As the official start of the Texas Department of Transportation's expansion of I-35 through Central Austin draws nearer, local leaders are hoping to ensure community environmental goals and added features for Austinites to enjoy are considered in the $4.5 billion plan.

The big picture

The Capital Express Central initiative through the heart of Austin is one of several TxDOT projects set to take place along I-35 in Central Texas over the years ahead.

The highway's controversial redesign is moving ahead, most recently clearing an environmental review that primes portions of the project for groundbreaking as soon as next spring after years of design work and community debate.

Zooming in

While TxDOT is behind Capital Express Central, Austin officials and other local government and mobility groups are keeping a close eye on the project and its effects in the area. City leaders especially have raised concerns over its necessity, impacts on residents and businesses along the project limits, environmental fallout, and its ability to better bridge the historic gaps between downtown and the east side.

Austin leaders and transportation planners are also running up against the clock as they seek to fully fund a proposed series of caps and stitches—large decks and widened bridges with space for public enhancements—linking the east and west sides of I-35.

While TxDOT is making room for the proposed caps and stitches, Austin must seek out what could be the more than $700 million needed to complete that infrastructure by next December.

The University of Texas is also working on its own cap and stitch plan running along its campus from Martin Luther King Jr. Boulevard to Dean Keaton Street that TxDOT projects could cost around $500 million more.

What's happening?

Austin City Council members recently voted to pursue what could be the largest of the city's proposed caps, a more than 5-acre structure covering I-35 between Cesar Chavez and Fourth streets downtown.

More funding must still be identified to fill out the city's capping plan, but officials are also asking TxDOT to ensure the redesigned highway meets other community needs as well.

During a September session of council's Mobility Committee, officials asked TxDOT representatives for more information on various proposed upgrades that could be coming to Austin alongside the widened interstate. The highway department noted it will be supporting multiple initiatives with foundational support for caps and stitches, including:
  • Funding and infrastructure for Capital Metro transit service during I-35 construction
  • Relocation assistance for tenants of spaces affected by the project
  • Noise barriers, a new flooding control system and $100 million dedicated to aesthetic upgrades along the redesigned highway
  • Up to $25 million for a new boardwalk along Lady Bird Lake near I-35
  • Granting land for the expansion of The Other Ones Foundation's Esperanza Community for people experiencing homelessness off US 183
Council members also pushed on whether more state resources could be contributed to the caps and stitches, which have become a local priority in the project.

Heather Ashley-Nguyen, TxDOT director of transportation planning and development, said while the agency continues to refine its designs and work with the city, Austin is not the only city looking for such upgrades and will still need to seek out more funding itself.

“We can take a lot of money [from other sources], but that $4.5 billion, that is what we’ve allocated to the construction,” she said. “Our administration has been very clear that a lot of places around Texas are going to be wanting these local enhancements, but they really are local enhancements.”

Council Member Vanessa Fuentes said while state funding may be limited, locals are hoping to see more from a large-scale project with a long-term impact in the community.

“It might be considered an enhancement, but to me they speak volumes about the project itself,” she said. “It’s about the reconnection of our communities. And we have a generational project before us that we’re asking our citizens, asking our residents to bear with years, if not decades, of construction. It is incumbent on us to make sure that we get it right.”

Council members also weighed questions about the environmental effects of the project itself and of the vehicle traffic it could facilitate and encourage into the future.

Committee members unanimously moved forward a resolution from Mayor Pro Tem Paige Ellis calling out Capital Express Central for the “unacceptable” levels of greenhouse gas emissions it could cause and a lack of environmental mitigation plans in place as the project gets underway.

The resolution also calls on the regional Capital Area Metropolitan Planning Organization's transportation board to freeze funding for the I-35 expansion until local emissions and climate programs are complete.

“I think we’re moving in the right direction, but I’ve just had these big questions of, ‘How does our regional air quality planning get accommodated through highway design as TxDOT moves forward with sharpening all the pencils?’ And wanting to make sure that we don’t miss the boat on getting this right,” Ellis said.

What's next

TxDOT continues to work on design and construction planning for the start of the I-35 widening project heading into next year.

Locally, the full City Council will consider Ellis' emissions resolution in the near future.

In October, members are also expected to consider the city's funding of what could end up being the first Capital Express Central cap near downtown at I-35's intersection with Woodland Avenue south of Lady Bird Lake.