve not just for travelers, but for local residents as well.

The ULI panel included members from the fields of architecture, development and academia from cities such as Los Angeles, Boston and Philadelphia. Their message, especially after TxDOT secured the funding for the Central Austin project on Feb. 27, was now is the critical time for the community to band together and advocate for changes that will make the corridor more a part of downtown and less of a barrier.

Huston-Tillotson President Collette Pierce Burnett said highways have traditionally displaced low-income communities and communities of color across the U.S., and in Austin, she called the road a “divide in our city.”

“Today we have an opportunity to move beyond that,” Pierce Burnett said.

The panel spent a week in Austin and was tasked with coming up with recommendations for the future of I-35 after spending time talking to residents and community members. Their recommendations included a cap-and-stitch proposal for parts of the highway through downtown to create green space, amenities and affordable housing opportunities for the community. The panel also recommended the creation of a working group within six months to include representation from the city, the Downtown Austin Alliance and community members to advocate for local plans.

“The next six months are critical,” panel chair Marilyn Jordan Taylor told the crowd at Huston-Tillotson University. “This is the time when you must continue the ongoing drive, the ongoing dialogue and your movement toward a shared community vision.”

Michael Rodriguez, research director for commercial research firm CBRE in Washington, D.C., said based on other cap-and-stitch projects around the country, completing the project in an 11-acre area from roughly the Colorado River to 15th Street would cost about $313 million to build and maintain for 30 years.

Possible funding strategies, Rodriguez said, could include tax increment financing, a method that sets aside future property tax revenue for redevelopment. Austin has previously used tax increment financing zones in areas such as the Seaholm District and the Mueller neighborhood.

Diann Hodges, TxDOT’s public information officer for the Austin region, said after the funding for the I-35 project is approved by the Texas Transportation Commission, TxDOT will begin a three-year process of environmental review and community engagement. Through that process, she said TxDOT will work closely with the community.

“We will obviously fund the highway portion of this. Any cap or stitch would need to be funded by the community or whatever entity they put together to push this forward,” Hodges said.

Meanwhile, on March 9, Capital Metro officials will be meeting with Austin City Council to discuss its Project Connect plan, which will include light rail through downtown Austin and a 1.6-mile underground tunnel.

“You are going to need both of these working in tandem with each other and also supporting the human mobility forms of scooters, bikes and plain old walking if you are going to meet your goals to reduce congestion and to create a better quality of life for all of Austin’s citizens,” Payne said.


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