I-35 cut-and-cap advocates push for consideration of full proposal

Supporters of Reconnect Austin are pushing to have the full cut-and-cap plan for downtown I-35 be considered by the Texas Department of Transportation in its Implementation Plan.

"Reconnect Austin, the full idea, isn't really being considered, but kind of a portion of it is," said Heyden Black Walker, a planner with architecture and design firm Black + Vernooy and a member of Reconnect Austin.

Reconnect Austin is a volunteer organization promoting the cut-and-cap plan proposed in April by Sinclair Black, principal with Black + Vernooy. The plan would burrow the I-35 main lanes below grade from Lady Bird Lake to about 15th Street and place a cap over the highway to make room for parks, an urban boulevard and additional development.

Terry McCoy, Austin district engineer for TxDOT, said the state agency understands the popularity of the plan and has worked to incorporate elements of that proposal.

"People I think view I-35 historically as having been a barrier between East and West Austin," he said. "We hear that. We're listening to that, so we've developed a second alternative where we take the main lanes down and under."

Black said TxDOT received more than 3,000 responses in favor of a depressed freeway through its outreach efforts.

McCoy said the organization has heard from "a lot of different people" that they do not want an elevated I-35.

While Black is encouraged to learn that a plan to depress I-35 is being considered by TxDOT, he said he still feels more benefit comes from a fully capped I-35 proposal.

"In our opinion, though, [considering a portion of the plan] is just minimizing the problems that the highway has created," Black said. "To really take advantage of the situation, you'd have to cap it, put the boulevard on it and then allow mixed-use, urban development on the 30 acres that result from a narrower right of way."

Black said some of the potential benefits for the Reconnect Austin plan include reconnecting East Austin with the central core, generating a new tax base and enhancing the potential success public land projects along the this segment of the highway.

In June, Austin City Council endorsed the Reconnect Austin plan to be considered as part of a National Environmental Policy Act study and permitted the city manager to conduct an economic analysis of the plan, which is expected to be released in March. NEPA is a federal study that assesses the environmental effects of a project.

Some of the hurdles TxDOT has encountered in the full cut-and-cap proposal, McCoy said, include building ramps between the frontage roads on the surface and the depressed highway and paying to move utilities in the existing right of way.

"There are some things we can accomplish and some things we simply can't," he said. "That's where these two things fall on separate sides of the fence."

Additional reporting by Amy Denney


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