A $4.5 billion plan for widening an 8-mile section of I-35 in downtown Austin has fired up business owners and residents since it was released in December.

The Texas Department of Transportation’s preferred plan would expand I-35 from a range of 11-18 lanes in either direction to 17-22 lanes, when accounting for frontage, bypass and auxiliary roads, according to TxDOT.

The preferred plan reduced the number of businesses that will be displaced by almost a third, and avoided demolishing a 70-unit affordable housing complex. TxDOT will also potentially spare historic restaurant Whip In, as the owner of the building met with TxDOT in January to create a plan to stay in place.

However, community members have raised concerns over the effectiveness of the plan and the 106 businesses that were not saved.

Jimmy Baltierra, the owner of Jimmy’s Barber Shop at 2000 S. I-35 in South Central Austin, said he was shocked when he heard about the plans to demolish his business.

“I put all my money into this. It’s been two years, and we’ve built a lot of clientele since we’ve been here,” Baltierra said.

Despite the criticism the plan has received, many officials, including Austin Mayor Kirk Watson, have expressed support for a plan to revamp the stretch of I-35, which is the most-congested roadway in Central Texas and has not been updated since the mid-1970s. An average of 200,000 cars drive that portion of I-35 each day.

“The Austin region is expected to double in population by 2045,” TxDOT Senior Communications Officer Bradley Wheelis said. “If something isn’t done to mitigate congestion, the problem will get worse.”

Explaining the plan

TxDOT’s plan would sink the main highway lanes between Airport Boulevard and Lady Bird Lake and Riverside Drive and Oltorf Street about 25 feet underground, remove the upper decks, and widen east-west cross-street bridges. The plan would also add two high-occupancy vehicle lanes—lanes for buses, emergency vehicles and vehicles with multiple passengers—in each direction on the inner sections of the highway.

The project would shift all the frontage roads to the east side of I-35 between Dean Keeton and 15th Street and to the west side of I-35 from 15th Street to Cesar Chavez, creating “boulevard-style” segments.

Construction for the project is expected to take about eight years and begin in mid-2024.

TxDOT has already identified funds for the $4.5 billion endeavor without directly impacting taxpayers. The project would be funded through federal fuel taxes and sales tax revenue, which are already part of TxDOT’s budget.

TxDOT will also build the foundation for some sections of the sunken highway to be covered in “caps and stitches”—also known as decks and bridges, which will better connect residents of East and West Austin—under the condition that other public and private entities build and fund the work, according to TxDOT.

Cost estimates for the cap and stitch project have ranged from $200 million-$800 million. So far, Our Future 35—the city initiative tackling the venture—has only secured $1.5 million.

Michelle Marx, program manager for Our Future 35, said the city is looking at all funding possibilities, including land value capture—funds that are generated by the increased property values new projects bring to a city—and public and private partnerships. Our Future 35 is waiting on approval for a roughly $1 million grant from the U.S. Department of Transportation’s Reconnecting Communities pilot program to help with design plans.

“We’re fully aware that we’re going to need to pull a variety of funding sources together to make this a reality,” Marx said, adding the city may have to prioritize the most favored caps and stitches first.

A complete funding analysis on the project will be released in the summer.

Our Future 35's vision is for caps and stitches to be a source of social, cultural and economic healing as I-35 has long served as a symbol of segregation in the city.

“We’re looking beyond the I-35 project area itself into the neighborhoods surrounding it to figure out what we need to do to make sure that this project is actually helping the people who live here and not further aggravating displacement pressures or housing costs,” Marx said.

Rethinking the plan

The competing plan would have displaced 291 homes and businesses, amounting to 1,125 jobs lost. The chosen plan will displace 107 homes and businesses with 625 jobs lost.

Despite its smaller footprint and lessened effect on businesses, local groups such as Rethink 35—a grassroots campaign exploring different options for updating I-35—have continued to question TxDOT’s plan and if it will alleviate traffic.

“[Widening highways] actually makes congestion worse,” Rethink 35 Director Adam Greenfield said, pointing to the Katy Freeway in Houston, which was widened to 26 lanes in 2011. “Three years later, evening commutes were 55% longer than they had been before the expansion.”

Lingering uncertainty

Rohit Topiwala, owner of Travis Heights Wine and Spirits and son of Amrit Topiwala who owns the Whip In building next door, is still unsure about the fate of his business, which he has owned for 20 years.

After months of assuming their businesses would be demolished, the Topiwala family met with TxDOT in January to discuss the possibility of preserving the building.

If spared, the project would still greatly impact both businesses as it would cut through the parking lot, replace the signage, and remove one of the two entrances to the shop, Rohit said. Beyond the cosmetic changes, Rohit wonders if people will even want to patronize Travis Heights Wine and Spirits or Whip In amid construction.

“I want to stay [here] but if it will cut my revenue in half, what’s the point in staying?” he said.

Rohit is now faced with the decision of whether to stay or relocate, both of which he said will be detrimental to his business.

“All I do know is if I lose my building, and I have to go somewhere else, then the years of goodwill [I] earned from the community after being there 20 years is going to disappear,” Rohit said.

In the next two years, TxDOT will respond to community feedback, release its final environmental impact statement and select a contractor for the project before beginning construction in mid-2024.

TxDOT will offer property acquisition funds and relocation assistance for businesses that choose to find another location, however, a specific amount has not been determined. Affected business owners will find out more details by the fall, according to TxDOT.

Funding change

TxDOT's Capital Express Central Plan:
  • What is the proposed cost? $4.5 billion
  • Has funding been identified? Yes
  • How would it be funded? Through state and federal fuel and sales tax
  • Will it directly affect Austin taxpayers? No
Our Future 35's Cap and Stitch Plan:
  • What is the preliminary cost? $200 million-$800 million
  • Has funding been identified? Not yet. The city has only secured $1.5 million.
  • How is it funded? Through the city of Austin and other public and private entities, but not TxDOT.
  • When will we know more? The city aims to complete a funding analysis by the summer.
Our Future 35 will be holding a public open house in late spring to give updates on the cap and stitch plan and hear feedback.