Traffic congestion, particularly on I-35, has commonly been referred to as the Central Texas region’s Achilles’ heel and the elephant in the room.

But with the Texas Department of Transportation beginning to implement its $4.3 billion Mobility35 plan in Hays, Travis and Williamson counties, that could change.

“This is not some far-off, distant plan,” said Jeremy Martin, senior vice president of regional infrastructure   for the Greater Austin Chamber of Commerce. “There are projects ready to go today that are funded today.”

Smaller segments

NWA-2015-07-01-2-02Because TxDOT would not be able to fund the entire $4.3 billion plan at once, it divided the plan into segments, I-35/Mobility35 Program Manager Karen Lorenzini said. Of that amount, between $1.6 billion and $1.9 billion would account for projects in Travis County alone. In Williamson County, TxDOT is planning about $815 million worth of projects.

One of the first projects in the Mobility35 plan scheduled for construction in 2016 is improvements to the bridges at William Cannon Drive and Stassney Lane.

Another project slated to begin soon is in Williamson County to modify ramps and alleviate congestion between SH 45 N and RM 620. Those projects and two others are funded through Proposition 1, which voters approved in November and diverts a portion of the state’s oil and gas tax revenues to the State Highway Fund.

“Prop. 1 is really what gave this current planning effort the real jump-start,” Lorenzini said. “… That really turned it from a planning effort into an implementation effort.”

Other projects heading into an environmental review include depressing the main lanes at 15th Street, adding a third lane to the upper decks, and either modifying the existing main lane configuration between Eighth and Cesar Chavez streets or depressing the lanes.

For years TxDOT officials said adding the additional lane on the upper decks was not feasible. However, a final review of the decks and supports revealed with reinforcement of both the support structures and columns a third lane would be possible.

State Sen. Kirk Watson, D-Austin, announced the upper deck and 15th Street improvements during a June 15 chamber event and said those projects will provide more capacity and relieve the worst of the I-35 bottleneck during peak periods.

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“This is a major improvement for the neighbors, the university, the medical school, Central Health and the Capitol Complex, not to mention the commuters on foot, bike and in their cars,” Watson said.

TxDOT would construct the third lane on the upper decks at the same time as construction of the express lanes—similar to the toll lanes under construction on MoPac—it plans to add in either direction in Travis County, Lorenzini said. Construction on any of the other projects could occur as funding becomes available.

“These projects we are saying we could implement,” she said. “They have immediate improvement for auto, trucks, transit, [bicyclists and] pedestrians without a toll component. If the toll projects are never built these projects offer [stand-alone] benefit.”

To provide aid during construction TxDOT will use electronic signage to alert drivers of travel times before entering a construction zone.

This would allow drivers to choose other options such as MoPac, SH 130 or the Bergstrom Expressway, which the Central Texas Regional Mobility Authority anticipates opening in 2020 before the I-35 projects between US 183 and Ben White Boulevard are built. The Bergstrom Expressway will include construction of six toll lanes and six nontolled lanes between
Hwy. 290 and Hwy. 71.

Lorenzini said TxDOT is seeking to fund construction of direct connectors from northbound US 183 to northbound I-35 and southbound I-35 to southbound US 183. TxDOT’s goal is to time the opening of the connectors with the Bergstrom Expressway.

“There are lots of people who would like to be able to get to [Austin-Bergstrom International Airport] from north and other destinations to use those,” she said.

Downtown debate

Not everyone is on board with adding a third lane to the upper decks. Architect Girard Kinney of Kinney & Associates said this proposal further reinforces the barrier between East and West Austin.

He worked with Sinclair Black, principal with Black + Vernooy, on the Reconnect Austin plan to depress I-35, cap the main lanes and move the frontage roads to a boulevard atop the main lanes.

This would open opportunities for real estate on the former frontage roads and allow use of the new boulevard for local trips, he said. Taxes from the newly added real estate could help pay for these plans, he added.

“Enhancing the upper deck is making that possibility less likely in the future,” he said.

Paying for the potential cap could come from selling bonds for the upfront costs and implementing a tax increment finance district or public improvement district to collect tax revenue, said Heyden Black Walker, a planner with Black + Vernooy.

“There’s all sorts of financial structure where TxDOT and city of Austin could actually generate long-term revenue to pay back the bonds,” she said.

TxDOT still needs to take its depressed lanes plan through the environmental review phase as well as the modified existing plan. It is planning to pay for the infrastructure to support a cap over the depressed main lanes but is assuming a park, not a boulevard, would be on top.

Walker participated in the Downtown Stakeholder Working Group  as the Reconnect Austin representative. The group proposed ideas for improving the downtown I-35 section, and she said TxDOT is taking the Reconnect Austin ideas seriously.

“The community discussion about Reconnect Austin is really I think why we’re at this place now where we’re seriously talking about depressing it and seriously talking about building retaining walls that would support a cap,” she said. “That’s good news. That gives us future options, but we also want to look at the whole long-range picture and make sure we have the best project.”

Capping the highway would likely require TxDOT to add a ventilation system to clean and discharge air from the depressed lanes, Walker said.

“There are some significant health impacts on the people who live near the highway,” she said.

That aspect interests resident Brendan Wittstruck, who said he would like to see more attention paid to addressing air pollution and its effect on neighborhoods abutting I-35.

He lives in the area of the North Central I-35 Neighborhood Coalition 2, which has not yet taken an official stance on the updated I-35 plan. NCINC2 represents neighborhoods abutting I-35 between US 183 and Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard.

Wittstruck said he does not approve of adding lanes to the upper deck and would prefer TxDOT remove the upper decks.

“The air pollution conversation gets lost because it always gets lumped in with noise pollution, and then we just start talking about sound walls,” Wittstruck said.


Finding funding

TxDOT officials have repeatedly said the organization’s funding for maintaining the state highway system is about $5 billion short annually. Watson said Prop. 1 helps bridge that gap as well as the Texas Legislature ending the diversion of gas tax revenue from transportation, which is estimated to bring in another $600 million annually.

More TxDOT funding could become available if voters approve a constitutional amendment in November. Approval would divert to the SHF $2.5 billion from the state’s sales tax revenue after revenue exceeds $28 billion annually.

“The funding puzzle is not completely solved … ,” Watson said. “One of the things I’ve been pushing hard is [to] get this 10-year plan in place so that we’re ready any time money is available.”

With a renewed focus on I-35 from statewide leaders at the Texas Legislature and TxDOT, finding funding will be more manageable, Martin said, because the two biggest challenges to significant transportation plans are political will and design.

He said the Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization’s dedication of Prop. 1 funding to I-35 is also significant for gaining future dedication of dollars.

“Everything that needs to happen is happening,” Martin said. “The diligence that’s needed is the continued focus on securing funding and applying it to the projects as that funding becomes available.”