Project organizer solicits community support for project

Civic planner and architect Sinclair Black said he is relying on community support to turn an ambitious plan to radically transform I-35 through downtown into a reality.

Instead of only concentrating on the Texas Department of Transportation, Black said he is presenting his cut-and-cap proposal to civic and neighborhood groups and City Council members. Black's plan, as detailed in the April issue of the Central Austin Community Impact Newspaper, would make I-35 eight lanes wide and sink it underground between 15th Street and Lady Bird Lake, place a cap above the interstate and turn the land I-35 now occupies into mixed-use development and an urban boulevard.

"Our strategy was to keep it out of the city politics and bureaucracy as long as we could to give people the chance to understand what we are proposing," he said.

Black said he and his team, which includes his daughter, Heyden Walker, have been meeting weekly with neighborhood and civic groups to build support for the proposal.

Civic group support

The Center for New Urbanism, the Downtown Austin Alliance and the Downtown Austin Neighborhood Association are among the civic groups that have expressed support for the cut-and-cap plan.

Mitch McGovern, president of the DANA board of directors, said the proposal would benefit the community by eliminating the barrier that splits Central Austin into east and west. DANA wrote a letter to TxDOT endorsing the plan, McGovern said.

Thomas Butler, the transportation director for the DAA, added that the plan would generate additional property tax that would benefit the entire city.

Under the proposal, sinking and capping I-35 would unlock 30 acres for mixed-use development and generate $929 million in new property tax revenue over 25 years, Black estimates.

"Development on those new acres would provide new money for the city to use for parks, libraries and police in neighborhoods all over the city," Butler said.

Construction process

Austin resident Kate Hollins said she is concerned with the construction and traffic that implementing the plan would cause.

"Traffic is already bad enough; I can't imagine how much worse that would make it," she said.

Black said the proposal would require significant construction, but that it would not be any worse than any other proposed long-term I-35 construction project.

The project would require a fairly straightforward construction process and take several years to complete, Black said. He said construction would involve encouraging trucks to use SH 130, directing traffic onto the I-35 access roads when sinking I-35 and then directing traffic onto the sunken I-35 when working on the access roads.

Black originally estimated that it would cost $150 million to make I-35 underground with eight lanes and $400 million to cover an underground I-35 with a cap and boulevard.

Cid Galindo, the president of the Center for New Urbanism Central Texas board of directors, said while the proposal would be expensive, it is the best I-35 long-term plan because it is the only one that would generate new property tax revenue.

"The best solution is the least expensive solution, and how often do you get to do that in the transportation world?" he said.

TxDOT efforts

Black is pushing for TxDOT and its partners to consider the cut-and-cap proposal as a fourth option as they move forward with considering long-term viable solutions for I-35 through downtown. During meetings with stakeholder groups, TxDOT and its partners have been discussing three primary long-term options: sinking, elevating or taking no action on the interstate through downtown.

Walker said she wants the cut-and-cap proposal to be an official I-35 alternative so it would get the same level of engineering, analysis, cost estimating and community input as the other proposals.

TxDOT spokeswoman Kelli Reyna said the private sector's initiative and innovation on I-35 are appreciated and considered.

"TxDOT and our partners continue evaluating the technical aspects of the proposal and are coordinating an assessment with key stakeholders," she said. "From the start, this effort has been a locally driven initiative, and we will continue to work closely with the City of Austin, the counties and other transportation partners to find a viable solution for I-35."